In June, 1978, then President Jimmy Carter laid out in a speech the tenets that were going to guide his strategy toward the Soviet Union at a time when East-West tensions were mounting. His clear aim during this key juncture of the Cold War was telling Moscow what kinds of actions it could take to make sure that superpower rivalry was “stable” and even “constructive,” and what kinds would be sure to place it on a “dangerous and politically disastrous” path.
Unfortunately, the speech was widely considered to be such a confusing word salad that rumors quickly spread claiming that what Carter read were drafts from the hawkish and dovish groups of his advisors that he simply stapled together. This rumor turned out to be untrue (at least according to this study of Carter’s foreign policy), but the fuzziness of Carter’s bottom line surely helped ensure that U.S.-Soviet relations continued worsening for most of the remainder of his one-term presidency, largely because the Soviet Union became more aggressive – especially when it invaded Afghanistan.
I bring up this historical episode because Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken just gave a speech laying out the tenets of the Biden administration’s strategy toward China. It, too, seeks to ensure that today’s superpower relationship becomes more stable rather than move ever closer to conflict, but it looks just as incoherent as Carter’s address – and just as likely to produce the outcome it’s trying to prevent.
But I’ll start with a problem that was only barely detectable in Carter’s speech but that’s bound to undermine Mr. Biden’s efforts to deal with China successfully: a failure to identify American interests precisely and concretely. To be sure, the Carter speech wasted a great deal of verbiage on Soviet activity that never held any potential to endanger U.S. security or prosperity – especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Eventually, however, the President specified that “We and our allies must and will be able to meet any forseeable challenge to our security from either strategic nuclear forces or from conventional forces.”
These kinds of specific objectives were at best secondary themes of Blinken’s. Instead, his emphasis from the get-go was on defending and reforming “the rules-based international order – the system of laws, agreements, principles, and institutions that the world came together to build after two world wars to manage relations between states, to prevent conflict, to uphold the rights of all people.”
Not only can this definition of U.S. interests way too easily turn into a formula for wasting America’s considerable but ultimately finite resources on an infinite number of international troubles having nothing to do with the nation’s safety or well-being. But good luck motivating the American population and its military to fight or even sacrifice for an objective this gauzy.
At the same time, the kind of ambivalence so broadly conveyed by Carter toward the Soviet Union permeates the picture drawn by Blinken of China. For example, the Secretary argued that China
>”is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it. Beijing’s vision would move us away from the universal values that have sustained so much of the world’s progress over the past 75 years”:
>rather than using its power to reinforce and revitalize the laws, the agreements, the principles, the institutions that enabled its success so that other countries can benefit from them, too…is undermining them. Under President Xi, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has become more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad”:
> “has announced its ambition to create a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and to become the world’s leading power”;
> is “advancing unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea, undermining peace and security, freedom of navigation, and commerce….”
> “wants to put itself at the center of global innovation and manufacturing, increase other countries’ technological dependence, and then use that dependence to impose its foreign policy preferences. And Beijing is going to great lengths to win this contest – for example, taking advantage of the openness of our economies to spy, to hack, to steal technology and know-how to advance its military innovation and entrench its surveillance state”; and
> is “trying to cut off Taiwan’s relations with countries around the world and blocking it from participating in international organizations. And Beijing has engaged in increasingly provocative rhetoric and activity, like flying PLA aircraft near Taiwan on an almost daily basis.”
In all, according to Blinken, “The scale and the scope of the challenge posed by the People’s Republic of China will test American diplomacy like nothing we’ve seen before.”
So given these malign aims and actions, how could Blinken also insist that
> “We don’t seek to block China from its role as a major power, nor to stop China…from growing their economy….”;
> “We know that many countries – including the United States – have vital economic or people-to-people ties with China that they want to preserve. This is not about forcing countries to choose. It’s about giving them a choice….”;
> ”The United States does not want to sever China’s economy from ours or from the global economy – though Beijing, despite its rhetoric, is pursuing asymmetric decoupling, seeking to make China less dependent on the world and the world more dependent on China.”; and that
> “as the world’s economy recovers from the devastation of the pandemic, global macroeconomic coordination between the United States and China is key – through the G20, the IMF, other venues, and of course, bilaterally.”
That last point, and a companion Biden administration argument about climate change, seem compelling – at least superficially. But think about it for a moment: Why would anyone holding the view of China’s hostile actions and intentions laid out by Blinken expect any meaningful cooperation from Beijing on anything?
Even on climate – that supposedly quintessential threat that respects no bordes – it logically follows that the kind of Chinese leadership depicted by Blinken will be working overtime to ensure that China minimizes any sacrifices it makes to prevent dangerous warming, and maximize those required of everyone else. Consequently, the most effective way to spur China to do its share and therefore boost the odds that the climate problem actually gets solved is to deny Beijing the economic power to stay off the hook.
There’s a big (and in my view, legitimate) debate currently underway over whether the United States should continue its longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” regarding defending Taiwan from China, or explicitly pledge to do so, as President Biden may or may not have done a week ago (and not for the first time). But there shouldn’t be any debate over whether America’s underlying strategy toward the People’s Republic should be as completely ambiguous – not to mention as nebulous – as the approach just articulated by Blinken.