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Chas [that’s not a typo] W. Freeman isn’t exactly a household name. He’s even far from the most prominent member of the U.S. foreign policy “Blob” – the bipartisan establishment of current government bureaucrats, former officials, think tank-ers, academics, and journalists whose members for decades have both constantly changed exchanged jobs as their particular political patrons have rotated in and out of elected office, and helped keep the nation’s approach to international affairs on a strongly activist, interventionist (i.e., globalist) course for decades.

That is, they’ve succeeded in this mission until Donald Trump’s election as president, and even he hasn’t managed to throw off their grip completely. (See this 2018 article of mine for an explanation of how globalism and the “America First” approach touted by Mr. Trump differ, and examples of how his foreign policy decisions have reflected both strategies so far.)

But Freeman is a card-carrying member of the Blob – as one look at his bio should make clear. And that’s what makes this recent speech of his so interesting and important.

The address, delivered to a world affairs conference in Florida, has attracted the most attention (especially on Twitter) for its critique of President Trump’s China policy. And that makes perfect sense given the Freeman literally was present at the creation of the Nixon-era outreach to the People’s Republic that ended decades of Cold War hostility and set the framework for bilateral relations from the early 1970s until the Trump Era began.

But in my view, the China portions are eminently forgettable – amounting to a standard (but less oft-stated these days) Blob-y claim that the PRC is being scapegoated for chronic failures of U.S. domestic economic and social policy.

What really stands out is this passage – which clashes violently with the Blob’s defining worship of America’s security alliances and dovetails intriguingly, albeit only partially, with my own views of how America’s economic and security strategy toward China and the rest of East Asia should evolve.

According to Freeman (and he’s worth quoting in full):

President Trump has raised the very pertinent question: Should states with the formidable capabilities longstanding American “allies” now have still be partial wards of the U.S. taxpayer? In terms of our own security, are they assets or liabilities? Another way of putting this is to ask: Do our Cold War allies and their neighbors now face credible threats that they cannot handle by themselves? Do these threats also menace vital U.S. interests? And do they therefore justify U.S. military presences and security guarantees that put American lives at risk? These are questions that discomfit our military-industrial complex and invite severe ankle-biting by what some have called ‘the Blob’ – the partisans of the warfare state now entrenched in Washington. They are serious questions that deserve serious debate. We Americans are not considering them.

Instead, we have finessed debate by designating both Russia and China as adversaries that must be countered at every turn. This has many political and economic advantages. It is a cure for enemy deprivation syndrome – that queasy feeling our military-industrial complex gets when our enemies disorient us by irresponsibly defaulting on their contest with us and disappearing, as the Soviet Union did three decades ago. China and Russia are also technologically formidable foes that can justify American R&D and procurement of the expensive, high-tech weapons systems. Sadly, low intensity conflict with scruffy ‘terrorist’ guerrillas can’t quite do this.”

If you ignore what I view as the not-very-informative shots against the “warfare state,” you can see that Freeman comes close to exposing some of the main weaknesses and even internal contradictions of both main factions in the national China policy debate, and (unintentionally, but unmistakably) provides some support for the America First set of priorities I’ve proposed.

Specifically, supporters of pre-Trump China trade policies generally have insisted that China and the rest of East Asia are crucial to America’s economic future because of their huge and fast-growing markets and overall dynamism. But although they staunchly back maintaining the U.S. alliances in the East Asia-Pacific region that has long aimed to secure the political independence of its non-communist countries and thereby keep their economies open to American exports and investment, they keep ignoring three major problems created by this approach.

>First, the trade and broader China economic policies they’ve stood for have greatly enriched and strengthened the country posing the greatest threat to East Asian security. (See, e.g., this column.) 

>Second, because of the growth and increasing sophistication of Chinese and North Korean nuclear forces, America’s alliances in the region have brought the U.S. homeland under unprecedented threat of nuclear attack from both of these rivals.

>Third, despite the alliances, countries like Japan and South Korea have remained highly protectionist economies whose trade predation has damaged America’s overall economy and particularly its manufacturing base. In fact, there’s every reason to believe that U.S. security objectives have enabled this allied trade predation, by preventing Washington from retaliating effectively for fear of antagonizing Tokyo and Seoul.

The Trump policy mix strikes me as being much more internally consistent. In large measure because of fears of growing Chinese military might, it’s trying to use both trade and investment policy to curb Beijing’s use of intellectual property theft and technology extortion in particular to gain regional parity with U.S. forces and thus make America’s alliance commitments much more dangerous and costly to fulfill. The administration also deserves credit for recognizing the purely economic damage Asian trade predation has caused America.

But for all the president’s complaints about defense burden-sharing, he, too, appears determined to keep the alliances intact. Hence his recent insistence that South Korea pay more of the costs of the U.S. troop deployments on its soil despite his repeated claims about the alliance’s necessity. Just as important, although the Trump Asia policies have sought more balanced trade flows with regional allies, these very efforts make clear how unsatisfactory these economic relationships have been. As a result, they sandbag the case that the United States must run major military risks to preserve them.

Freeman’s speech suggests support for a different set of priorities. In one sense, they’re logical: If, as he suggests, its security alliances in East Asia are no longer good deals for the United States, then it’s indeed not such a big deal from a security perspective if America’s economic policies toward China are helping Beijing increase its military power – and boost the odds that it will someday control the region to America’s economic detriment.

Yet Freeman’s apparent priorities fail on the purely economic front, as they seem to propose doing nothing whatever to combat the Chinese policies that have harmed America’s economy.

And that’s why the America First recipe I’ve proposed makes the most sense:

>First, disengaging from an increasingly hostile and economically dangerous China (largely because no trade deal can be adequately verified).

>Second, recognizing that trade with the entire East Asian region has been a loser for the United States and certainly not worth the growing military risks to the American homeland – and thereby concluding that the U.S.’ still-overwhelming economic leverage is likeliest to secure whatever improvements in trade and commercial relations are needed.

>Third, wherever possible, using this economic leverage to shift jobs offshored to Asia but not likely to return to the United States (because they’re too labor-intensive and therefore “low tech”) to Mexico and Central America. The resulting new economic opportunities could go far toward solving the Western Hemisphere’s immigration problems.

Unfortunately, because the Trump administration has its Asia priorities so confused, optimism regarding major changes is tough to justify. But Freeman’s willingness to challenge from within the Blob’s fetishization of U.S. alliances, however flawed, is a ray of hope. And who was it who said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step?