Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of the National Interest, spoke with Maurice R. Greenberg in mid-November 2017 in New York. Greenberg is chairman emeritus of the Center for the National Interest’s board of directors and chairman and CEO of C.V. Starr & Co., Inc.
Jacob Heilbrunn: What is your assessment of the approach of China and America to North Korea?
Maurice R. Greenberg: When it comes to North Korea, there is no visible change that you can see—obviously there is a lot of gossip about the situation. When I met with President Xi, I asked him directly about North Korea, and he said that they are working on it—he wasn’t very specific. That has to be a high priority for us: South Korea and Japan. If we don’t see progress, then sooner or later, Japan and South Korea will want to become nuclear powers. That is not in China’s interest. Everybody knows that, so the question is obvious: what has to be done?
It is not the missiles that I am concerned about, it is the leader, Kim Jong-un. How do you change him or get rid of him? It has to be one or the other. I can speculate, but that doesn’t do any good. All the countries involved know what I am thinking as well—they’re thinking the same way. It must be resolved, and it is going to be sooner rather than later.
Had Europe, France and the United States acted on a timely basis and stopped Hitler before he really started, World War II might have been avoided and millions of people would have been saved. Failure to act is not a great strategy.
Heilbrunn: Do you think Russia will play a role in the resolution?
Greenberg: They are playing a role now by trading with North Korea. President Trump has alluded to this. How do you cut off all trade? China is still trading with North Korea. I don’t know if there is an easy solution. It is unclear how President Trump can influence President Vladimir Putin. They spoke in Vietnam and had conversations on different topics—including Syria, including allegations of interfering with our elections.
Heilbrunn: What should President Trump do next toward China—what would be beneficial moves for American interests?
Greenberg: Don’t have a meeting, as President Trump and President Xi did, which from all outward appearances was quite good, but then President Trump departs China and starts hammering on about something different. You have to be consistent with what you are doing. I was in China about the time when President Trump arrived. I am on the advisory board of Tsinghua University, the top university in China. After the advisory board meeting, we met with President Xi. I think President Trump had a much better visit and relationship with President Xi than I think many people realized or acknowledged. Many of the things that China gave in on were being negotiated for some time before, but nonetheless, there was definite progress. China did agree that foreign life insurance companies, which currently could own up to 50 percent of a life operation in China, will go to 51 percent very soon, and in five years, likely to 100 percent, which is a major step.
Whether it applies to other than life companies remains somewhat vague. My guess is the insurance market will open up in a reasonable period of time. That is a good thing. China has more banks and financial services than ever before, and that is good. From the point of view of progress on things that were irking many American businesses, there is some progress, but we should continue to negotiate and move the ball forward.
Heilbrunn: One topic that’s faded away is the issue of control over the South China Sea.
Greenberg: Well, how much is China’s fault and how much is our fault? President Obama did nothing about it. He walked off the stage internationally. And the vacuum got filled right away. China filled the vacuum in Asia, and Russia filled it in the Middle East. That is the reality. Now you want to take it back? Good luck. It is much harder to do.
Heilbrunn: So you think Obama is the culprit, at bottom?
Greenberg: I think he walked off the stage internationally. You can call it anything you want, define it any way you want, but the fact of the matter is he did. When China first began to build these little rocks into islands, and ignored the decision in the World Court on the Philippines, what did we do? We did nothing.
Heilbrunn: What do you think about the eleven Asian nations agreeing on economic trade, and the United States being on the sidelines?
Greenberg: I think that was wrong. I think to go around as President Trump does and to say “America First”—why are you saying it that way? I don’t think it helps the relationship at all to say “America First.” Quite the contrary. It is counterproductive. You may believe that, but why advertise it that way?
Heilbrunn: With all the talk about “America First,” is free trade in danger?
Greenberg: I don’t think in the rest of the world.
Heilbrunn: But what about the United States? We have a lot of conflict now with Mexico and Canada on NAFTA. President Trump periodically threatens to jettison the trade agreement.
Greenberg: I was very involved in NAFTA during the George H. W. Bush administration. Carla Hills was then the U.S. trade representative and the chief negotiator of NAFTA. I was on her committee and we worked very hard together to get a satisfactory agreement with Mexico and Canada.
The bottom line is this: you can’t have it all one way. There has to be a balance. Things change and periodically trade agreements have to be reviewed to make sure that you’re getting the results that you intended, and to check whether a change has taken place that requires some modification—that is always the case, so I don’t fault that. But the tone you adopt, how you say it and how you go about it, is very important. Mutual benefit, not a futile attempt to extract unilateral concessions and pocket the gains, is the key.
Heilbrunn: So are we ceding the ground globally, as some claim, to China?
Greenberg: I think we are conceding a great deal of it. Appearances are very important.
Heilbrunn: There was an article today by former national security advisor Susan Rice in the New York Times saying that Trump is inadvertently making China great again.
Greenberg: That is exactly right. And you know, the Party Congress did a great deal for President Xi. He is the unquestioned leader now, at the status level virtually of Mao Zedong. He has a second term for five years, but nobody on the Standing Committee of seven is being prepared to be the president—they will fall for the age limit. So the likelihood is that President Xi, if I had to make a wager, if he stays in good health, will be around for more than another five years.
Heilbrunn: What about the prognosis for Russia? There’s Putin, and then what happens next?
Greenberg: Well, he will be around until he dies. He is not a president, he is an authoritarian.
Heilbrunn: How did Russia end up going down this road?
Greenberg: The Chinese as well are looking at that, at what happened to Russia—or the Soviet Union after 1989 when it ended up collapsing—and they don’t want to make the same mistake of promoting policies that lead to internal dissolution. So in that sense, Russia, from the Chinese viewpoint, is an example of what not to do.
Heilbrunn: Tensions are mounting in another region: the Middle East. How do you view the region’s future?
Greenberg: If Lebanon goes down, Iran is the winner. If Saudi Arabia then becomes in danger, we will probably be there to help them. Russia has been on the side of Iran; we’ve got to neutralize the Iranians.
Heilbrunn: Do you foresee another war in the Middle East?
Greenberg: It can happen—and we would be involved.
Heilbrunn: How likely is it that Trump would reach some kind of an accommodation with Moscow?
Greenberg: I would say this: a world where the U.S. and China are allies is a much safer world than if China and Russia are allies. That would be a concern. So we have to keep that from occurring. We have to try and neutralize Russia, not give in to them, but on the other hand, not treat them like they are a third-rate country.
Heilbrunn: So you prefer a kind of Asia-first foreign policy: join up as far as possible with China to promote world stability.
Greenberg: Yes, but we have to have a good relationship with India at the same time. China is going to resist that.
Heilbrunn: Do you think India’s in fact more likely to do well than China in the coming decades? There’s a lot of speculation there as well.
Greenberg: It will take more than a decade. They’ve got some real serious problems. Even Apple is having some trouble in India; Amazon wants to deal there; there are some smart people, but you look at the people, and how many are doing well and how many are not. They have a long way to go. The climate is getting worse, not better; education is lagging.
Heilbrunn: So you would put your chips on China, as it were.
Greenberg: Absolutely. Change in China is startling. Even in technology, the way things are going, they’ll be the first nation to have electric cars in numbers.
Heilbrunn: When you look at the state of America right now, where the political system, even with Republican majorities, has essentially ground to a halt, are you feeling less optimistic about America’s future, or do you think we’re going to emerge from this in good shape?
Greenberg: All during history, there have been rising powers and declining powers. You had the Greek Empire, the Roman Empire, the French Empire and the British Empire; what happened? They reach a certain point, and their population changes—the mix of the population, the development of the population—a country that is united becomes splintered and becomes a declining power. What is happening here? During my lifetime, I’ve never seen the country so divided. Two totally different countries. We are declining until we get that turned around.
And China—in everything I’ve seen and read, I’ve never seen a nation develop so rapidly. A country with a billion, four hundred million people with a history that goes back many hundreds of years, and for hundreds of years was static—look what is happening, in a relatively brief time. Since I first went to China, it’s like a different country today. That is a reality.
Heilbrunn: What is your assessment of Trump as president?
Greenberg: Well, he’s different than any president we’ve ever had. His approach of America First—I can understand what he wants to achieve. I don’t agree with the way he is going about it. Obviously you can’t isolate yourself from the rest of the world. You have to try and influence the rest of the world but not threaten it. You have give and take; you can’t just take and not give. There is more to foreign policy many times than just a trade agreement. You have to have friends in the world that you are doing things with besides just trade.
Heilbrunn: Looking at Trump now, and the America First rhetoric, have we reached the end of the era of Republican internationalism that they symbolized, and have we now moved into a new and different phase?
Greenberg: I would hope that we haven’t. I think there is a residue of that—more than a residue—of people that understand that. I don’t think it is dead forever. I do not believe that.
Heilbrunn: It’s surprised many people that the Republicans are having as much trouble as they are given that they control all three branches of government.
Greenberg: They are. I am concerned that they will lose the House and maybe the Senate as well. You want to change Obamacare? Fine, but you can’t take everything away. You simply can’t. There is a lot to be done in health care. I’ve been on the board of New York–Presbyterian Hospital for years. I chaired it for a long time. I know what has to be done. Once a person is diagnosed with a disease in a hospital and a treatment is recommended, get them out of the hospital. There are all kinds of downsized facilities you can use at a fraction of the cost. Take the pressure off the emergency rooms as well. It’s crazy the way it is.
Heilbrunn: It is interesting: we spend the most and our results are not good. It all seems to get steeped in ideological disputes.
Greenberg: It is, and every state has different problems.
Heilbrunn: So on the optimism scale, one to ten, where are you?
Greenberg: I don’t lose faith in America. I mean, we have the right to speak out, and that is important. Some people listen in government. Hopefully in time more will listen. I haven’t lost faith in our country.
Heilbrunn: Well, we’ve clawed back out of every crisis that we’ve experienced, but we are in a crisis again, aren’t we?
Greenberg: Yes, we are.
Heilbrunn: To some extent it seems like an artificially inflicted crisis. Because we’re not in a Great Depression. We’re not mired in some catastrophic war abroad.
Greenberg: No, but the quality of life for many people hasn’t improved very much, and that is important. Creating more jobs, better jobs, is important. We are living in an era where machines are going to take over human jobs. We have to change our education system. They are creating more jobs in China than we are in the high-tech area.
Heilbrunn: So your worry, if I understand you correctly, is that the Chinese are more nimble and flexible than we are and adapting faster to new global realities.
Greenberg: Now they are—absolutely.
Heilbrunn: And if we don’t react, then that’s a death sentence for America as the leading power in the world?
Greenberg: That’s the endgame, no question about it. I am not saying we have to fight China; what I’m saying is we have to look in the mirror at what we are doing, what we are not doing and what we are capable of doing. China is learning a lot from us, and they want to buy into many areas that are open. They learn very quickly. I don’t deny them the right to do that—we want the same rights no matter where it may be. And we have to start talking with one voice, not many different voices.
Image: A paramilitary policeman stands guard in front of the giant portrait of late Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong at the main entrance of the Forbidden City in Beijing, October 28, 2013. Five people were killed and dozens injured on Monday, the government said, when a car ploughed into pedestrians and caught fire in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the site of 1989 pro-democracy protests bloodily suppressed by the military. The car crashed almost directly in front of the main entrance of the Forbidden City, where there hangs a huge portrait of the founder of Communist China, Mao Zedong.