The New York Review’s April 29, 2021 issue includes Howard W. French’s review of three recent books about the decline of American global power, “Can America Remain Preeminent?” In it, French discusses the challenges facing the Biden administration after actions that “harmed America’s moral standing and weakened its global influence” during the Trump years.
French, who lives in New York City, was for many years a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, reporting from across three continents. He is the author of five books, and this fall, Liveright will publish his Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. We discussed this and other matters in a conversation conducted by e-mail, which has been edited and condensed here.
— Pooka Paik and Lyndon Thompson
You were born and raised in Washington, D.C. What led you to make the first step in your career in Africa?
My father was a medical doctor whose original specialty was pediatric heart surgery. In the middle of a successful career in that field, he decided to go back to school to study public health. Our dinner table conversations were full of discussions of the rationale for this: he explained that through community-based, preventive health medical workers could save or improve the lives of very large numbers of people, rather than treating individuals one at a time. This led us to move, in my teenage years, to Boston, where my father founded a department of community medicine at BU, and then became involved in international public health.
Just as I was going off to college, he moved the family to West Africa, where he founded a twenty-country program in primary health care training under the auspices of the WHO and USAID. I began visiting the continent as a college student, spending time with my family in Côte d’Ivoire, traveling widely and falling in love with discovery of what was an utterly new part of the world for me.
How did the transition to journalism come about? Did you quickly know it was your mission in life?
Four of my younger siblings lived full-time with my parents in Abidjan, attending French schools. Motivated by healthy envy, I worked very hard to learn French in college, and this led to work that gradually put me on a path to journalism. The first of these was as a French-English translator at international conferences, mostly in Abidjan, where I began meeting lots of interesting people from the region.
I was an avid, omnivorous reader, interested in politics and international relations, but my interest in writing up until that point had always leaned heavily toward fiction. Meeting people from all over West Africa and then traveling more and more in that part of the continent sparked the idea that I could write about African societies, about their domestic politics and international relations—though my first bylines were anything but high-flying in importance: they were pieces written in French in a little local publication about small-scale cultural happenings in Abidjan called Le Guido (think a mini-Time Out). The effect of being in print, though, was like magic for me. Journalism suddenly became a real, very attractive thing.
How did your experience as a correspondent in Western Africa affect the way you view American foreign policy?
I covered an election in Liberia that was patently stolen by one of the worst dictators of his era on the continent (and there was lots of competition), Samuel Doe, whose outcome was endorsed by [then–US Secretary of State] George Shultz. It was the late cold war, and the only thing that mattered in Africa for Washington was having “our bastards.”
Part of my learning experience was understanding the imperative, as a journalist, of tamping down overt concern for weaker societies in the global struggles that were underway. All too easily, one could be marked as being too emotionally “involved,” and all the more so as an African American.
You later became Tokyo Bureau Chief for The New York Times. What sparked your interest in that region?
After working as a freelance reporter for The Washington Post and other publications in West Africa for several years, I was hired by the Times as a city reporter. I told them from the start that I wanted to go overseas—but not back to Africa: there had only been three or four African-American foreign correspondents in the history of the paper, and they had all been sent to Africa.
When I got promoted to the foreign desk, they sent me to the Caribbean to cover near-constant turmoil in Haiti. Soon after, they added Latin America to my beat. After doing that for four years, I was—somewhat reluctantly—sent back to West Africa to cover the small but nasty wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and a hugely consequential one in one of Africa’s largest countries, Zaire.
By the end of that conflict, I was quite burned out, but I also had a longstanding interest in East Asian history and culture. After covering Japan and the two Koreas for five years, I went on to cover China for my last six years at the Times. Since then, I have come back to Africa as a topic, and am profoundly grateful for my experiences there. As I wrote in this latest piece for the Review, I believe that the human story for the remainder of this century will be disproportionately bound up in the fortunes and misfortunes of that continent. My next book, Born in Blackness, which is due out this fall, takes another swipe at reappraising Africa, arguing that no other part of the world was more important to the emergence of modernity.
In your review, you wrote about the Trump administration and its foreign policy failings. What do you think President Biden needs to do to remedy those failings, especially in regard to China?
Whining about China’s perceived misdeeds in its competition with the West serves no purpose—the less China is invoked as a competitive spur to the United States, the better. The US must learn to discover the sense of purpose and fulfilment that comes from achieving things of virtue, things that have an objective social need. This means constant reinvestment in our own society for renewal and improvement, and it means finding new purpose in American power abroad, less as an enforcer and more as an agent of good. Only in these ways will America retain prominence in a changing world, and sustain the admiration and friendship of others.
You note in your review the lack of diversity of perspectives on foreign policy in the Times Opinion section, but what about the institutional lack of diversity among journalists more broadly? How does that now look to you as, for many years, one of relatively few Black journalists at the paper?
My superficial impression is that there has been some change and progress in this area, but there is a lot of continuing struggle, as I wrote for The Guardian. Some features of this are common to all elite organizations, including the higher education sector, where I’ve worked for the last thirteen years. People in charge tend to relate to and more readily hire people of similar backgrounds, and when the people in charge are overwhelmingly white, that leads to predictable results.
There’s also the ever-present problem of resentment and backlash, even among nominal liberals who are fine with diversity until it seems to affect their own hiring or promotion. I faced this all the time as a Times employee, with some of my peers claiming to be victims of affirmative action with every opportunity given to me.
Along with the rise of the Trumpian right’s hostility to the “liberal international order” has been a related skepticism about it on the left—a return to Bandung-style anti-imperialism, a critique of human rights as a smokescreen for American power, a new consensus against free trade, etc. How do you view this twin-pronged phenomenon of left- and right-wing critiques of the American-led world order?
We’re in uncharted territory as a nation, bound up in a period of almost inevitable secular decline relative to other parts of the world. In its own quiet way, the Obama administration tried to adjust downward American expectations about national power. This was something no American leader had attempted before, and as a Black man, in particular, there was no way he could speak to this very openly or directly.
Trump came in and responded to a similar set of facts with an ill-begotten nostalgia for a supremely powerful past, with much bluster. Neither approach has been effective, but the last four years were particularly wasteful of time and energy in terms of renewing America’s vocation in the world.
If the twentieth century was “the American century,” is the twenty-first, inescapably, the Chinese century?
There is great risk in imagining China to possess a killer poker hand. In my last book, Everything Under the Heavens, I interpreted China’s evident hurry in many things, and its overall assertiveness under Xi Jinping, as being at least as much a reflection of the country’s anxiety over a number of daunting fundamentals as an expression of self-confidence.
The most important of these is bound up in the country’s awful demographics. China is entering into an era of unprecedented aging population, which will shrink the workforce and increase the social costs of supporting the elderly population—on a pace and scale with no parallels, unlike even Japan and Korea. And it will experience this from a position of still relatively modest per capita wealth.
As I’ve written in for The Atlantic, the next ten to fifteen years will see a closing window of opportunity for Beijing. After that, China will have to address these soaring domestic social needs. And in the latter part of the twenty-first century, the country’s relative economic strength compared with competitors will decline. This makes the next ten or fifteen years a time of growing danger of conflict—a time when getting the reinvention of the American vocation right will be more important than ever.