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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The problem with zippers that stick....

A couple of posts ago I mentioned attending a talk by Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations here in Belfast. Mead mentioned in passing a concept he had previously used in an article on US foreign policy that stressed the American use of "sticky power". Sticky power is a variation on what former Harvard Kennedy school dean Joseph Nye termed "soft power" which reflects the influence of American social and cultural forces in tying other nations to the American Empire. Sticky power represents the economic attraction of the American market which acts as a spider web by entangling others in a way that they cannot really escape without a futile struggle. I was reminded of that concept while reading an interesting article in today's Guardian G2 section on the sudden emergence of the Chinese in the manufacture and supply of buttons and zippers....

Now that might not sound like a major economic sector to you, but for the Chinese in the small community at the center of the booming button-zipper industry it has been a major development in a relatively short time. The degree to which the Chinese have come to dominate this economic arena is even worrying good old "sticky" US policymakers who have taken steps in the direction of protectionist policies in this and other relatively obscure sectors of the economy. There is obvious pressure on the Bush administration to interfere in the area of buttons and zippers as they did unsuccessfully in steel production a couple of years ago. The approach is likely to be quite different, with a focus on getting China to adjust the value of its currency to more realistic levels -- a step that will reduce their competitive cost advantage. But when it comes to zips and buttons, it looks like the Chinese entrepreneurs will win out in the end given their capacity relative to other producers.

Which brings up one of the risks the US takes in adopting a sticky power based foreign policy strategy -- especially if it succeeds. It's another example of needing to be careful about what you wish for, because you might actually get it....


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