Back in the day, there was a term for Westerners who, while not communists themselves, had convinced themselves to support communist regimes—and back in the day, that meant the Soviet Union—because they believed those nations were creating workers’ states that would eventually become democracies. The term was “useful idiots,” and it was generally applied to social democrats who’d failed to notice what Stalinist Russia was actually doing.
In time—partly due to Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 speech enumerating Stalin’s sins (some, not all)—the undismissible facts of what that regime had actually done hit those useful idiots like a two-by-four to the head. Some became more realistic and genuinely useful social democrats, some drifted elsewhere—to the right, to the Church, to anywhere and everywhere.
In recent decades, the useful idiots on communism have almost always been on the center-right or center-left—not, as before, on the left. Most particularly, they’ve been the pillars of American big business and its handmaiden, the U.S. foreign policy establishment. I refer, of course, to the decades of delusion that drove U.S. policy on China. Indeed, it was precisely the establishment’s belief that the spread of capitalism was indissolubly linked to the spread of democracy—a belief many of us on the left never shared—that deluded them. Since they willfully failed to notice that capitalism had existed, and their businesses had thrived, quite comfortably with authoritarian right-wing regimes, they told themselves, and us, that authoritarian Leninist capitalism was an impossibility.
For Wall Street and the U.S. corporations that saw in China endless pools of cheap labor, this delusion was particularly useful, for it enabled them to gut the industrial Midwest with a high-sounding rationale: By investing in China, we’re spreading democracy.
The Prospect didn’t fall for this. In a number of articles—most notably “America’s China Fantasy,” a cover story we ran more than a decade ago by East Asian scholar and journalist James Mann—we pointed out how dangerous this delusion would prove to be to the balance of power between democratic regimes and authoritarian ones. We ran articles by several writers, most prominently Clyde Prestowitz, who documented how China was demanding, and receiving, proprietary advanced technology from U.S. corporations as a condition of their being allowed to sell their goods there, and how China actually enlisted those corporations to lobby on its behalf in Washington.
Now that President Xi has installed himself for as long as he pleases atop the Middle Kingdom, has suppressed his domestic critics, and has anointed himself as the reasonable-sounding leader of the growing Authoritarian International, our foreign policy establishment and corporate leaders are confessing the error of their ways, as Chuck Lane notes in his column in today’s Washington Post.
Historians who document the rise of anti-Western authoritarian regimes in the early 21st century can resurrect a term to describe America’s business and foreign policy establishment: useful idiots.