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The Trump State Department’s Swan Song? A Strange, Flawed China Paper.

The U.S.-China conflict may be the defining 21st-century challenge, but the recommendations stand out by what they fail to address.

Street art on a section of the former Berlin Wall shows U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, on April 26 in Berlin.
Street art on a section of the former Berlin Wall shows U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, on April 26 in Berlin. Maja Hitij/Getty Images

The U.S. State Department’s new China strategy paper, released on Nov. 20, brings to mind an old line from British playwright Tom Stoppard: “It’s half as long as Das Kapital and only twice as funny.” The document is a slog. It is a mix of a bill of particulars about China’s aggressive tactics, often-strained explanations of Marxist-Leninist theory that recall a college political science paper, ideological jingoism, and, ultimately, 10 ideas for what the United States should do going forward—recommendations that are most notable for what they fail to address.

The topic of the paper is an urgent one. The world has, as the Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy put it, reentered an age of “great power competition.” It is common to talk about relations with Russia and China in this regard, but while Russia’s destructive power—both its arsenal of nuclear weapons and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s penchant for invading neighbors and propping up autocrats—must be taken seriously, the country is a waning power. China is a waxing one, and its dynamic and growing economy and variegated assertions of influence beyond its borders, as well as its revisionist approach to the international order, make it the key actor in precipitating a new era of global competition. The behavior of China’s dictatorial regime and its intended medium-term trajectory are relatively clear. The response of the world’s democracies, and U.S. leadership within that response, is the central geopolitical question of our time.

The State Department paper rightly notes that the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump disrupted what had been a relatively consistent bipartisan approach to China since the Richard Nixon era. That approach was premised on two ideas: first, that the best policy outcome, from a U.S. national interest perspective, was to knit a rising China into the international system; second, that measured and incremental engagement would—over time—produce that outcome once China saw the benefits of its participation in such a system. By the end of the Obama administration, rising concern with China’s unfair economic practices, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s increasing repression and centralization of power, and China’s more aggressive international posture had increasingly undermined confidence in this approach. A new bipartisan consensus emerged relatively quickly: It was time for a different tack.

The Trump administration has indeed brought a change in approach, but, like so much else, its execution has been what can be charitably described as a mess. To the extent that anyone in the administration has made efforts to identify and lay out a coherent strategy, these have been obscured by Trump’s oscillations between, on the one hand, fawning over Xi and endorsing his use of concentration camps in Xinjiang and, on the other, calling the novel coronavirus the “China virus” in an attempt to distract from his own lamentable mismanagement of the pandemic.

While the Trump administration called attention to China’s unfair trade policies, it also alienated U.S. allies and launched a unilateral tariff war that led to higher consumer prices in the United States and forced American taxpayers to underwrite tens of billions of dollars of subsidies for the country’s farmers. Then, Trump’s desperation for the promised outcomes of the first phase of a trade deal that was supposed to mitigate the damage of the tariff war caused him to downplay the pandemic in the early months of 2020. The Chinese purchases of U.S. agricultural goods that were supposed to follow that deal didn’t happen. Over at the State Department, Secretary Mike Pompeo went on a jingoistic world tour warning of China’s ambitions; it’s hard to point to any partners or allies who have found his vituperative message illuminating. Meanwhile, the administration’s arms control lead, Marshall Billingslea, went through a mortifying weekslong public song-and-dance in a futile attempt to shame the Chinese into showing up for nuclear arms control negotiations. They did not, and Billingslea and his team didn’t just waste precious time that could have been spent negotiating with the Russians—they also made the United States look pathetic and weak.
It’s hard to point to any partners or allies who have found Pompeo’s vituperative message illuminating.

Against this backdrop of erratic U.S. behavior, in the waning days of the administration, the Policy Planning Staff—sometimes referred to as the State Department’s internal think tank—released its paper. Near the beginning, the authors declare that their purpose “is to step back and take a long-term view, elaborate the elements of the China challenge, and sketch a framework for the fashioning of sturdy policies that stand above bureaucratic squabbles and interagency turf battles and transcend short-term election cycles.” From the outset, a reader is wont to marvel at their apparent lack of a sense of irony.

Undeterred, the paper’s authors attempt to elaborate a consistent framework for the United States’ defining geopolitical challenge in the 21st century, all the while working inside an administration whose most salient consistency is its inconsistency. It is not surprising, therefore, that the paper’s recommendations include doing things that the Trump administration has failed to do and advancing policies that Trump himself has repeatedly sabotaged. For example, the paper’s first recommendation is that “the nation must preserve the Constitutional order.” Never mind that the report was issued weeks into Trump’s futile, ongoing effort to deny that he lost his reelection bid and to sabotage the constitutional transfer of power.

Three of the other report recommendations revolve around the “rules-based international order”—shorthand for the international system, designed and underwritten in significant measure by the United States and its allies after World War II, that includes international law, various international institutions and organizations, and the U.S. system of alliances. The paper’s authors call for the United States to strengthen this international order and to evaluate institutions and alliances to make sure that they are fit for 21st-century purposes. All well and good, but by any measure Trump has undermined both the universal principles that underpin that order (by, among other things, cozying up to dictators and human rights abusers) and the organizations that sustain it (where U.S. withdrawal from these organizations has, in many cases, created a vacuum that the Chinese are all too happy to exploit).

Trump’s self-described “America first” policy has embraced an antiquated approach to international politics that, in general, deprioritizes the kind of relationship-building that leads to stable long-term expectations and instead prefers a transactional approach that leverages U.S. power one interaction at a time. The paper seems, in part, to call for scrapping Trump’s misguided approach and instead reassessing and embracing the value of alliances and partnerships. This is good. But the way in which the State Department authors talk about the closest U.S. partners raises questions.

Particularly striking was a passage about Europe (which oddly refers to “Europe and the UK”—post-Brexit Britain might not be part of the European Union, but while its political arrangements have changed, its geography has not). “Europe and the UK have emerged as an important front in the strategic competition between the United States and China,” the authors write. China, they continue, “wields its economic power to divide Europe and the UK from the United States and pull European nations and the British toward Beijing.”

Of course, it should be a strategic priority of the United States to work with European allies and partners to devise, as much as possible, a shared response to China’s behavior. But this framing does not advance that objective. Instead, it reifies an unhelpful and increasingly common narrative that depicts Europeans as stuck in the middle of a tug of war between Beijing and Washington. To buy into that framing is to do the Chinese government’s work for it—it would like nothing better than for Europeans to draw an equivalence between the United States and China.

But there is no equivalence. Nor is Europe the rope in a tug of war—it is the largest group of consolidated, modern, industrialized democracies in the world, and the EU is the second-largest economic actor in the world after the United States. Washington should not regard European nations as a front in a bipolar struggle but as fellow stewards of the rules-based order. At the same time, Europeans who say that they don’t want to be asked to choose between the United States and China should be reminded that there is, in fact, no choice to make: If they are to remain Europeans, they must remain committed to European values, including those of democracy and human rights, and see themselves as part of the global community that will stand in defense of those values. If Americans are going to find the partners they need in Europe, the United States cannot see, or treat, Europe as a battleground or a collection of pawns. A new report by the Republican majority on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Sen. James Risch, demonstrates a much more robust understanding of this point. “Neither side of the Atlantic can respond to the China challenge alone,” the report states. “The only successful path forward is to work together.”
Washington should not regard European nations as a front in a bipolar struggle but as fellow stewards of the rules-based order.

Much of the paper is premised on the idea that Americans do not sufficiently understand the nature of the Chinese government, the ideological underpinnings of the Chinese Communist Party, and the way that these determine the most pernicious aspects of Chinese government behavior. It is no doubt true that U.S. policymakers should seek to develop more nuanced and accurate understandings of China’s politics and society in the years to come. And the State Department paper is, unintentionally, evidence of this dire need. Its authors assign too much weight to what they alternately call “Marxist-Leninist” or “socialist” ideology as the ideological underpinning of China’s global ambitions. “The communism that the CCP professes is more than a mode of authoritarian domestic governance. It is also a theory of a globe-spanning universal society, the ultimate goal of which is to bring about a socialist international order,” the paper declares. But today’s Chinese Communist Party Central Committee is not made up of revolutionary partisans philosophically committed to the international triumph of the proletariat; they are the quisling kleptocrats who inherited a repressive regime from the previous two generations and are trying to maintain their grip on power for as long as possible. In general, their professions of commitment to communism—like their increasingly virulent nationalism—are more of a means than an end.

But far more problematic than the way that the paper misunderstands China is the way that it misunderstands the United States, its present challenges, and the likely sources of its future strength. Three of the paper’s recommendations focus on U.S. education with the aim of improving the quality of public servants and citizens. This section of the report pays appropriate homage to America’s founding values, its Constitution, and its institutions—even if it also takes petty swipes. “America’s grade schools, middle schools, high schools, and colleges and universities have to a dismaying degree abandoned well-rounded presentations of America’s founding ideas and constitutional traditions in favor of propaganda aimed at vilifying the nation,” the authors write with Trumpian flair.

However, the promotion of liberal values is necessary but not sufficient to strengthen the United States in the 21st century. The paper calls for “serious study of the history of America’s efforts down to the present day to live up to [principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence] … not least through the establishment and preservation of a constitution of limited powers.” It further asserts that “this will enable American citizens to grasp the nation’s interest in maintaining an international order that favors free and sovereign nation-states.” Really? There is no question that there is value in civic education that teaches the nation’s history, but to the extent that Americans—and members of other democratic societies—have come to doubt their governments, this can be traced less to the fact that they do not know their history and more to the fact that they are unsatisfied by their present circumstance.
Chinese authoritarianism cannot win the era unless the United States forfeits the fight for a more perfect union at home.

Nowhere in the paper can one find a call for resetting U.S. capitalism so that it more closely reflects the free and fair competition that is meant to create the shared benefits of a market economy. Nowhere does it call for investing in education, health, caregiving, and other aspects of human capital—or in infrastructure and technology so that citizens may contribute to the national competitiveness of an advanced industrial economy and be free to engage in the pursuit of happiness in the 21st century. Nowhere does it highlight how systemic racism is not just a source of injustice but a gross distortion that breeds inefficiency and impairs U.S. moral standing and economic competitiveness. Nowhere does it identify the need for the United States to best China in the race to transform the sustainability of the economy through innovation and green energy. Nowhere does it address the collapse of the American middle class, whose strength and productivity led to the triumph of the United States and its allies in the last decadeslong geopolitical contest.

Chinese authoritarianism cannot win the era unless the United States forfeits the fight for a more perfect union at home. A strategy for competing with China—or any other authoritarian country—must include not only maintaining sufficient military power and reaffirming the values that underpin a free and democratic society, but also ensuring that democratic societies deliver for citizens better than any other form of government. The superiority of the democratic model must not only be asserted, it must also be demonstrated. And in this quest the United States ought to see itself not as a solitary superpower curbing the threatening behaviors of an authoritarian behemoth but as the leading member of a community of nations. And Americans should recognize that in order to prevail, they must maintain not only their military might but also their moral power, as measured by the way in which they uphold—in reality, not just in rhetoric—the equal dignity of individuals.

The State Department’s paper can be acknowledged as an attempt to fill a real gap: The United States has not yet landed on a framework for understanding the challenge China poses, or a single phrase or term for organizing its response to that challenge. Axios, which broke the story of the forthcoming paper before its release, reported that it was inspired by the U.S. diplomat George Kennan. (For a foreign-policy thinker to present themselves as Kennan-esque is a little like a novelist presenting themselves as Tolstoy-esque.) Kennan’s post-World War II era-defining analysis of the Soviet Union still holds up. Kennan’s heirs on the Policy Planning Staff have certainly not emulated his parsimony—Kennan’s famous “X” article was 16 pages, and his equally famous “Long Telegram” was 19 pages, while the State Department’s China paper contains 50 pages of text and more than 20 of end notes. What’s worse, they have not produced a comprehensive strategic framework, either.

Daniel Baer is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former diplomatic fellow at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He was U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. Twitter: @danbbaer