The second temptation is one to which Americans are peculiarly prone: to focus on individuals rather than states, and to rely on law rather than policy. The problem in China is not five bad actors in the People’s Liberation Army: It is Chinese policy. In a similar vein, the effort to find excruciatingly precise sanctions against a few of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s close friends misses the point: The problem is Russian policy, not specific crony capitalists or henchmen.
Indeed, it is a mistake to make any of this too personal. If this is the game of nations, played by old rules (old, as in 17th- and 18th-century, at least), there is no point in focusing on individuals. “It’s business, not personal,” as they say in the mafia movies. At some point we may want to have dealings with people we have identified as crooks and malefactors, so in most cases, there’s no need to make it harder for us to do so.
Which is why the law is not the best instrument here. This is about our coming to terms with the existence of an unscrupulous mercantilist state of unprecedented size, wealth and power. It does not accept our legal norms — and in any case, given the revelations of Edward Snowden, we sound foolish standing on those grounds. That being so, action that bites — inflicting some pain on sizable Chinese companies that benefit from stolen information, for example — makes a lot more sense than pretending that U.S. jurisdiction is both universal and legitimate. Even the attorney general cannot believe that it is.