Problematic Thinking on China from the State Department’s Head of Policy Planning


At a recent event hosted by the Washington think tank New America, former Director of Policy Planning Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter hosted a conversation with her currently serving successor, Dr. Kiron Skinner, to get a first-hand explanation of the Trump administration’s approach to foreign policy. Skinner’s remarks included several concerning elements — both in how she described the Trump administration’s foreign policy broadly (which was well-covered by Masha Gessen of the New Yorker) and specifically in her description of U.S. competition with China (edited for clarity):

[Competition with China] is different as an adversarial dyad than in the 20th century with the Soviet Union in the sense that … when we think about the Soviet Union and that competition, in a way it was a fight within the Western family. Karl Marx was a German Jew who developed a philosophy that was within the larger body of political thought … that has some tenants even within classical liberalism. … You could look at the Soviet Union — part West, part East — but it had some openings there that got us the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 which was a really important Western concept that opened the door to undermine the Soviet Union — a totalitarian state — on human rights principles. That’s not really possible with China. This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology, and the United States hasn’t had that before. Nor has it had an economic competitor the way that we have. The Soviet Union was a country with nuclear weapons, a huge Red Army, but a backwards economy. … In China we have an economic competitor, we have an ideological competitor, one that really does seek a kind of global reach that many of us didn’t expect a couple of decades ago. And I think it’s also really striking that it’s the first time that we’ll have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.

Skinner seems to be arguing that China is different from Russia, with different philosophical and historical roots, that China is competing with the United States in different ways than did the Soviet Union, and that the U.S. approach to its competition with China must therefore be different from its strategy during the Cold War. At their foundation, all of these points are undoubtedly accurate. But they are not terribly new or profound, and from that basic foundation she goes on to sketch out aspects of a China strategy that are deeply problematic.

Skinner argues that all of the differences between China and the Soviet Union that she described “are a bit perplexing for the American foreign policy establishment.” This is not even remotely true. American diplomats have operated within China since the establishment of official relations with Beijing in 1979. There is a large and robust community of scholars across the United States with deep expertise on China and U.S.-China relations. And the Department of Defense has been publishing annual reports on China’s military since 2002. As a former official with experience in both the Defense Department and the U.S. intelligence community, I can attest to the tremendous expertise on China that is resident within the executive and legislative branches of government. China may be new to Skinner (her expertise is in the Cold War and in the domestic forces that influence the formulation of foreign policy), but it is not new to the U.S. foreign policy establishment.



Some observers have focused on Skinner’s remark that the U.S. competition with China will be “the first time that we’ll have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.” Unlike other observers, however, I don’t believe this reflects a racial animus or orientation from Skinner. She later in the discussion with Slaughter clarified that she was commenting on the homogeneity of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. But her comments were also part of her broader, and deeply problematic, argument that China exists outside of the Western philosophical tradition, and therefore old strategies of foreign policy statecraft — like promoting human rights — will not be effective. This argument is poorly considered for several reasons.

First, China does not exist entirely outside the Western philosophical tradition. The Chinese Communist Party itself is founded on the philosophies of Karl Marx (who Skinner described as part of the Western tradition) and Vladimir Lenin. But these thinkers are not exactly alien to the Chinese Communist Party. Marxism-Leninism is enshrined in the Chinese Constitution, and Chinese President Xi Jinping has recently emphasized Marx as the “greatest thinker of modern times” in his effort to revitalize China’s commitment to the communist ideology. While it is true that China also looks to its own historical and philosophical traditions to inform its foreign policy decision-making, Mao (himself a staunch critic of traditional Chinese philosophy) still believed that the Chinese Communists should adapt Marxist and Leninist theories for China’s unique history and circumstances — thus the term “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” It should be noted that even if these ideas are not common for American foreign policy discussions, they are far from unknown — in fact, scholars like Orville Schell and John Delury, John K. Fairbank, Jonathan D. Spence, and even Henry Kissinger have covered them in great depth.

Second, the idea that Russia is “part of the Western family” is not a terribly useful construction. It is inconsistent with some U.S. theories that were popular during the early decades of the Cold War as well as with the theories of Samuel Huntington that were discussed at this event. Daniel Nexon highlighted that many Americans during the Cold War saw Russia as outside of Western civilization, and Paul Musgrave pointed out that Huntington similarly identified Russia as part of the “Orthodox” civilization that is different from the West. The reality is that the entire construction of the world being divided into “civilizations” is not particularly accurate or helpful in understanding a country’s behavior or devising foreign policy strategies, and the fact that the head of the U.S. State Department’s internal think tank has adopted such a conceptual framing should be concerning.

Finally, the argument that China’s status as somehow outside of the Western philosophical tradition renders it immune to appeals to human rights is demonstrably inaccurate. In fact, China has a robust history of appeals to democracy and human rights, including Sun Yat-sen’s “Three Principles of the People” in 1911, the subsequent New Culture Movement that began in 1915, the pro-democracy protests of 1989, 2008’s “Charter 08” movement, and most recently the 2014 Hong Kong Umbrella movement. More problematically, Skinner’s arguments seemed to align with those of the Chinese Communist Party: that so-called “Western” ideals of human rights are not appropriate for Chinese culture, and that U.S. efforts to promote these values are veiled strategies to undermine the Chinese Communist Party’s rule. Skinner’s arguments are also contradicted by the flourishing of democracy and human rights beyond the West, including in Taiwan (which shares a great deal of the same historical, cultural, and philosophical traditions as mainland China).

There is a final irony to Skinner’s remarks. She sought to position herself as the intellectual successor to George Kennan, the first director of policy planning. She said “we’re now looking more deeply and broadly at China, and I think State is in the lead in that broader attempt to get something like a ‘Letter X’ for China, what Kennan wrote.” She was referring to “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” an article Kennan penned anonymously for Foreign Affairs in 1947 that laid the conceptual foundations for a strategy of containment against the Soviet Union. But Kennan was, at heart, a Russia scholar, and the strategy he proposed was rooted in a deep and nuanced understanding of Russian history and the politics and philosophy of the Soviet Union.

Skinner, though clearly a brilliant academic, is just as clearly not an expert on China. There is nothing wrong with that per se (we can’t be experts at everything), but her remarks indicate that she may not be receiving, or listening to, the deep expertise on China that continues to thrive across the U.S. government (despite the State Department having recently lost some of its key experts on China) just when it seems they most need such expertise. Skinner’s comments raise concerns that she is developing a broad strategic concept for geopolitical competition with China without first developing a deep and nuanced understanding of China itself. As the United States has learned before, we cannot succeed in a competition against an adversary we do not understand. As Sun Tzu said in the Art of War, “Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril. … If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.”



Abraham M. Denmark is director of the Asia Program and a senior fellow at the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is also an adjunct associate professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. He previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia. The views expressed represent those of the author alone, and are not those of the Wilson Center or of the U.S. government.

Image: Chinese Ministry of Defense