Jason Miks

The Diplomat Editor Jason Miks answers your questions on China, Mitt Romney and U.S. presidential politics and foreign policy.

T. Santiago (LinkedIn):
When you went to New Hampshire to monitor events for the 2012 Republican nomination, was anyone besides Governor Romney talking about imposing tariffs on China or labeling them a “currency manipulator”? How much of Governor Romney’s China views in your opinion are real or just pandering to his conservative base?

All of the candidates have talked about China to some degree or other, although Gov. Romney is the only one I heard specifically mention the currency manipulation issue (and he came in for some criticism from Jon Huntsman in a debate for his pledge to label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office if elected president).

This isn’t surprising given that China’s rise is being viewed with such trepidation by so many Americans I speak with. American confidence has been shaken by the economic downturn, there’s doubt about that. One voter in New Hampshire told me he was backing Ron Paul because he wanted the United States to pull back from its costly commitments overseas so that the U.S. wouldn’t become, in his words, a “third world nation.” In fact, a lot of Americans seem to forget that their country still has the world’s largest economy, at least if a Pew Research poll last year is to be believed that showed almost half of Americans thought China was already the world’s biggest.

Such views undoubtedly leave plenty of apprehension to be exploited during this campaign, and in fact there has been plenty of exploiting going on. Even last year, we saw U.S. Senate candidates like Christine O’Donnell claiming to have evidence that China was planning to take over the United States. Now these candidates wouldn’t be saying this if they didn’t think there was some electoral mileage in doing so, so clearly they have the sense from the people in their constituencies that a little China bashing is going to help them out.

But I’d argue that it’s not just about conservatives trying to rile up their base – Democrats have been joining in too. New York Senator Chuck Schumer, for example, pushed a bill over China’s alleged currency manipulation, while Democrats in traditional manufacturing regions like Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan argue that China’s unfair trade practices are responsible for the loss of American jobs.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

So it’s not just about Republicans. Does Governor Romney believe what he says about China? Only he knows that for sure, and he has certainly taken a great deal of flak for his shifting views on issues including abortion.

One thing to remember, though, is that these candidates are expected to have opinions on a huge range of issues, and so their exact positions on certain subjects will also be a product of their advisors. Take Governor Romney’s pledge to return the U.S. Navy to a fleet of 313 vessels. Now Governor Romney likely won’t personally have a detailed opinion on why the Navy should have 313 vessels rather than 320 or 290. However, he does have a view that the United States needs a strong military, and he and his advisors will have noted that the Navy has said it needs 313 ships, and so he – and especially his foreign policy and defense team – will fill in the blanks.

Every candidate will have their own strengths, but they can’t be experts on every issue. They provide the general thrust and rely on the people they have chosen – people obviously chosen because they are sympathetic to the candidates’ views – to help formulate some specific policies.

Jonas Sunn (LinkedIn):
Did you have a lot of interaction with Ron Paul’s supporters in New Hampshire? Do you feel his supporters will vote for President Obama if he doesn’t capture the nomination? What do you think of his foreign policy views?

Ron Paul is one of the most interesting of the Republican candidates, and he’s currently reveling in the fact that he has been described by some of his opponents as being “dangerous.”

I had a chance to speak with a number of Ron Paul backers in New Hampshire, and although they had a range of reasons for supporting him, they all tended to boil down to two related gripes: the government is too big, and trying to do too much. This was brought home to me by one conversation with a New Hampshirite who expressed concern that America risked ending up a third world nation because it’s spending more than it can afford on military commitments overseas. He, like many other Paul supporters, seemed genuinely concerned about the state that they are leaving the country in for their children and grandchildren.

Now this ties in directly with Paul’s foreign policy views, because he believes that the United States should have a much smaller military footprint overseas. He explicitly calls for the United States to avoid long and costly wars, and says he would get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. He says he also opposes costly nation-building that is “draining troop morale, increasing our debt, and sacrificing lives with no end in sight.”

Essentially what Paul seems to want is to create a Fortress America – bring U.S. troops home and strengthen America’s borders. Now whether you think that’s a good idea will depend in large part on whether you think the United States is broadly a force for good overseas. If you don’t, then you’d probably welcome a United States drawing in on itself. But personally, despite the United States’ faults – and like any other country it has them – I think the world is better for U.S. engagement. You don’t have to be an American patriot to see, for example, how the strong U.S. presence in the Pacific – and its defense of the global commons – has helped underpin Asia’s extraordinary economic progress in the past few decades. And frustrated as they may be with certain U.S. policies from time to time, it’s hard to imagine countries like the Philippines, Vietnam and India would want the United States to up and leave the Pacific, especially over the whole contested South China Sea issue.

One of Paul’s most controversial views, at least in terms of the Republican primary process so far, has been what critics argue is his soft approach to Iran’s nuclear program. Paul has argued that the United States shouldn’t rush to war with Iran, and notes the claims over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction proved to be false also. In fact, Paul even went so far as to say that in Iran’s case, the International Atomic Energy Agency didn’t find any evidence that Iran is on the verge of a nuclear weapon. I don’t fully agree with Paul on this because the IAEA report gives real pause for thought. In fact, as I noted after seeing an advance copy of the IAEA report in November, the agency said that Iran had been undertaking work “relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”

The report said, for example, that: “The Agency has information provided by a Member State that Iran may have planned and undertaken preparatory experimentation which would be useful were Iran to carry out a test of a nuclear explosive device. In particular, the Agency has information that Iran has conducted a number of practical tests to see whether its EBW firing equipment would function satisfactorily over long distances between a firing point and a test device located down a deep shaft.”

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

To say that this isn’t any evidence seems a little far-fetched.

Still, I think Paul is right not to want to rush to military action as some of his rivals have appeared to want to do, in part because they are determined to underscore their unflinching support for Israel (and I’m not a fan of the reflexive defense of all Israeli policy that permeates some of the political discussion over here). Candidates like Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachman were quick to rattle the sabers at any opportunity in Iowa, with Santorum calling for air strikes and Bachmann suggesting Iran be blockaded. I don’t think the time has come for either of these things, although I admit I’m not sure exactly what the solution is for a regime that seems determined to press ahead regardless of the consequences. As U.S. Air Force analyst Adam Lowther wrote in The Diplomat recently, military action against Iran wouldn’t be a cakewalk, and could be counterproductive.
But I do agree with Paul in so far as at least he’s honest about the fiscal realities of military action – it’s extremely costly. The cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has far exceeded $4 trillion by some estimates, and is still growing. Meanwhile, American infrastructure at home is crumbling. A number of the candidates seem keen to exercise American military muscle, but they’re not being honest about funding a military. Falling back on the usual pledges to “cut waste” simply doesn’t, well, cut it. If Ron Paul can make America really take a close and honest look at its spending priorities, at home and abroad, then he will have done the country a service.

Richard Zacko (LinkedIn):
What is the most challenging part of your job at The Diplomat? What is your favorite part of the job? What advice would you give to young people who wish to become a journalist?

One of the most challenging things about the job is the fact that because we are online only, we never stop. We can’t do a bumper end of year issue that gives us a week off because people’s expectations of online media is that it’s always updated and always changing. I know when I go to certain sites a couple of times a day, for example, then I’m sometimes a little disappointed if there’s nothing new at all there. And I think there’s increasing pressure on news sites to be that way. It used to be that unless you were a daily news site, you could get away with updating every couple of days or so. But I find I get inpatient with sites like that now, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

So there’s always the challenge of finding new stories and new angles for tackling certain issues. We try, mostly successfully I think, to ensure that there’s something different about each piece we put up, even if it’s a well-trodden subject. The different angle might be a breaking news peg, or a perspective from someone who has a unique insight or experience. One thing to remember is that as well as established readers we are constantly adding news ones who might not have read the last article we had on North Korea. So you can’t take an issue as important as China’s economic challenges, for example, run a piece and think to yourself “OK, we’ve covered that.” With subjects like that there are always bits being added to the story that are either changing it, or shedding new light on it.

My favorite part of the job is dealing with issues that matter – that really have an impact on people’s lives. Its become a bit of a cliché to say this, but there’s a definite sense that the world’s center of gravity is shifting eastward, and so to be part of a publication that is all about this very issue is extremely exciting.
In terms of advice for people wanting to be a journalist, and I’m thinking particularly freelance here, I would first say that a good start is to think about what you’re interested in and what you can offer. Are you based in the Philippines? Then think about what you could write about from there for a publication based overseas. News and feature magazines are always interested in people that can offer some kind of local, on the ground perspective.

Another piece of advice is to stick with it – and don’t expect an immediate pay off. I started out doing a lot of unpaid writing for example. I spent a lot of time searching for outlets, trying to develop some areas of interest, and then a lot of time pitching. And you can’t be discouraged if an editor declines a story. What doesn’t work for one editor might really grab another one, so it’s important to keep trying. Related to this is to think carefully about who you’re approaching and make sure your ideas are appropriate. I’m always amazed at the number of times I am sent something that doesn’t remotely fit our style or coverage. So when someone sends something through that has nothing at all to do with the Asia-Pacific, it tells me they haven’t even looked at the site properly, and so haven’t done even the most basic research. Why would I trust their article?

A final piece of advice for some of our younger readers, and something which probably won’t make me very popular with some universities is to think very carefully before doing a journalism degree. There are plenty of good, short journalism courses that will give people a useful qualification and offer them some hands on experience once they’ve completed a bachelors or master’s degree. But one of the best pieces of advice I received from a journalism internship I did in Washington was not to do a masters in journalism. If I was going to do a master’s, they suggested doing one in an area I was interested and develop some kind of expertise and some real world experience.

Lots of people want to jump in and “say something,” but having a good well-rounded education, and getting out there and gaining some on the ground experience in a given area, means you are probably much more likely to have something to say that’s worth hearing. On a related note, I can’t recommend doing an internship enough – and try to do it overseas if at all possible, because employers are increasingly looking for evidence of people’s ability to work with people from different backgrounds and to show a little initiative. Setting up an internship overseas is good evidence that you have this.

But above all, stick with it. You have to make your own luck in this type of job, but when you do it won’t matter how many knockbacks you’ve had before.