You have to love being called a crackpot by Jerry Brown.
I mean, I have to love it. To savor the irony. During his two terms, totaling 16 years, in office as California’s governor, it was Brown himself who was so often termed a flake by the public and the media for his often … innovative … ideas. And for driving an ugly Plymouth. For sleeping on the floor in a $275-a-month apartment instead of living in the governor’s mansion. For dating Linda Ronstadt rather than whomever else it was thought he should date. For bringing a Jesuitical inquisitiveness to politics — for four years in the 1950s, he was intent on becoming a priest himself, and lived the contemplative life of a novitiate in Los Gatos before going on to Cal and Yale Law. For being a Democrat and being called by The American Conservative magazine “much more of a fiscal conservative than Governor Reagan.” For going Zen and whisking up green tea with a wooden brush.
He was ours, a quintessential questing quixotic Californian, but when he tried to go national, running for president, it was Garry Trudeau who dubbed him “Governor Moonbeam.”
And now, at 84, living on his secluded Northern California ranch, Brown is calling out those of us who have called for a hardball approach against China, disgusted as we are by its totalitarianism and reversal of a decade or two of democratic leanings.
His lengthy essay on six new volumes on Sino-American relations in The New York Review of Books is headlined “Washington’s Crackpot Realism.” In it, he makes a very convincing case that us handwringers who bemoan broken promises on Hong Kong, who hate Beijing’s record on human rights, who are outraged by its capricious attitude toward theft of intellectual property, and its saber-rattling, are simply being unrealistic. At the world’s peril. And to our economic detriment.
He warns that “this new confrontational and Manichean zeal” for military and diplomatic efforts to “contain” China may lead to “yet another war thousands of miles from our shores, and one that is more treacherous than those we fought in the Middle East.”
Because, you know what, writes Jerry — China is not like us. Never going to be. No George Washingtons or Frederick Douglasses likely to emerge from their culture. Why pretend? But he’s no appeaser. “It would be foolish to minimize the military dangers that China poses, but it would be even more foolish to act in ways that actually exacerbate them,” he says. “The better path — in fact, the only path that avoids the horrors of war — is to accept that China’s system is different from ours, get our own house in order, and seek a decent modus vivendi.”
He looks back to note that “World War I is the classic example of how nations move from competition to miscalculation to war, even though it results in mutual catastrophe.”
And, unlike our disputes with the Soviet Union in the Cold War and with Russia now, China is a leading trading partner, with “an enormous and growing economy.”
One book he cites, “The United States vs. China: The Quest for Global Economic Leadership,” by C. Fred Bergsten, he writes, has the correct formula for our dilemma: America needs to “straighten out its own economy; make serious investments in research and development, and infrastructure of all kinds; and enact policies that reduce its gross inequalities and wage stagnation.”
Brown says, correctly, that the genuine realists among us ought not “miss the reality that both countries — to prosper and even to survive — must cooperate as well as compete.” Thanks, governor. I resolve to no longer be a crackpot on China.
Larry Wilson is on the Southern California News Group editorial board. firstname.lastname@example.org.