The Dangers of Asymmetry

President Trump with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, November 2017. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)
International disequilibrium in trade, religious freedoms, immigration — plenty of Americans are fed up.  

It is strange how suddenly a skeptical Wall Street, CEOs, and even university and think-tank policy analysts are now jumping on the once-taboo Trump bandwagon on China: that if something is not done to stop China’s planned trajectory to global hegemony, based on its repudiation of the entire post-war trade and commercial order, then it will soon be too late. In a wider sense, at some point on a variety of fronts, Americans got fed up with perceived lopsidedness, and their ensuing exasperation started to change status-quo thinking and policy — whether China’s flagrant cheating, the recent illustration, via the “caravan,” of rampant hypocrisies about illegal immigration, or weariness with the asymmetries with the Islamic world.



China in its planned trajectory to world global supremacy makes two assumptions about the United States:

  • that China can weld government-run market capitalism to autocratic government to improve on supposedly chaotic Western democratic and republican government and indulgent human rights;
  • that the Western world will continue to excuse Chinese violations of global commercial and trade norms, on their misplaced theories either that the more successful the Chinese become, the more they will evolve to a democratic and transparent society and join the Western liberal community and follow its post-war international norms, or that there is nothing the West can do about a fated Chinese supremacy.

As to Chinese trust that their brand of government-managed capitalism is superior, in the short term, it is true that authoritarian governments, mostly in wartime, occasionally can achieve temporary spectacular results through partnering with capitalists.

But in the longer run, managed capitalism proves far less flexible and ultimately less productive than free markets that are moderately regulated by elected governments rather than heavily controlled by authoritarians or socialists.

In addition, the Chinese misjudge Western patience, especially as its surpluses grow, its violations of copyright and patents become more flagrant, and espionage and technological appropriation are seen as a Chinese birthright.

China assumes that many of the third of a million Chinese students and green-card holders in America have an obligation to engage in espionage for the mother country; and they further expect that U.S. visitors to China not only do not share such rigid loyalty to the United States, but if they did, they would be sorely punished by Beijing.

If we think Chinese students at Stanford or Cal Tech or in Silicon Valley are won over by our diversity, prosperity, consumerism, free-wheeling popular culture, and unfettered free speech, and that they will take back such an ethos to China, leading eventually to a democratic spring, the Chinese government thinks that we are sorely mistaken. It believes instead that returning Chinese students and green-card holders will be chock-full of invaluable technological, military, and commercial information but nonetheless turned off by American license — perhaps in the same way that Japanese visitors and residents in the United States during the 1920s, a future Admiral Yamamoto and foreign minister Yōsuke Matsuoka among them, eventually became strong advocates for war against the U.S.

Yet the history of democracies, as Thucydides pointed out, is that laxity, complacency, and self-absorption are abruptly replaced in extremis by frantic mobilization to danger, as the entire commonwealth becomes invested in addressing existential challenges. The U.S. responses in 1917, 1941, and 1947 bear that out. For all the talk of decline, the Chinese should not wish to provoke the U.S. and its allies into a response that would remind them actually how relatively weak in comparison to the U.S. they actually are in terms of economic clout, military capability, cultural influence, and political unity.


Radical Islam

The various manifestations of hostile radical Islamism — the Iranian theocracy and its terrorist surrogates, ISIS affiliates and Sunni fundamentalist terrorism, many within the Pakistani government, and often two-faced authoritarian regimes — all assume a similar idea that the West accepts asymmetry as a sort of psychological penance. Westerners must pay for their inordinate wealth, the theory goes, or for their supposed sins of 19th- and 20th-century colonialism and imperialism, or they’re simply too morally compromised to regain enough confidence in the ancient spirit of Christendom and Western civilization to defend their values.

Yet ISIS learned that there are limits to the Western tolerance of beheading. It is a peculiar Western characteristic that despite all the West’s pious appeals to its own restraint and humanitarianism, when its patience is rarely and finally exhausted and it feels justifiably aggrieved, it can bring terrifying military resources to bear without much worry over limiting the damage it inflicts.

In terms of culture, we also live in an asymmetrical world with Islam itself: Mosques sprout all over the West; Christian churches are banned in many kingdoms of the Gulf and more and more are disappearing, from Syria to Turkey. This is said to be normal, and we are to get over it.

Inside a Western country, if one blasphemes Jesus, the mockery is seen as the stuff of comedy, art, popular culture, and entertainment. Try the same in Paris or New York with the prophet of Islam, and the consequences can become violent and relentless. Try it in a Muslim country, and the consequences are death. That asymmetry, again, becomes normative. To Islamic extremists, this is not a token of magnanimity to be reciprocated but rather proof of timidity and impotence to be justifiably exploited.

Mass and illegal immigration to the West from Arab and Muslim nations is assumed, along with the idea that even illegal aliens from the Middle East and North Africa immediately on entrance to Europe or the U.S. have the right and indeed the eagerness to demand from the West the freedoms and prosperity lacking in most Islamic countries — including the liberty to ridicule the hospitality of their newfound hosts.

What Pakistani immigrants expect as visiting rights in Britain, or what Turks assume of Germans, is not reciprocated by Pakistan and Turkey in their treatment of Western visitors in their own countries. Pakistani and Turkish immigrants also insist that their new Western hosts treat them far better than their prior governments did. Fine, that is the Western tradition. And yet immigrants often romanticize the distant countries they have forsaken, and they damn the new hosts who have saved them. No better examples of such schizophrenia can be found than the current confusion and chaos of Islamic citizens and immigrants in France, or the role of many first-generation Muslim intellectuals residing in the West.


Mexico and Latin America

The shocking thing about the so-called caravan wearing out its welcome in Tijuana was not that Mexican citizens were tired of the chaos of illegal immigrants demanding services of its newfound host country Mexico — but that Mexicans seemed absolutely oblivious to the irony that Americans might feel toward them as they feel to Central Americans.

In other words, both the Mexican government and Mexican illegal immigrants have their own set of asymmetries that they now treat as de facto entitlements:

  • $30 billion in remittances from mostly illegal aliens residing in the U.S. are owed to Mexico, without taxation on such transactions, and with the full expectation that the U.S., state, and local governments will provide entitlement subsidies to illegal aliens that in turn help to free up cash to be sent to Mexico.
  • The U.S. will serve as a safety valve for popular anger at rampant Mexican corruption, inequality, racism, and exploitation. The implicit message to Mexican citizens is something like “March to San Diego rather on Mexico City.”
  • Mexico, both in its own constitution and legal system, and in daily practice, assumes it would never be as compassionate to illegal immigrants within its own territory as the U.S. is to illegal aliens from Mexico. The entire psychology is bizarre. Sometimes the pretext is a vague notion that “Alta” Mexico — the southwestern United States — really belongs to Mexico. Sometimes the assumption is that the U.S. is so rich and powerful that it can afford to subsidize Mexico for the greater North American good. And sometimes there is a sort of contempt: America treats Mexicans nobly, in a fashion Mexico would never treat like illegal immigrants, because Americans are contemptibly guilt-ridden or morally arrogant.
  • Psychologically, Mexico also expects that its expatriates owe more allegiance to the country that drove them out than to the country that took them in. And this cynical assumption is often accurate. One of the strangest disconnects in the entire illegal-immigration masquerade is the presence of Mexican flags at immigrant rallies on behalf of illegal aliens, or the occasional booing of hometown U.S. soccer teams and the cheering of visiting Mexican rivals. The mindset of undocumented aliens in such instances comes across to the hosts as something like, “I demand that you never send me back to the country I ostensibly love, and further demand that I must stay in the country I don’t especially appreciate or even like.”

All these asymmetries become force multipliers of one another, creating widespread exasperation on the part of Americans.

That vexation especially is magnified when foreign diplomatic officials or residents inside the U.S. lecture Americans on their moral shortcomings for not opening their border without restraint. Especially exasperating are American elites who talk down to the so-called deplorables and irredeemables about their racism, nativism, xenophobia, and general inferiority — with the full expectation that the elites themselves have enough money, influence, and clout to exempt them from the consequences of what they advocate for others. (Don’t believe for a second that New York Times columnists put their children in schools where half the student body does not speak English, or that MSNBC talking heads live across the street from recent M-13 arrivals, or that NPR hosts are sometimes rear-ended by hit-and-run illegal-immigrant drivers or find their social-security numbers or IDs stolen by illegal aliens, or even that Jane Fonda cleans her own toilets or Hollywood grandees mow their own lawns.)

Trump was many things to many people, no doubt. But what fueled his ascendance was a promise not to embark on radically abnormal agendas (as alleged by his critics), but to return things to perceived symmetry.

Thus, China must play by the rules that others do, given that it would not like to be treated as it treats others. The Muslim world would not long tolerate Western visitors demeaning Middle Eastern values, customs, and religions, or Evangelicals building churches in Riyadh — and should at least be cognizant of such hypocrisy. And would Mexico allow 10 million illegal aliens to crash its southern border and, once inside, demand of Mexico City rights and entitlements that their own governments in Central America would never extend to them?

Fairly or not, by 2016, Americans saw far too much of such asymmetry: disequilibrium in NATO contributions, too little parity in NAFTA, Paris climate-accord virtue-signaling rather than concern with actual carbon reductions, a distorted Iran Deal, etc. Half the country — the poorer interior — no longer accepted the usual apologies that the U.S. was so rich and powerful that it could always absorb such overhead for the sake of global harmony and collective advancement.

Symmetry is what Americans believe leads to mutual respect and, with it, stability and peace. Asymmetry leads only to pent-up anger, contempt, frustration, furor — and conflict.



NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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