But Pompeo appears to have a rosy and obsolete understanding of the current international situation. Observing that “we can’t face this challenge alone,” he contends that “the UN, NATO, the G7, the G20, our combined economic, diplomatic, and military power is surely enough to meet this challenge if directed properly.” But surely China’s veto power in the UN and its pivotal role in the G20 make it impossible for the combined power within those organizations to be directed against Beijing. Pompeo also states that “It’s true that unlike the Soviet Union, China is deeply integrated into the global economy. But Beijing is more dependent on us than we are on them.” The latter appears to be a core belief of the Trump administration, and indeed a cornerstone of its China strategy: the conviction that U.S.-China interdependence clearly favors Washington and gives it decisive power over Beijing’s behavior. But it is not clear what the empirical basis is for this calculation if there is one. No doubt, Beijing’s calculation of the relative leverage in the U.S.-China relationship is different; it might be more current and more accurate.
Pompeo insists that “the free world is still winning. People from all over the world still want to come to open societies to study, to work, to build a life for their families. They’re not desperate to settle in Chongqing.” No, but as the venerable American China scholar Ezra Vogel recently observed, the Trump administration’s own policies—especially those that restrict opportunities for young Chinese to study or work in the United States, and alienate those who already have—directly undermine both the vision Pompeo is presenting here and his core mission to “engage and empower the Chinese people.” In any event, he does not further specify what and where “the free world is still winning.” Finally, Pompeo declares that “Our approach isn’t destined to fail because America isn’t in decline.” And the United States “is perfectly positioned to lead” the mission of securing freedom against the threat of the CCP “because of our founding principles,” which have “made the United States a beacon of freedom for people around the world, including in China.” Under normal historical circumstances, this would certainly be the case. But it is increasingly and painfully apparent that we are beyond normal historical circumstances. The United States is in relative historical decline. This was already apparent in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008–09 before it was accelerated by the polarization and dysfunctionality of American politics since then and especially under the leadership of President Donald Trump—and now by the unfolding impact of the inadequate U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic. It cannot now be said that America is “perfectly positioned to lead” the world, or that it is setting an example of domestic governance or international credibility that other countries will be eager to follow. This seriously handicaps Washington’s capacity to lead a crusade to change China.
On balance, Pompeo is correct when he says that “we cannot treat this incarnation of China as a normal country” and that “free nations have work to do to defend freedom.” He is also right when he says China represents a “complex new challenge we’ve never faced before.” But he is wrong when he denounces engagement as a failure because China is not yet everything we want it to be. His approach to China risks confirming Beijing’s suspicions about U.S. subversion, while simultaneously alienating the very Chinese people that he aspires to “engage and empower.” And he overestimates both Washington’s leverage to impose its will on China and the potential for it to recruit other countries into supporting such a confrontational strategy.
The United States can and should take a leading role in responding to the China challenge. But that response will require a more accurate and realistic—and less ideological—assessment of the current international situation. It will also require as much attention to the opportunities for U.S.-China cooperation as to the parameters of competition. Most importantly, Americans will need to come together and forge a domestic consensus on how best to deal with and compete with China, and to mobilize the resources and other requirements of doing so.
Paul Heer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for the National Interest and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia from 2007 to 2015. He is the author of Mr. X and the Pacific: George F. Kennan and American Policy in East Asia (Cornell University Press, 2018).