The King of Kowtow

I suppose the North Korean leader is the best example of someone who frequently demands that his subjects kowtow. But that’s basically for domestic consumption. What about governments that try to get foreigners to kowtow? In that class, there are only three countries that matter.

Number two and three are obviously China and Russia, in whatever order you choose. Russia demands subservience from former members of the Soviet Union, such as the Ukraine and Georgia. China demands that foreign companies censor speech that annoys the Chinese government. And they occasionally demand technology transfers as the price of investment.

But the US is far and away the biggest abuser of kowtow. We demand kowtow in so many different areas that I could write a book on the subject:

1. Sanctions. We sign an arms control agreement with Iran. Other countries cooperate. Then we elect a new president who abandons the agreement and then insists that all other countries follow his whim, despite the lack of expert opinion in his favor. No other country in the world is so arrogant in demanding that everyone agree with their foreign policy.

2. FATCA. We demand that other countries provide all sorts of private information on overseas Americans, or even people that aren’t actually Americans but happened to be born in the US. But when other countries ask us to reciprocate, we often refuse to share private information about their citizens. We are now the world’s leader in providing international tax shelters, often using state-registered dummy corporations. We demand the Swiss do what we say, but refuse to do the same. No other country is so hypocritical on tax issues.

3. Exchange rates. We demand that other countries set their exchange rates at a level that we approve of. When the Japanese tried to devalue in the early 2000s in order to escape from deflation, the Bush administration told them to stop. We get to tell the Japanese where to set their exchange rate, but they don’t get to tell us where to set our exchange rate. No other country in the world does this.

4. Industrial policy. We have all sorts of candidates, in both parties, advocating this or that industrial policy. From the discussion, you’d almost think that a country has the right to determine its own industrial policy. But that’s only true of the US. In the 1980s, we complained about Japan’s industrial policy, and today we complain about China. But how would we react if China started telling us how to run our economy? In this case, other countries do occasionally follow the US lead, but mostly in WTO-type disputes. The US is unique in demanding changes in industrial policy that are essentially unrelated to trade.

There are dozens of similar examples. It’s only fitting that the King of Kowtow has a new president who actually thinks he’s a king. Trump was enraged when a few “disloyal” Republicans had the temerity to criticize his obviously corrupt actions. But now even silence is not enough. No matter what he does, he wants GOP members of Congress to affirmatively praise his actions, regardless of how appalling they are. The level of obsequiousness that he demands would make a medieval despot like Tamerlane blush.

There are plenty of countries that are worse than Russia and China, and many more that are worse than the US. But these three countries stand out for their combination of power and arrogance. Look for India to join the club over the next few decades—they’re well on their way.

PS. Still don’t think Trump is worse than Nixon? How about this:

DOJ lawyers sought to invalidate that request for documents on Tuesday by claiming that a key legal ruling from 1974, which paved the way for the House to prepare impeachment articles against President Richard Nixon, should no longer apply, the outlets said.

The argument reportedly stunned Judge Beryl Howell, the chief district judge for Washington, DC.

Or this:

Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who was on the team that convicted the Gambino crime family boss John Gotti, said he’s struck by the parallels between Trumpworld’s handling of the impeachment controversy and the mafia’s playbook on pushing back against charges leveled against it. . . .

Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime former lawyer, testified to Congress in February that the president runs his operation “much like a mobster would do.”

Former FBI director James Comey has frequently compared the president to a mob boss and said that when he first met Trump, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he felt he was dealing with the Cosa Nostra.

“It’s not about anything else except the boss,” Comey said while giving a talk at the 92Y in New York City last year. “It’s a fear-based leadership.”

FBI investigators who examined whether the Trump campaign conspired with Russia during the 2016 election also treated the case like they would an organized-crime syndicate, particularly through the use of cooperating witnesses.

Some of you thought my comments about Trump in 2016 and 2017 were hysterical, but everything I suggested is becoming obvious to anyone that isn’t blind. This is going to be fun.



16 Responses to “The King of Kowtow”

  1. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    10. October 2019 at 12:32

    I think there are more counterexamples that support that the US demands surprisingly little kowtow for a world hegemon. Take NATO as an example, America bears the largest costs by far, although NATO is far more important for Europe than for the US.

    Or take all the wars America has fought, the sole selfish benefit for the US was hardly ever visible, not to mention that they never exploit countries they invaded. At least they could burden those countries with the costs of the military campaigns, but not even this happens. Most of it is paid by the American taxpayer. This is not really what one would expect from a selfish world hegemon.

    But it’s nice that you finally realized that China and Russia are on the same negative level. It took you an extremely long time.

    If you want to experience a nightmare hegemon, wait for China.

    And of course the USA is supposed to be worse than China and Russia in your book of kowtow. What a “surprise”. You do not just have TDS, you have USDS: US derangement syndrome.

    Or as one might say “CCS”: The Chomskian Clone Syndrome. Yes, yes, I know you said you don’t like Chomsky. But you sure sound like him. You’re like a child who always says it doesn’t want to become like its father, but then at the end of the day it’s his likeness or even his caricature.

  2. Gravatar of David R Henderson David R Henderson
    10. October 2019 at 13:17

    If you delete the word “we” almost everywhere you use it in the post, and substitute the actual perpetrators, this would be a good post.

  3. Gravatar of Jim Jim
    10. October 2019 at 13:51

    Hi Scott and all,

    Another random question based on old writings. Working my way through all your econlib posts (after finishing ALL posts)…

    A while back you wrote:

    “Suppose the Japanese debt is 200% of GDP (it depends how you define it.) In that case, at zero percent NGDP growth the Japanese government cannot run any persistent deficit without the debt/GDP ratio exploding. If NGDP growth averages 3% then the deficit can average 6% of GDP without any increase in the debt ratio. That’s a huge free lunch! And it shows how massively inefficient Japanese monetary policy has been since 1993—the monetary policy has created huge fiscal inefficiencies.”

    wouldn’t this lead to debt to GDP ratio growing by 3% every year? How does it lead to “without any increase in the debt ratio” if deficit is so much above NGDP growth?

  4. Gravatar of bill bill
    10. October 2019 at 15:34

    It’s the ratio.
    So year 1, 200:100.
    Year 2, 206:103 which is still 200%.

  5. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    10. October 2019 at 15:44

    I certainly agree that there is a dark side to the globalist community in Washington DC. Why the globalists in Washington want to intervene in every square inch of the planet and get obeisance is beyond me.

    I assume some globalist minions are doing the bidding of multinationals, who want the ability to conduct commerce wherever they want. There are some interesting parallels in the recollections of Smedley Butler in this context.

    But thinking along these lines, I don’t think Trump is the worst president since Nixon. I think he is the worst president since Bush jr. Bush jr. entangled the US into not one but two fantastically expensive yet counterproductive wars, with oceans of human misery and carnage as a bonus. Oh, and the financial system collapsed on Bush’s watch.

    Seriously, compared to the Bush years, the Trump years are comic relief.

  6. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    10. October 2019 at 17:02

    Russia demands subservience from former members of the Soviet Union, such as the Ukraine and Georgia.

    No, it doesn’t; it simply demands fair and impartial treatment from other countries.

    The real biggest non-U.S. abusers of kowtow are Turkey and Israel, followed closely by Japan.

  7. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    10. October 2019 at 17:10

    Christian, I said:

    “But the US is far and away the biggest abuser of kowtow.”

    And then you said:

    “But it’s nice that you finally realized that China and Russia are on the same negative level.”


    David, No, even that would not make it a good post. But it would help.

    Jim, See Bill’s answer.

  8. Gravatar of MR MR
    10. October 2019 at 17:19


    It seems like your comments on NATO don’t seem to accord with European public opinion as evinced by this survey:

    It seems like Washington has other reasons for supporting NATO and its over sized military in general.

  9. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    10. October 2019 at 18:59


    my biggest gripe with US kowtow practices is the extraterritorial application of US laws (on finance as you mentioned, but also on corruption etc) that can get people arrested outside the US for doing things outside the US that violate US law. Imagine Saudi Arabia arresting Americans in Rome, Italy, for having engaged in prostitution in Las Vegas, Nevada. These laws are beyond absurd – they extend US jurisdiction to the entire known universe without anyone else’s consent. If that’s not hubris then I don’t know.

    This, and the forcing of US punishments (sanctions etc) against some country the US has issues with, onto everyone else lest they also get sanctioned.

    Those two behaviors go well beyond simply influencing countries politically – they’re trying to force US law on others without mutual consent, in a clear violation of other countries’ sovereignty.

  10. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    10. October 2019 at 19:09

    Christian List,

    you make no sense at all. Post WWII the US has fought most wars to preserve its zone of influence. This had large fringe benefits for others (positive political externalities), which is why the US found many allies in many of those wars. But the “altruistic war” meme is a bit rich. No country does that, the US included. It just so happened that key strategic US interests were aligned with other countries’ interests, and the US took some care in making sure it aligned interests with allies. Now that Trump has abandoned the idea to even pretend to care for others’ strategic interests, the US will find itself suitably alone in its wars, trade or otherwise. Have you seen anyone else joining in the trade war? Yep, thought so too.

    Lately, say the past 30 odd years, even those traditional US political externalities have disappeared. I fail to see anyone else’s great excitement about the benefits of the Iraq war or the endless US engagement in Afghanistan (past the initial elimination of the Al-Qaeda threat).

    As to NATO: the US has an absurdly bloated military budget and fights endless wars on hapless foreign countries that never attacked the US or its NATO allies – the biggest examples being Vietnam and Iraq II. These are essentially US-only caprices, and the US pays a high price for its pleasures here. Yet you expect all of NATO to follow and have similarly bloated military budgets. What for? Non sequitur.

  11. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    11. October 2019 at 05:42

    I wish we wouldn’t fight so many wars and have such a bloated military myself, and i am glad Scott is pointing out ways we have acted arrogantly. I grant you that the Iraq War was a monumental blunder as was the war in Libya, and our current trade war is a stupid one. But you go too far when you characterize the benefits of the American military to others as “fringe benefits.”

    Was it a “fringe benefit” for someone to live in South Korea vs. North Korea? Under the Lord’s Army or not? Under ISIS or not? Under Karadzic or not? On the West side of the Iron Curtain vs the Eastern side? To be a Kurd under Saddam or not?

    I agree with Christian’s point that as world hegemon’s go, the US has been remarkably benign. I believe that the authoritarian regimes in China and Russia, given equivalent power, would have caused far more damage with far fewer benefits to third parties.

  12. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    11. October 2019 at 06:04


    you misunderstood my point about “fringe benefits”. I think they are more appropriately called geopolitical externalities, and they were certainly large. I simply contest the idea that the main US purpose of these wars was some kind of US altruism. They were in the US’ strategic interest as much as they were in the 3rd party (accidental) beneficiaries’ interests (with some exceptions – I don’t understand the insistence on trying to bring American values to Afghanistan, for example). And yes, the best hegemony is the one in everyone’s mutual interest, although we could argue about a Hobbesian false dichotomy here, that it’s got to be either a hegemon or total anarchy.

    As for Russia and China: China has historically (and famously) resisted the temptation to become a hegemon when it had the relative power vs rest of the world. Russia, we can’t tell if it was by inability or by design. During the cold war I sort of summarized my world view as, I’d rather live under the US boot than the Russian boot. Today the picture is less clear – I now have the hope to live under no boot at all.

  13. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    11. October 2019 at 06:10


    add-on: I’ve said many times before on these pages that the principal difference of US foreign policy vs other great powers was indeed that it brought with it these positive externalities, and so the US gained a lot of allies in the process. Russia consistently only fights for itself, and with no benefits for others from Russian policy, it’s bound to have few friends. China with Belt and Road, clearly modelled after the Marshal plan, chose to follow the path of the US in trying to win friends by making offers no one would like to refuse. So a China hegemon might actually turn out quite benign. We’ll see it play out anyhow in the Pacific in the next decade or two, so stay tuned.

  14. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    11. October 2019 at 06:10

    I meant Carl. My autocorrect hates me.

  15. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    11. October 2019 at 07:45

    Everyone, Don’t overlook the possibility that the US is capable of both great good and great evil. In net terms, the US has been a force for good. We fought on the good side of WWII, the Cold War, etc. Even wars as misguided as Vietnam and Iraq were fought against evil aggressive governments.

    Don’t confuse me with Chomsky.

    But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong about the US currently being the King of Kowtow.

    mbka, Good Saudi analogy.

  16. Gravatar of Bob Bob
    11. October 2019 at 08:14

    I have to agree with many of the others here. The US has been a remarkably benign hegemon by historic and current standards. As bad as we are, we are far from being the worst. China will do way more harm than us if they ever achieve our level of power. Every other regional power requires a great deal of kowtow. Other powers also engage in a great deal of free riding. We have drifted (more) astray over the last 30 years. We should return to working with our allies. While far from perfect, the requirement to build consensus might temper some of our dumber urges. That said, reflection on how we abuse our influence (and quite often to our own detriment) is always a welcome exercise.

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