Oh God, Not Another Long Telegram About China
U.S. strategists love grand proclamations—but ignore domestic political realities.
When George Kennan wrote his famous “Long Telegram” in 1949 to warn the United States about the nature of Soviet ambition, he did not appreciate the true threat the U.S. foreign-policy community would face: a future where every few years a scholar, pundit, or government official decides that they too must write a long missive that will redefine American grand strategy for the decades to come.
The latest entry in this timeworn genre was published on Jan. 28 by the Atlantic Council. The document’s anonymous author (described by the Atlantic Council as a former senior government official, presumably but not certainly American) has cleverly titled their report the “The Longer Telegram.” “Longer” is an apt adjective: the full report is 85 pages long. Unfortunately, the so-called telegram’s contents are not as clever as its title. It fundamentally misunderstands the nature of both the enemy it seeks to deflect and the democratic institutions it is purportedly designed to protect.
The main tenets of “The Longer Telegram” are these: The rise of the People’s Republic of China is a challenge on a Soviet scale. As Chinese society does not suffer from the Soviet Union’s internal divisions and because Chinese have access to wealth and markets the Soviets could never dream of, the challenge posed by Beijing may be even more difficult to meet than that posed by the USSR. The Chinese cannot be hemmed in or waited out. Containment is not a realistic solution. The goal of American grand strategy, then, should not be the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or the disintegration of the People’s Republic of China government, but convincing Chinese elites to accept a second-place station in an American-led liberal international order. Our would-be Kennan believes this is a feasible goal: After all, previous leaders of China, despite their CCP membership, were content to accept such a role for their country just a decade ago. With the right combination of carrots and sticks, the Communist leadership might gladly embrace such a role again.
“The Longer Telegram” suggests that the only thing that might stop the Chinese Communists from reconciling themselves to a liberal order is President Xi Jinping himself. His leadership is described as the wellspring of China’s new assertiveness abroad and its turn toward more repressive authoritarian measures at home. While “The Longer Telegram” does not explicitly call for Xi to be ousted from power, its prescriptions add up to a strategy of diplomatic, military, and economic pressure intended to convince the Chinese of the need for a change in leadership.
The most innovative aspect of this pressure campaign is a call to free up resources for competition with China via rapprochement with Russia. The other proposed measures—often presented in list form—are more familiar: a stronger U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific; close cooperation with American allies to create a democratic united front in the realms of technology, economics, and diplomacy; and a homeland revitalization program that heals partisan divisions, centralizes domestic policymaking, builds up U.S. infrastructure, increases immigration, and invests in scientific initiatives, all for the sake of maintaining long-term technological, economic, and demographic advantages over the Chinese.
Will a grand strategy designed to unseat or outlast Xi accomplish what the anonymous author hopes it will? Only if Xi is the actual source of Beijing’s dangerous behavior. But there is no compelling reason to believe this is actually the case. As the expert Rush Doshi has shown, almost all of the foreign-policy initiatives thought of as characteristic of the Xi era actually began under the presidency of Hu Jintao. The period from 2008 to 2009 was a key turning point: The 2008 Olympics were China’s coming-out party to the world, a party that coincided with the immolation of one Western economy after another in the Great Recession. After the events of those two years, no Chinese leader was willing to accept a second-place role in a Western-built order. Beijing would move toward a stronger, more self-confident strategic course. Xi did not create this assertive diplomatic and economic strategy so much as rebrand it as a central plank in his own personality cult.
China’s return to stricter authoritarian controls also predates Xi’s presidency. The unrest that rocked Tibet in 2008 and the Urumqi riots of 2009 convinced many in the CCP that a more coercive and less accommodationist approach toward China’s minorities was needed. The 2011 Wenzhou bullet train crash demonstrated to the party leadership that they had lost control over the Chinese internet; the contemporaneous Arab Spring reminded them of the potential consequences of their lost control. The Charter 08 dissident manifesto showed party leaders that they were losing important parts of the intelligentsia to Western ideas about rule of law, democracy, and universal human rights, and it convinced them that these ideas (and those who proposed them) posed a threat of “Westernizing and dividing China.”
The result of all of this was a firm decision to crack down and regain control over Chinese society—one that came to fruition under Xi, but where key decisions predated him. The words “social management” were elevated to a key phrase in the 12th Five-Year Plan—a year before Xi took the stage. The labyrinth of prisons and reeducation camps in Xinjiang, the crackdown on minority languages, the attacks on religious practice across China, the construction of a digital surveillance state, and the birth of a sophisticated social media censorship and propaganda regime were all born out of that decision.
Behind that decision lay the larger shift in the balance of power between the United States, China, and the latter’s regional neighbors. Former leader Deng Xiaoping’s guidance to “hide brightness, cherish obscurity” (sometimes translated as “hide and bide”) was a temporary expedient fit for a specific “period of strategic opportunity” when China’s comprehensive national power was too weak to compass anything but internal economic development. But even in those decades—which “The Longer Telegram” sees as the model for proper Chinese behavior—Chinese leaders expressed incredible discontent with the existing liberal world order, perceived this order as an existential threat to their continued rule, and proclaimed that it was China’s eventual destiny to forge a political model superior to liberal capitalism. Xi did not force these ideas onto an unwilling CCP. Rather, the party willingly gave Xi awesome power so that he could realize these ideas.
To be sure, there may be widespread discontent with the ferocity of the anti-corruption campaign or misgivings about the Xi personality cult among CCP elites. But it would be a mistake to view personal fear of Xi as meaning a total rejection of the party’s authoritarian modernization program. Removing Xi from power would not end China’s internal oppression. It would not cause the party to view pastors, imams, historians, journalists, and lawyers who work outside state orthodoxy as anything but a threat. It would not end the atrocities being committed against the Uyghur. It would not reclaim Hong Kong’s lost liberties; end the campaigns of subversion, bribery, and coercion in Western countries; or dismantle artificial island bases in the South China Sea. All of these policies stem from decisions that began before Xi came to power or could only be reversed at terrible cost—financial or reputational—to the party. The painful and partial repudiation of Maoism in the early 1980s only occurred after the horrors of the Cultural Revolution were inflicted on the party elite themselves. Nothing comparable has happened to China’s current leaders; were Xi to die tomorrow, they would have no compelling reason to retreat from the policies that have defined the last two decades of Chinese statecraft.
Nowhere are the limitations of this approach clearer than in Taiwan, which remains the most likely flash point between the United States and China. Beijing’s claims and threats against Taiwan predate Xi by decades. The CCP justifies autocracy by claiming that the party is the only force able to “rejuvenate the Chinese nation” and restore China’s ancestral honor; every leader of the party has identified the “reunification” of Taiwan and the mainland as part of this goal. For two decades the Chinese military’s modernization plan has centered on the requirements of a cross-strait conflict. Beijing’s current bellicosity on this front follows the flat fact that the prior strategy of winning the Taiwanese over through peaceful market integration has failed. Removing Xi from power would not change Taiwanese attitudes toward the People’s Republic of China, nor would it reverse the growing gap between the Chinese military and Taiwan’s armed forces.
The problems posed by Taiwan’s defense point to the second great flaw in “The Longer Telegram”: a failure to come to terms with the limitations facing American political leaders. The author argues—in an endnote!—that America must “develop … a plan that provides Taiwan with sufficient military capacity to deter a PRC attack,” without discussing the obstacles that stand in the way of doing so. These include a morale problem in the Taiwanese armed forces, a crisis in Taiwanese manpower, a mismanagement of the Taiwanese conscription and reservist systems, crushing failures in logistics, basic gaps in training, a military brass and domestic industrial complex overly attached to shiny toys, poor civil-military relations, and a bitterly partisan political class that has trouble developing or exercising control over military strategy.
Deterring a Chinese attack on Taiwan requires thinking through why the Taiwanese themselves have failed to make many of the reforms necessary for their own long-term survival. It requires U.S. leaders to figure out what—if anything—American statecraft can do to change not only the calculations made in Beijing but also those made in Taipei. This point extends past Taiwan. “The Longer Telegram” urges its strategy to be “implemented nationally, bilaterally, regionally, multilaterally, and globally,” describing treaty allies as “no longer optional but crucial” to American success. Very little is said about how the United States will convince these crucial nations to play their assigned part.
Consider a few concrete examples: If the military balance in the western Pacific is to be maintained, U.S. Forces Japan must distribute its troops across a larger number of Japanese bases than they are currently allowed. There are financial and political pressures internal to Japan that have kept this from happening. These pressures will not be surmounted by an uptick in “international policy coordination.” The problem—and this is true as well for German reluctance to act on Huawei, the Philippines’ embrace of the Belt and Road Initiative, India’s careful avoidance of anything that smacks of alliance, and the failures of the Taiwanese armed forces—is not due to a lack of coordination. These issues reflect a real divergence in national interest or the unique incentives of these countries’ domestic political systems.
It is not reasonable to expect a planning memo such as “The Longer Telegram” to address each of these concerns individually, but a broader recognition of U.S. limitations is badly needed. The truth is that U.S. options may be restrained. Many of the points of contention between the United States and various allies may never be coordinated away. Either Washington must have a strategy that can be sustained even if not all of its allies come through on the timeline it desires, or it must be willing to scrap the memo’s long lists of action items for the sake of a strategic approach developed in conjunction with these allies.
A recognition of America’s limitations is even more critical on the domestic front. In light of the last decade of U.S. politics, long passages of “The Longer Telegram” read as positively delusional. Our would-be Kennan would have the United States increase “public investment in STEM education, universities, and basic scientific research”; increase spending on “economic infrastructure”; reduce the national debt “without creating an inflation crisis”; build “a new political consensus on the future nature and scale of immigration”; open the American economy to free trade with the democratic world; turn “the US, Canadian, and Mexican economies into a single integrated North American economic entity”; and resolve or at least reduce “the severe divisions now endemic in [America’s] political system, institutions, and culture.”
This is not a strategy. It is a wish list. How any of this should be accomplished is never explained. Many of the items on this list are mutually contradictory: a more balanced budget but increased public investment, a pro-immigration policy platform but less partisan animosity. The need for trade-offs on any of this is not conceded. Instead, the report informs us, “each element of the above list needs to be viewed as a matter of national security rather than a normal part of the internal political divide.” As newly minted national security concerns, political leadership over immigration, trade, public investment, taxation, debt, and cultural division must be stripped from Congress and instead “driven from the White House.”
This is an extraordinary call to demolish the American constitutional structure for the sake of competition with China—and one that is not even justified in the memo itself. Nowhere in the 85 pages of “The Longer Telegram” is there an explanation for why U.S. Trade Representative-designate Katherine Tai or Sen. Elizabeth Warren should prioritize China policy over the wages of American workers, or why Sen. Tom Cotton should care more about Chinese power than immigration levels. “The Longer Telegram” assumes that competition with a country on the other side of the Pacific Ocean should matter more than the battles over culture, race, rights, and political economy that now dominate American politics. Tellingly, it lists “maintaining US global conventional military dominance over any other adversary” as one of the “core national interests” that should guide American foreign (and domestic!) policy, but it does not similarly privilege the livelihoods of normal Americans. The problem of stagnant American living standards only enters the picture as a sidenote, one of a few “domestic vulnerabilities” that must be surmounted lest the author’s proposed strategy fails.
This is as good of evidence as any that professionals in “the Blob” have grown estranged from the nation they serve. The American people do not flourish for the sake of “maintaining US global conventional military dominance over any other adversary.” The United States should seek military dominance only in as much as it helps the American people flourish. Any national security professional who forgets this—regardless of their previous rank or experience—does not deserve to be given a serious place in the national debate.
The truth is that Americans live in an intensely partisan country. The demands of national security will not make these partisan divides go away. In this political environment, a consensus on issues like immigration and technology policy will not be forthcoming. We live in a time when the American people are more concerned with domestic than foreign affairs. In such an environment, U.S. military budgets will be placed under extreme pressure. American political leaders, the people who will be responsible for implementing any counter-China strategy, will not be China experts. They will almost always have some issue on their plate that seems more important than China diplomacy. These facts cannot be wished away.
American theorists often describe strategy as the coordination of ways, ends, and means. A useful counter-China strategy would begin with a realistic assessment of the means actually at U.S. strategists’ disposal. It would admit to the restraints strategists in Washington face. Its recommendations would not be for some parallel United States whose people have put aside every divide in their devotion to the cause of hegemony, but for the messy and limited country that actually exists. A strategy that cannot be implemented by America’s vehemently partisan, easily distracted political system is no real strategy at all. Kennan’s early Cold War warnings were distinctive in their cold, analytical realism. Anybody aspiring to be his successor needs to be as willing to apply that same gimlet-eyed vision to Washington as they are to Beijing.