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For literally decades, American foreign policy makers, and especially the pre-Trump globalists, fell into the dangerous habit of obsessing about second-order questions (like whether the old Soviet Union was a fundamentally aggressive or defensively-oriented power, whether military force or diplomacy was the nation’s most effective foreign policy tool, whether unilateral or multilateral actions were most likely to succeed, and whether a more or less involvement in world affairs was preferable).

As a result, they typically neglected the paramount first-order questions: Principally, what overseas goals does the United States need to achieve to secure adequate levels of safety and well-being? In other words, which foreign objectives matter decisively for the United States in and of themselves, and which don’t? And those are first-order question because assessing others’ intentions is much more guesswork than science, and because no one can sensibly choose tools for a job without knowing what job they want to do.

(See this 1985 FOREIGN POLICY essay and this 1991 Atlantic Monthly article on the general failure of not only American leaders but of presumed foreign policy experts to think rigorously about national interests. See this 1991 New York Times piece about the hazards of divining intentions as opposed to capabilities. Apologies if the first two are no longer available for free on-line.)

Therefore, it’s awfully depressing to see the Biden administration staging its own version of backwards strategizing. It’s evidently determined to base its China policy on figuring out what kind of relationship it wants with the People’s Republic, and paying much less attention to identifying specific actions the United States wants China to take, stop, and refrain from in the first place.

The Biden approach is completely mistaken for two main reasons. First, whenever relationships are pursued regardless of their impact on particular, concrete interests, these national needs and wants inevitably become subordinated to atmospherics and abstractions and processes – a decidedly unpromising recipe for national success.

Second, the particular relationship on which President Biden and his top aides are focusing – one marked by competition – is so intrinsically ambivalent (especially in the realm of world affairs) that its much likelier to confuse than to provide useful policy guidance. In addition, competition is a concept that evokes the playing field, where both victory and defeat have ultimately trivial consequences, rather than the fundamentally anarchic and much more dangerous international landscape. Consequently, its use tends to downplay even stakes otherwise defined more threateningly.

These obstacles to clear foreign policy thinking and numerous others all rear their heads in statements the new President and his leading advisers have made during the campaign and transition, and since Inauguration Day.

For instance, Jake Sullivan and Kurt M. Campbell, who have become, respectively, Mr. Biden’s White House national security adviser and National Security Council “czar” for the Asia-Pacific region, perceptively noted in a prominent 2019 article that terms used by the Trump administration like “strategic competition,” unless elaborated on, can’t help but connote uncertainty about what that competition is over and what it means to win.”

They did write of the need to decide what “kinds of interests the United States wants to secure.” And they do dance around some specific objectives, like maintaining unimpeded navigation in Asia-Pacific (or, to use a term more expanive and popular lately because it includes India – “Indo-Pacific”) waters, and preventing China from taking over Taiwan, and safeguarding America’s global technology leadership. 

But the authors also drone on and on about achieving a state of coexistence that “would involve elements of competition and cooperation, with the United States’ competitive efforts geared toward securing those favorable terms” (but never absolutely committed to securing them); and about “accepting competition as a condition to be managed rather than a problem to be solved”; and about how the Chinese competitive challenge differs from its Cold War-era Soviet counterpart; and about how China has become an “essential partner” as well as a formidable competitor with the United States because of the appearance of shared global dangers like climate change and pandemics; and about an “emerging” global contest of social and economic models; and about how to “get the balance between competition and cooperation right.” Indeed, the piece is titled “Competition Without Catastrophe.”

In addition, last year, new Secretary of State Antony Blinken took pains in a lengthy interview to emphasize that although “we are in competition with China,” there’s “nothing wrong with competition if it’s fair” That point is entirely valid in the context of a sporting event, a spelling bee, or other forms of competition with relatively trivial consequences.

At best, however, it’s deeply puzzling when dealing with decisions that can bring either great benefit or harm to an entire nation, and that can create major risks and require massive expenditures of national blood and treasure. In cases where winning and losing matter considerably and even vitally, it should be obvious, that prevailing or figuring out how to cope with defeat are worth the candle. Yet if and when it’s the fairness of the outcome that matters most rather than the outcome itself, why bother competing at all? Worse, these efforts can produce inexcusable wastes of resources that will surely be invaluable in the more important situations sure to come somewhere down the line.

In one instance reminiscent of the Cold War thinking they generally criticize in the China context, Campbell and Sullivan write that winning that competition of social and economic models with Beijing counts significantly because the United States (in unspecified ways to be sure) will be much better off in a world mainly made up of free market democracies than in one dominated by countries that try to emulate China’s totalitarianism.

Their point is fortified by the leading role advanced surveillance systems play in China, which additionally means that the United States must stay ahead in these fields both in order to ensure military superiority when push comes to shove, and to defend itself against Chinese cyber-aggression. Moreover, intuition and common decency lead all Americans to root for the widest possible global triumph of political and economic freedom (realizing of course that the latter can be defined in many different ways).

Even here, though, the framing U.S. strategy as a competition with China can complicate as many choices as it clarifies. For example, a defining principle of Biden foreign policy is that, in the President’s words, “America’s alliances are our greatest asset” in world affairs. Yet if so, then the new administration, as with its Cold War predecessors, will need to recognize that many of its current and desired partners won’t be either political or economic democracies or even close (in Asia, Communist-ruled Vietnam and the quasi-at-best democracies of Thailand and the Philippines come to mind), and that today’s genuine democracies often feel free – as during the Cold War – to ignore or actually undermine U.S. interests (like Germany nowadays regarding both China and Russia).

Finally, it’s all too easy to conclude that the Biden-ites’ focus on second-order questions first and foremost represents a series of word games aimed at masking their inability or unwillingness to identify first-order issues. Take the President’s insistence that he’ll carry out an “extreme competition” with China. Even leaving aside that he immediately proceeded to trivialize the term by declaring that his approach will differ from Donald Trump’s by focusing on “international rules of the road” (another second-order priority), what exactly will be “extreme”? And how does his definition of extreme competition compare with the other varieties of competition detailed by Sullivan and Campbell?

Similarly, Blinken has just ventured that the U.S. relationship with China entails “adversarial,” “competitive,” and “cooperative” aspects. The last category is no mystery. But what’s the difference between the first and the second? Does the first refer to American interests that must be advanced or defended at all costs and risks, or at least major costs and risks? Does the second refer to those situations and interactions where fairness is overriding? 

Sullivan and Blinken in particular admit that they used to belong to the dangerously naive China engagement mainstream of the U.S. foreign and economic policy communities.  But until they, their colleagues, and the President stop talking about the China challenge as if it was a game, ample doubt will be justified as to whether they’ve yet become China realists.