How America’s Foreign Policy Establishment Got China Wrong
It would be a mistake to force the current U.S.-Sino relationship into a neat, Cold War straitjacket.
That sentiment found its ultimate form in a crucial State Department White Paper which sought to challenge criticism of Washington’s China policy, and which was released in August 1949 as the People’s Liberation Army stood on the cusp of defeating the Chinese Nationalist forces. That paper likewise judged that the Chinese people had been duped by Mao’s Communists into being mere puppets of the Kremlin. As Secretary of State Dean Acheson told President Harry Truman, the Communist leaders had “forsworn their Chinese heritage and publicly announced their subservience to a foreign power.” What he was saying was that Chinese communism was not a genuinely Chinese movement. These Chinese puppets of Russia had tricked the Chinese people. Nationalism and communism in this view were incompatible. It was a tragic misreading of the politics on the ground, one repeated time and again during America’s Cold War in Asia.
Ultimately, Acheson believed, “the profound civilization and the democratic individualism of China will reassert themselves and she will throw off the foreign yoke.” Moreover, he added that the United States should “encourage all developments in China which now and in the future work towards this end.” And of course, that “end” was to be the Chinese acceptance of democracy and liberty, America’s national myth.
Far from being some kind of superficial or “gauzy” gloss, the ideals driving this policy had real effects. For a quarter of a century after the coming to power of the Communists in China, America paid a high economic price for being true to what its national ideals dictated. Washington refused to recognize the regime, treating the People’s Republic as a pariah nation and banning Americans from any contact or connection with the country, including economic ties such as trade and investment. But many of its allies, including Australia, would not agree to such extreme self-denying measures and continued to trade profitably with Beijing.
THIS INABILITY to face up to the costs of sticking by these ideals is in some ways understandable given the American experience in the wake of the Second World War. At that time, the United States’ economic, military and cultural prowess reinforced its sense of ideological and therefore moral superiority. America had taken on a recognized and indeed necessary role of world leadership: it proclaimed itself to be the hope of all peoples in a troubled world. And it is of course the case that, Vietnam and the invasion of Iraq aside, the U.S.-led international order has ushered in a period of relative peace and prosperity over the past seventy years.
Identifying and acknowledging moments where the United States has suffered strategic failure, however, is a more difficult proposition. Indeed, because of the innate power of the American national myth as an ideological force shaping U.S. foreign policy, its failures can only be ever approached from something of an oblique angle.
Thus, if only the Chinese Nationalists had not disregarded the advice of George Marshall and embarked on such an ambitious military campaign, or if only American aid had been better managed by Chiang’s forces, China might not have been “lost.” In South Vietnam, America might very well have triumphed if only the right local leader could have been found to install the kind of democracy the Americans envisaged taking root there; or if only the generals had been given sufficient numbers of troops and not been thwarted by meek presidents back in Washington. Likewise, in Iraq, the United States may well have been able to establish a flourishing democratic haven in Baghdad if only the planning for the post-conflict phase had been more thorough.
China’s rise, then, presents this American national mythology with an altogether different challenge. What does it mean for the deeply ingrained habits and culture of American primacy? It is hard to see a U.S. president or national security adviser developing a strategy to accommodate Chinese power. In part, this is because it will be very difficult for Americans to relinquish their sense of having been bequeathed a special providence in world affairs. They simply cannot conceive of themselves as a “normal nation.”
Witness, for example, the call to arms from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who in a recent address to the U.S. diplomatic corps pledged to restore his department’s “swagger,” a stance he said came from both confidence in “America’s essential rightness” and an “aggressiveness born of the righteous knowledge that our cause is just, special and built upon America’s core principles.” Again, it is worth stressing that this is no rhetorical fanfare. Pompeo means what he says. Speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in late July, he referred to growing moves in allied countries to prevent interference in their internal affairs by the Chinese government. Extolling the moves that the United States has taken in this regard via the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act, Pompeo remarked that “we are beginning to strike that comprehensive response versus China that I think will ultimately do what has historically happened—allow America to prevail.”
And yet middle America’s rejection of the foreign policy establishment at the last presidential election was in part due to feelings of betrayal at being sold down the proverbial policy river over preceding decades by precisely the kinds of ambitious idealism that Pompeo is invoking. Indeed, many Americans who themselves formed the military backbone of the Cold War struggle have withdrawn their consent for this kind of foreign policy. And they have expressed a certain frustration with the grand promises of the Washington elites: that they were witnessing the “end of history” with the collapse of communism in eastern Europe; that China would eventually become democratic; or that Afghanistan and Iraq would become beacons of Jeffersonian liberty in the Middle East.
Writing elsewhere, Ely Ratner observes that despite the contest between the United States and China for the “heart and soul” of this century, “Washington and the American people have yet to grapple with this reality in any meaningful way.” A critical but to date sadly neglected part of that process must surely involve taking a good, hard look at how the myths of American nationalism have influenced the course of U.S.-China policy since 1949.
James Curran is professor of modern history at Sydney University and non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute. He is the author, most recently, of Fighting with America: Why Saying ‘No’ to America Wouldn’t Rupture the Alliance (Penguin, 2016) and Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon at War (Melbourne University Press, 2015).