November 1, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, November 1, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
China elevates President Xi to "core" leader, joining the ranks of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping
In the United States most of our public conversation, understandably, has to do with the 2016 American presidential election, but if you live elsewhere in the world, the biggest news even over the weekend might’ve been very different.—the dateline not in the United States, but rather in China.
As the New York Times reported over the weekend, party leaders in that nation have elevated the president of China, who is also head of the Chinese Communist Party, to a new but not unprecedented status. Chris Buckley, reporting for the New York Times, tells us,Show Full Transcript
“President Xi Jinping of China received a potent boost to his status on Thursday, when a Communist Party meeting elevated him to “core” leader, putting him in the same revered ranks as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Mr. Xi’s newest title, carrying echoes of those political strongmen, reinforces his power to shape the new leadership of the party. It is also a warning that officials should fall in line, though some privately fear he has amassed too much control and has eroded traditions of collective leadership, built up to prevent a return to the arbitrary abuses of Mao’s final decades.”
But the announcement that came on Thursday from the Chinese Communist Party minces no words. It has attached the level of “core” leader to the current president, and that was a title that was denied to his predecessor. It is a title that ties them to the autocratic dictatorial leadership of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. A statement from the party read on Chinese state television said,
“For a country and for a party, a leading core is vitally important.”
Joseph Fewsmith, a professor of Boston University who studies Chinese leadership policies, told the Times,
“It seems that this plenum really was a victory for Xi. What exactly that means in terms of personnel changes is hard to say, but it seems that Xi will get what he wants.”
A look at the story indicates that the title “core” leader doesn’t in particular grant any new powers. What it does indicate is an expanded, solitary authority coming from the head of the Communist Party, who is also the country’s president. And this should be for Christians a very significant issue, because what we’re seeing in the world today is a conflict of worldviews that inevitably works out in terms of a conflict of political philosophies, ideologies, and political systems. And in the United States right now, one of the major issues of worldview and political competition is between the ideal of representative democracy, represented by the United States and most European nations, as competing with the idea of autocracy and a managed autocratic government, a corporatist system of government that is now represented most especially by China, but also we should note, by Russia.
With the fall of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain at the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 1990s, it was assumed and even claimed outright that this was ushering in a new age of democracy around the world. It was announced by one famous historian that history has now reached its conclusion. Francis Fukuyama argued that, inevitably now, democracy was the only system of government that would survive the 20th century. But it’s now abundantly clear some two or three decades after the turmoil of the end of the Cold War that that is not the case, that in fact there are still major competitive worldviews around the world and major competing political systems. And the important issue to keep in mind here is what this means not only for China, but for the rest of the world, because the rest of the world is watching. It is watching to see which is the winning side in terms of this conflict of visions and conflict of worldviews. Is the winning side going to be representative democracy?
One of the things to watch here is that when you do have a democratic form of government, you have a public argument over all kinds of questions of policy. Just consider the fact that Britain was recently in headlines week after week and month after month, even now, over the Brexit question as to whether or not voters in the United Kingdom would decide to leave the European community, the European economic union. That decision, of course, confounded the elites when British voters, at least a majority of voters, decided to vote for an exit from the European community, the common market. That decision by British voters, at least a majority of them, to leave the European economic community was a very contentious debate, and it is contentious even now.
Furthermore, throughout other Western European democracies, there are ongoing debates that shake to the very foundations some of these countries. You’re looking at electoral turmoil right now in France; you’re looking at the fact that Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is herself now far less popular than she was just a matter of a couple of years ago, and there are huge political questions over Germany, the most important nation in terms of economic and political influence in all of Europe. And then you’re looking of course at nations such as Greece and Italy in which democracy is a very fragile thing and is known to be, and you look around the world and you understand that the American political election in 2016, that presidential race, is a further cause for the fact that some people around the world see democracy as extremely messy, sometimes extravagantly so, and it isn’t clear to many people watching around the world that democracy is actually the better form of government.
In contrast to that, many people around the world are watching what is happening in Russia under Vladimir Putin, and they’re also watching what is happening in China under Xi Jinping. And the interesting thing to note there is that many people are noticing that it appears that what’s winning right now in terms of the competition of the political systems is not so much Western democracy but the kind of autocratic governments represented by Russia and China.
Christians looking to this understand that behind a political system is an ideology, and behind that ideology is a worldview, and behind the worldview right now in China is not only the atheistic, materialistic, naturalistic worldview of the Chinese Communist Party, but also an understanding of human dignity that is under the control and by the definition of the party.
Western democracies have historically been rooted in a Christian understanding, at least a vestigial remaining Christian understanding of human dignity that has led to the understanding of individual liberty and an entire constellation of values under the rubric of human dignity and human rights. In other nations, most acutely in Putin’s Russia and also now in China, you have a definition of human dignity that is not rooted in the biblical vision but is instead rooted in the power of the state, and the state is centralized in the authority of one supreme leader. One would think that the absolute catastrophes of Communism and Nazi-ism in the 20th century would serve as sufficient warning to people around the world of the dangers of the centralization of this kind of power, of a one-party kind of rule, and of the leadership of one central individual in whom is invested autocratic and dictatorial even totalitarian power.
But the headlines coming out of China these days indicate that not only is the nation continuing the trajectory that has marked it ever since the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1945, but it is actually moving away from even the very measured and limited liberalization that had taken place under President Jinping’s predecessor. It was telling that over the weekend, even with the explosive story in the United States about the FBI announcing an expanded investigation in the email scandal connected to Hillary Clinton, the Financial Times, one of the most important international newspapers, ran on its front page, instead, the story out of China. The headline in the Financial Times,
“China’s Xi tightens strongman grip on power”
Gaining the core leader status at the Financial Times certainly implies that President Xi is more powerful than ever before. And one of the things they note is that the last time the Chinese Communist Party granted this title of core leader, it was to the leader of the Communist Party after he had cracked down on the democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, yet another indication of just how fragile democracy and freedom are around the world and just what is at stake, even as people around the world are watching the 2016 American presidential election.
Democracy on trial? The geopolitics of the 2016 presidential election
This was made abundantly clear in the very same edition of the Financial Times of London in an article by columnist Simon Kuper asking the question, is this America’s election or the world’s? He indicates how Americans can often exist in a splendid isolation, feeling ourselves immune from the crushing threats that affect so many other peoples around the world. Kuper wrote,
“The US inhabits a gated mansion in the safest neighbourhood in geopolitics.”
That’s a wonderful sentence. Again, I repeat it.
“The US inhabits a gated mansion in the safest neighbourhood in geopolitics.”
Kuper went on to say,
“Even if the Red Army had rolled across western Europe, life in Alabama or Ohio would have been almost undisturbed.”
He went on to say, and I quote,
“The US is immune to the world in a way that British Brexiters can only fantasise about. This means that the American election probably matters more to foreigners than it does to most Americans. The US president has the power to protect the rest of the world, mess us up or simply ignore us.”
Looking at the state of the American presidential debate and developments in terms of the American presidential election, Kuper says,
“No country can exist in glorious isolation, but the US very nearly can.”
In a very moving article, Kuper goes on to say,
“Foreigners therefore swing between two fears about the US: either that it will hurt us or, at times like now, that it will forget us.”
But this points to another argument that appeared over the weekend in the Wall Street Journal. It’s by British historian Andrew Roberts; the title,
“1776: Would You Like to Reconsider?”
Andrew Roberts is one of the most important conservative historians writing in the world today, and thus any time you see his byline the argument is going to be very worthy of attention. Writing as an historian, a concerned historian, with experience on both sides of the Atlantic, someone who writes in defense of the British-American tradition of politics and statecraft, Roberts writes,
“For all the undoubted genius of your Constitution, in 2016 it is no longer sustainable for Americans to say they have the best democratic system in the world. There have been many types of democracy—the Athenian agora model of direct participation, the Westminster-based constitutional monarchy, the Swiss referendum and cantonal model, Indian mass democracy, and so on. But it is impossible any more to suggest that the finest one is,” the one that has produced in his words the 2016 presidential election.
Roberts then warns that with the Chinese GDP—that is gross domestic product—“overtaking America’s, we are engaged in a vital ideological struggle over which political system delivers the best results: the state corporatism of the Beijing model … or the democratic model of the West.”
That’s an especially important sentence, and landing even as Americans are preparing to vote, it is a very cogent and prophetic reminder of the fact that far more is at stake than even who is elected President of the United States on November 8 of 2016. People around the world, as we said, are watching to see which is going to be the successful and dominant system of governance around the world, which represents the future. As he brings his article to its highest pitch, he writes,
“Very often when someone says he’s a candid friend, it’s a precursor to him saying something rude and unpleasant. Well, I’m a candid friend of America who goes on TV and radio and writes books and articles in defense of America. So I hope you won’t blame the messenger if I tell you straight that your selling point as a nation—democracy—is not cutting it in the modern world, largely because you are not selling it properly.”
This is a British friend speaking to Americans. He goes on to say,
“If you really want government of, for and by the people to survive and prosper when you are no longer the largest income-generator on the planet, you are going to have to raise your game. It won’t be done internally without a fight, because no politician ever genuinely thinks that a system that has had the perspicacity to put him there is broken.”
He writes, and he warns,
“You need to look at what is happening to democracy globally. As a political system it’s on trial, and right now it’s losing across huge swaths of Asia and Africa—losing out to the ideas of totalitarian state-directed corporatism that seems to be delivering much higher growth and much better leaders.”
Perhaps the most important insight coming from these two friends of America, Simon Kuper and Andrew Roberts, is that if the United States of America intends to win the battle of ideologies and political systems and worldviews, it’s going to have to up its game. We’re going to have to be much better at selling democracy around the world, and we’re going to have to be much better at making the expectations of democracy clear here in the United States of America. This constitutional republic, a representative democracy, is only made possible because of certain ideals, and beyond those ideas certain political commitments, and behind those commitments a very clear worldview. And now what we’re witnessing as the political system in the United States is stressing at its seams is the fact that we are losing the grasp upon that fundamental worldview, understandings of what it means to be human, of human dignity, and human rights that are—we simply have to assert once again—only possible in terms of a biblical worldview.
When Iraq is finally liberated, will Iraq's Christians have a home?
Next, thinking about America’s influence and intervention around the world, the Wall Street Journal over the weekend in the Houses of Worship column had an article by Mindy Belz of World Magazine. The title of the article,
“Can Iraq’s Christians Finally Go Home?”
The background of this story are allied efforts against the Islamic State and the fact that in the current battle for Mosul, that is Iraq’s second-largest city, there is the promise that the Islamic State may lose its last major geopolitical stronghold. But we also need to understand this raises the huge question, when the Islamic State falls will this mean that Iraq’s Christians can go home? Much of that answer will depend upon the influence and the protection of the United States of America, and there is a huge question mark over what the United States government will do in terms of protecting the lives and the liberties and the home-going of Christians from Iraq. Belz writes,
“As coalition forces—Iraqi government forces, allied militias and Kurdish soldiers, backed by U.S. air and on-the-ground support—advance toward Mosul,” pressing back on the Islamic state that won’t “guarantee a safe return for exiled Christians and other religious minorities.”
This story gets complicated, but it is extremely important, especially when we’re talking about those who are Christians exiled because of their Christian faith. This is an extremely important story, and complicating the story is the role of Turkey, a key American ally against the Islamic State. Belz writes,
“Turkey, a NATO member, now stands in the way of the Christians’ return. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan inserted thousands of Turkish forces into Nineveh months ago, and he insists they participate in the fight against ISIS. Mr. Erdogan told an Arab news channel this month, ‘only Sunni Arabs, Turkomens, and Sunni Kurds’ should remain in the Mosul region once it is liberated. Under martial law in his own country, Mr. Erdogan has closed churches and detained Christian clergy.”
Mindy Belz goes on to explain that one of the complicating factors here is that the United States government, under the leadership of President Barack Obama, is pressuring the Iraqi government to give way to Turkish demands. As she writes,
“Given the strength of Turkish influence, and Christians’ lack of political clout, this is likely to finish the Christians’ right to return. This despite the fact that Christians have lived in this part of the world since the first century.”
She goes on to say,
“I’ve walked through church ruins in Nineveh that archaeologists estimate were constructed in the second or third century.”
Belz mentions a 300-page report that was compiled by the Knights of Columbus at the request of the State Department “documenting ISIS genocide of Christians in Iraq. Besides the toxic level of displacement, the report contains graphic detail confirming that at least 1,100 Christians have been murdered by Islamic militants in Iraq since 2003, though the number is almost certainly higher now. Yet U.S. officials seem to be ignoring these findings, even though the report pushed Washington to legally declare ISIS’s actions a ‘genocide.’”
That takes me back to Simon Kuper’s article about the isolationism that seems to come second nature to Americans. It’s one thing for that to be politically true of American citizens, it’s another thing for that to be true of American Christians when it comes to the question as to whether or not Christians will be able to return to their homeland in Iraq and whether or not the United States government will be a key agent ensuring that right to return and ensuring the protection of their lives. It’s horrifying enough to consider what the Islamic State has done to Christians in Iraq. It’s another thing altogether to consider that the United States government might fail to stand behind these Christians in terms of their right to return to their homeland, or even more horrifyingly, to fail to protect their lives. Thanks to this article by Mindy Belz in the Wall Street Journal we can’t say we didn’t know.
Who's securing the National Security Agency? Recent NSA security breach raises eyebrows
Finally, there are so many huge stories demanding headlines in the United States and around the world, it’s hard to even give a passing attention to many of them. But there was one that appeared over the weekend in the New York Times that is one of those articles below the fold in the print edition that deserves a little above-the-fold attention. Here’s the headline,
“Big Red Flags’ Didn’t Prevent N.S.A. Breach”—that is the National Security Agency.
Reporters Scott Shane and Jo Becker write,
“Year after year, both in his messy personal life and his brazen theft of classified documents from the National Security Agency, Harold T. Martin III put to the test the government’s costly system for protecting secrets. And year after year, the system failed.”
The papers have been filled with headlines recently having to do Mr. Martin and the fact that he is under arrest and is currently being held by federal authorities because of the discovery of tens of thousands of pages of the most sensitive classified information that he took from his workplace, where he was an analyst for the National Security Agency and one of its contractors, and had put these documents in his home in a storage place and even just loose in his car.
It is not yet known whether or not Mr. Martin was involved in active espionage, but what is known is that it turns out that the National Security Agency was completely unaware that one of its own contract employees was stealing vital classified information. The important insight from a Christian worldview perspective is this: one of the most important questions we have to ask is, who is watching the watchers? Who is policing the police? Who was taking care of the security behind the National Security Agency?
The fact the New York Times is reporting here is that the NSA, having already been humiliated years ago in the Edward Snowden scandal, put in place procedures that were supposed to prevent what the NSA has just had to admit has very clearly happened. But you’ll also note that when we talk about who’s watching the watchers, who’s keeping the security agencies secure, there are signals here that human beings are capable of ignoring the obvious not once, not twice, but over and over again.
The important thing in this story by Shane and Becker comes down to this:
“Mr. Martin got and kept a top-secret security clearance despite a record that included drinking problems, a drunken-driving arrest, two divorces, unpaid tax bills, a charge of computer harassment and a bizarre episode in which he posed as a police officer in a traffic dispute. Under clearance rules, such events should have triggered closer scrutiny by the security agencies where he worked as a contractor.”
In filing charges against Mr. Martin, prosecutors have described his theft of these sensitive, most highly classified materials as breathtaking. But what’s similarly breathtaking is that National Security officials clearly failed to recognize the direct threat and vulnerability in having an employee whom a Google search would reveal was already in a very, very conflicted and compromised situation, already acting bizarrely. Remember we’re talking someone who had access to the most sensitive information possessed by the most secure security agency in the United States of America.
Here’s a biblical insight for us. We can put together the most sophisticated policies and procedures in the world, but those policies and procedures are only effective depending upon the people who must make them effective. And it’s not only the case that every policy and procedure is fallible, the Bible reminds us that so also is every single human being. Sometimes in a fallen world the most important question is not what are we seeing, but what are we missing. And if all this can go on under the searching eyes and under the security procedures of the National Security Agency, then what’s true about what we’re missing in our own lives? This headline has to do with the humbling of the National Security Agency, but a little reflection means it’s actually a humbling of the entire human species, of every single one of us.