Wednesday, February 03, 2021

The Return of the Jedi: Considering "The Longer Telegram: Toward a New American China Strategy" (Atlantic Council 2021)



It will be  along time before dispassionate analysis of the acutely disruptive revolution that occurred beneath the public circus that was the media fueled version of the administration of Donald Trump between 2016-2020.  But it is likely that decades from now people in the business of developing consensus views about the "realities" of the past may come to see  better appreciate the way that the years 2016-2020 marked both the end of the old American political order and the beginning of a new era in the development of the United States--both with respect to its internal self conception, and the way it viewed its place in the world. 

Already the process of building the post global American post-global global institutional frameworks (and adapting the old language of norms and politics to that task) has begun among deeply embedded elements of the ruling elites in this country organized within the organs of institutions like the Atlantic Council ("The Atlantic Council promotes constructive leadership and engagement in international affairs based on the Atlantic Community’s central role in meeting global challenges. The Council provides an essential forum for navigating the dramatic economic and political changes defining the twenty-first century by informing and galvanizing its uniquely influential network of global leaders. The Atlantic Council—through the papers it publishes, the ideas it generates, the future leaders it develops, and the communities it builds—shapes policy choices and strategies to create a more free, secure, and prosperous world" Atlantic Council Our Mission). These reflect the way that the last 4 years have fundamentally transformed the way in will move forward. That forward movement necessarily requires the creation of new structures global leadership with the United States at the core.  This is neither good nor bad--it is, however, necessary if the United States is to remain true to some version of its fundamental guiding vision.

One sees an early and quite remarkable example of this movement toward the reconstitution and reorientation of a disciplining orthodoxy among the leadership vanguard of the United States, at least as expressed in its policy toward China, in a recently release document, The Longer Telegram: Toward a New American China Strategy (Atlantic Council 2021). The document is long and complex.  It is remarkable for attempting to develop a new trajectory for relations between the two great centers of imperial power (each self consciously so--and both in their own minds for the best and most positive all reasons). To those ends it attempts a transformation in the form of a fusion--taking the best of what survived  from the pre-2016 American vision of a multilateral global order under its benign leadership (were the US authority was sourced in its own conceit as representing the world within its own borders) and fusing it with and into the cautions and approaches and notions of strategic competition that sparked tremendous heat between 2016-2020.   

I do not comment here on the substance of the The Longer Telegram: Toward a New American China Strategy. There is much food for thought there much of which will eventually exert a tremendous influence in the reshaping of the culture-governance architecture of this Republic and its relation both to its guiding leadership cores and to the masses who must be cultivated in the appreciation of emerging ways of seeing and understanding the world around them (expressed most directly in their voting management). Reading the document will pay great dividends, especially as its shadows emerge within Biden Administration policy.

Except for this, which may also be taken as a challenge exposing what may e a core weakness of Reports constructed in this way:  

(1) The infatuation with leaders and cults of personality ought itself to be an object of strategy, for projections outward to China and inward within  American politics. With some notable exceptions, the willingness of the report to in significant respect ground its analysis on the reality of the effectiveness of cults of personality around the current Chinese leader may produce a distortion of analysis that leads to miscalculation.  That miscalculation may be grounded both in the underestimation of the extent to which Chinese elites share (and thus use) the core leader to advance institutionalized group aims (whatever the bickering on the margins) and the overestimation of the marginal value of nationalism and national pride within China.

(2) America's greatest strength has been its strategic narrative--projecting its internal vision outward--responses to threats abroad must start from repairing internal threats to that narrative. The US and its foreign policy has served the Republic best when the US is the (at least plausible) narrative  example; the Republic that works. The focus on Chinese strategies might well start with inward approaches projected outward; to focus on China requires the United States to focus first on itself; leading by example and from a position of strength (projected outward) is more likely to ensure a greater chance of success. The traditional flaw of American foreign policy analysis is to some extent reproduced here in the spirit and focus of the report.  It may be counter intuitive, but reports of this sort profit less on what they tend to center--what can be changed in Chinese behavior.  If the period 2016-2020 teaches those who lived through it anything, if a key analysis of China teaches anything especially since 1998, it might be that the best approach to engagement with a foreign challenge is to analyze it through a national prism.  That is, American policy toward China might be more profitably centered on what the United States can instrumentally change or accomplish in itself rather than on how it can manage what it has to induce change in others.  Ironically this is the lesson that China learned well between 1998 and 2012 and the Belt and Road Initiative is an example.  This is a strategy, or at least a strategic narrative, that the US has used in the past.    The Atlantic Council boasts (The Longer Telegram, "Key Points") that 

"The foremost goal of US strategy should be to cause China’s ruling elites to conclude that it is in China’s best interests to continue operating within the US-led liberal international order rather than building a rival order, and that it is in the Chinese Communist Party’s best interests to not attempt to expand China’s borders or export its political model beyond China’s shores."

It might better have boasted that the foremost goal of US strategy should be to cause the ruling elites of the United States (themselves included) to conclude  that it i in the best interest of the United States to better build and maintain a currently relevant US led international architecture grounded in values and actions that both reflect and are practiced within the leading state itself. It is the power of the normative values, of the fairness of the structures, and of the resolve of the US led architecture, more than anything else, that will convince the Chinese leadership core and its vanguard that the effort to build a rival international architecture--to put in place its own normative imperial order--is not in its interest.  It is likely, though that the time for that has passed, and what one can really expect from such measures s the preservation and expansion of the US led system, based on the fairness of its practice and the value of its vision when measured against the reality of rival visions. It is to that very hard task that US elites ought to be devoting far more of their time. 

Having said this, it is worth underlining that there is much detail to commend in the The Longer Telegram: Toward a New American China Strategy. At a minimum it provides a useful space within which the ruling vanguard can reconstitute itself as an effective driving force, and for the best of reasons. Beyond the reconstitution of elite solidarity, of the development of a coherent strategy that is fairly clear eyed and focused on interest and ideology, the effort builds nicely on both the American post-1945 tradition of building a more inclusive and markets driven collective system (which whatever its flaws does create a substantial space for private choice for those who find that a positive value) and the recognition that the idealized form of that post-1945 vision might not have survived  the events of 2001 - 2008 intact. 

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