China, espionage, fentanyl, globalism, Mel Books, national interests, Nicholas Kristof, opioids, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, privacy, spying, Thomas Hobbes, TikTok
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s column on how the United States can avoid war with China generated two big takeaways that jumped out at me right away:
First, although his knowledge of the People’s Republic is impressive (he and his wife deservedly won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on China’s democracy movement and its brutal suppression in Tiananmen Square), his foreign policy thinking can be dangerously childish for anyone primarily concerned with defending and promoting critical U.S. interests..
Second, this column is worth focusing on because such childishness has been all too typical of the globalist strategy that dominated U.S. foreign policymaking and thinking in the decades between the end of World War II and the advent of the Trump presidency.
The problems with Kristof’s column begin with the headline “How to Avoid a War with China” – which unlike many headlines, accurately reflects the main theme. This objective is troublesome because except for pacifists or those unconcerned about preserving acceptable levels of American political independence and prosperity, it can’t be the top priority for U.S. China policy or for any other dimension of U.S. foreign policy.
And in fact, it hasn’t been the nation’s top international priority for decades. That’s why Washington has long pledged to defend numerous treaty allies by threatening adversaries with nuclear attack in response to aggression. The domination of these allies by the Soviet Union and/or North Korea and/or China has been deemed an outcome worth endangering America’s physical survival.
It’s perfectly legitimate for Kristof or anyone else to question these priorities. I myself have opposed incurring nuclear war risk in any number of circumstances (most recently, on behalf of Ukraine, which in my view is of no intrinsic importance to U.S. safety, sovereignty, or prosperity).
But if Kristof or anyone else seeks to fold back some or all such American nuclear umbrellas based on cost-risk calculations demonstrating why various national security objectives (including, for example, America’s own independence) aren’t vital after all, or unless these critics are simply doctrinaire pacifists, they need to take one of two steps for the sake of full disclosure to their audiences and intellectual honesty.
They can either explain how the United States can achieve vital objectives without the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons. Or they can acknowledge that achieving such U.S. objectives regardless of risk isn’t their concern. Since Kristof hasn’t argued for any of these points, from this standpoint, it’s difficult to view his column as anything else but a simple expression of fear.
Except two points that Kristof has made exemplify one example of what I’ve long called a deepseated American failure – especially by generations of globalists in and out of government – to think of U.S. foreign policy as an exercise in promoting or defending specific interests at all. My first comprehensive stab at this argument came here.
And further research revealed to additional ways in which “interest-based” thinking was avoided, including that which Kristof demonstrates – which I called (not too catchily) a search for abstract standards for judging U.S. foreign policy decisions that are incapable in and of themselves of helping America cope with important challenges or capitalize on important opportunities
These standards can take many forms – i.e., advancing human rights or strengthening international institutions or promoting the economic development of low-income countries. The one that Kristof is pushing in his column seems to reflect the idea that it’s not legitimate (or doesn’t pass some more elemental smell test) for the United States to defend itself against or even object to any Chinese threats in spheres in which America’s record isn’t simon pure or outstandingly effective itself.
Yes, this sounds positively ditzy. But what other interpretation can be put on the following two passages?
>“I’m among those wary of TikTok because of the risk that it might be used for spying. But I also know that the United States has similarly used private businesses to spy on China. When China purchased a new Boeing 767 in 2000 to be the Chinese equivalent of Air Force One, American officials planted at least 27 bugs in it” and
>”I think the United States should press China harder on some issues, such as the reckless way Chinese companies export chemicals to Mexico that are turned into fentanyl. That Chinese-origin fentanyl kills many thousands of Americans each year, and it’s hard to see why the deaths of so many aren’t higher on the bilateral agenda.
“But we also need humility. America’s politicians, pharma companies and regulators themselves catastrophically bungled the opioid crisis. Why should we expect Chinese leaders to care more about young American lives than our own leaders do?”
Regarding the TikTok and spying point, sure Kristof professes concern about the Chinese app. But if his paramount aim is helping to prevent Beijing from jeopardizing the privacy of individual Americans, why mention America’s own espionage operations other than to foster the impression that they somehow excuse China’s? What else can this suggestion of moral equivalence accomplish?
I suppose that, in principle, Kristof (or someone else) could think that abstaining from some (or all?) U.S. spying on China might help the United States. Maybe by encouraging Beijing to reciprocate? But again, he never mentions how or why.
Someone prioritizing U.S. interests would recognize that the fact that Washington is “guilty” of the taking same kinds of actions that China carries out (along with every other country with such capabilities) is completely irrelevant to the imperative of defending Americans from its probes. That’s the only objective – or even subject of interest – that should matter to anyone concerned with this nation’s well-being.
Kristof makes a similar disclaimer about understanding the need to respond to the Chinese fentanyl ingredients threat. But then he introduces more distractions – namely (a) a call for humility because Washington has performed so miserably in dealing with opioid use; and (b) the suggestion that if U.S. leaders had cared more about their own people, China’s leaders would care about Americans more as well.
Let’s say, however, that President Biden publicly criticizes America’s opioid record. I’m a fan of humility. But exactly what purpose would such a statement serve? Awakening Americans to the dangers of opioids and/or to their own leaders’ incompetence and/or indifference? Spurring them to demand more effective domestic countermeasures? As if many Americans aren’t already angry about the crisis’ domestic roots and haven’t clamored for action?
Or perhaps Kristof believes that Beijing would be satisfied enough with the resultant propaganda victory to conclude that actively helping to kill so many Americans was no longer necessary? I can’t think of any other value that would be added to a public U.S. eating of humble pie. But again, he leaves this discussion hanging, too.
Or maybe Kristof is worried that if the Chinese sign some agreement, then U.S. leaders will believe that the fentanyl pressure is off them? He sort of indicates this at the end, with his contention that the United States can best fend off various Chinese threats by strengthening its own society and economy. And he’s certainly right about the need for better U.S. domestic policies. But would Washington really be let off the fentanyl hook until deaths fall dramatically? That’s doubtful, and in any event, the author’s analysis here is awfully skimpy.
But it’s distraction Number Two that’s more revealing, because, as with Kristof’s seeming views on spying, it raises the possibility that as long as Washington’s own anti-fentanyl measures haven’t reached some level of acceptability (in whose eyes? China’s?), it can’t reasonably expect Beijing to lend a helping hand…and perhaps shouldn’t even try changing Chinese policies?
I can’t say for sure that’s Kristof’s view. But even if current Chinese leaders ever would consider such a beneficial course of action under any foreseeable circumstance, it’s anything but clear here, either, why in Kristof’s view even mentioning the American fentanyl record matters. However lousy it’s been, shutting off the flow of precursors from China would indisputably help save American lives So this outcome should be pursued vigorously, period. Why muck up the issue with any other considerations?
It may seem that I’m calling emphatically for a foreign policy of double standards and of hypocrisy. But that would be missing the point. I’m arguing instead for anchoring America’s approach to the world first and foremost to the defense and advancement of specific, concrete national interests – that is, to no standards whatever except for whatever contributes to those goals.
As for the hypocrisy charge, I plead (as a Mel Brooks movie once memorably put it) “Incredibly guilty. Because in the kind of fundamentally Hobbesian world that I’m of course assuming, I’m perfectly fine with the United States resorting to methods whose use by others it opposes because I’m completely uninterested in creating or upholding norms to which all should adhere. I’m simply interesting in doing whatever’s necessary, whenever it’s necessary, for the United States to create advantage – of course subject to the approval at some point of the American people – and to ensuring that the nation retains the power to enable this approach to succeed.
This doesn’t rule out cooperation with other countries at various times on various subjects. And if the American people endorse such a course, it doesn’t even rule out U.S. efforts to conform with those non-interest-based, abstract standards of behavior. What it does rule out is making any of the above the alpha and omega of foreign policy. And if you believe that any other test should rule instead, let me know.