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Congress resists crony diplomacy—good!

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Even an economist with libertarian tendencies, which I am, thinks there are times when it’s actually reassuring to have a “deep state,” though it would be nice if it weren’t quite so swampy.

The Wall Street Journal reports that some members of Congress are not reacting well to President Trump’s tweeted directive to his Commerce Department to “get it done” on the ZTE file—the case of the Chinese phone company that broke U.S. rules by trading with blacklisted states such as North Korea, and as a result, got hit by Commerce with an export ban on U.S. technology.

In asking Commerce to back-off and help preserve up to 75,000 Chinese jobs—ZTE would be essentially put out of business by strict implementation of the ban—President Trump is trying to do a favour for his friend President Xi of China, who for a time at least was trying to help the president on the North Korea file, where U.S. strategic interests are at stake. North Korea may soon be capable (if it isn’t already) of hitting the continental U.S. with a nuclear warhead. For a time, it seemed President Xi was helping move the United States and North Korea toward jaw-jaw rather than war-war—to use Churchill’s terms for the alternatives. Given North Korea’s newfound belligerence, maybe his effect isn’t quite as beneficent as it seemed.

Congress isn’t the deep state. It’s at the state’s very top, with House members having to run for re-election every two years. But some people in the Commerce Department apparently aren’t very happy being told to “get it done” when what’s to be done is to undo a decision the department took according to the role and criteria outlined in U.S. law. Some lawmakers aren’t so happy, either. The way the Constitution is supposed to work, they in the legislative branch make the laws and the president and his executive branch executes them. The president can’t just change his mind and overrule a decision duly taken.

President Trump has a way of answering questions about the future by saying it will all work out, it usually does. In fact, it’s not clear it does. Sometimes things don’t work at all. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that personal diplomacy—which you might call crony diplomacy, if you weren’t very keen on it—will in the end cause good things to happen. Maybe a firm hand on auto tariffs combined with a gentle touch on ZTE will bring more open trade between the U.S. and China. We’re talking about the future here. Only people who are deluded or actually delusional are convinced they know what’s going to happen.

But for the long run, are the U.S. and the world it still has an outsized influence on (as we on its northern border understand only too well) better served by a system of laws or by a president who does the policy equivalent of improv, making it up as the mood strikes? Congress doesn’t always pass good laws. It may be that current U.S. laws about trading with the enemy, or at least the adversary, aren’t wise. But a system of coequal branches of government, each carrying out its Constitutionally-assigned role, has served the U.S. well.

China is a different place, of course. Ruling orthodoxy in the social sciences argues that different places may well need different social arrangements. What’s good for the U.S. may not be good for China. No one would wish exactly the U.S. system on any country, not with its current gridlocked embitterment. But for the long run, if there were pushback against President Xi’s policies on different matters, that would be all to the good. When President Trump addresses Congress, half the members sit on their hands. When President Xi addresses the People’s Congress, the applause lines get unanimous approval from thousands of delegates sitting more or less at attention.

For the long haul, pushback and disagreement will produce better policy than deference to even the wisest Supreme Leader’s thought. And duly negotiated international rules will produce better relations among people and peoples than the deal of the week negotiated by freelancing top dogs.


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