Pompeo’s State Department is indulging lazy and confused “clash of civilizations” ideas in formulating China policy:
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s team is developing a strategy for China based on the idea of “a fight with a really different civilization” for the first time in American history.
“This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology and the United States hasn’t had that before,” Kiron Skinner, the director of policy planning at the State Department, said Monday evening at a security forum in Washington, D.C.
Skinner is leading an effort to develop a concept of U.S.-China relations on the scale of what she called “Letter X” — the unsigned essay by George Kennan, who assessed “the sources of Soviet conduct” in 1947 and outlined the containment strategy that guided American strategists for the rest of the Cold War. China poses a unique challenge, she said, because the regime in Beijing isn’t a child of Western philosophy and history.
Skinner’s remarks seem to be echoing some of the rhetoric coming from the so-called Committee on the Present Danger: China that counts Steve Bannon and Frank Gaffney as members. Like them, Skinner envisions a rivalry with China modeled on the Cold War rivalry with the USSR. They also use overwrought rhetoric about civilizational differences, but she seems to be going even further when she claims that a regime ruled by a communist party inspired by Marx and Lenin “isn’t a child of Western philosophy and history.” There is no question that China has its own cultural traditions that don’t draw on Western sources, but I don’t get the impression that this emphasis on how “really different” China is has to do with an interest in developing a deep understanding of Chinese culture and how that informs the way the Chinese government views the world. Skinner invokes Kennan here as a model, but Kennan was a careful and respectful student of Russian language, history, and culture, and he applied what he learned to his analysis of Soviet behavior. What Pompeo’s team seems to be doing is applying the flawed and misleading category of “civilization” to come up with a way to make China seem both more alien and more menacing than it is, and at the same time they are conflating civilization and race to such an extent that it suggests that they aren’t really talking about civilizational differences at all. Skinner says:
“It’s the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.”
That is both very crude and also weirdly inaccurate when we remember that the U.S. fought the biggest foreign war in our history against Imperial Japan, which surely counted as a “great power competitor” in the previous century.
Most of the criticism of this “strategy” has understandably focused on the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric that Skinner is using, but an even bigger flaw is the assumption baked into all of this that there is a “fight” that the U.S. has to have with China. Regardless of how “different” China may be, it doesn’t follow that the U.S. has to engage in a Cold War-style rivalry with the Chinese government. This “strategy” reeks of trying to essentialize cultural and racial differences as the basis for stoking tensions with another major power. Skinner is quoted as saying, “You can’t have a policy without an argument underneath it,” and in this case both the argument and the policy are awful.