Washington is Suffering from Policy Capture, Not Groupthink, on China

Washington is Suffering from Policy Capture, Not Groupthink, on China

Misdiagnosing the contemporary China debate as groupthink rather than policy capture matters because it leads to inappropriate solutions.


The latest common sense on China is that Washington is in the throes of groupthink—a phenomenon when a group ignores opposing views and contradictory evidence, pressing on to a course of action despite ideological blinders. Supporters and critics of America’s China policy agree groupthink is leading to poor strategy, whether by under or overestimating the China challenge. As renowned journalist Fareed Zakaria put it, “China is a serious strategic competitor, the most significant great-power challenger the United States has faced in many decades. That is all the more reason for Washington to shape a rational and considered foreign policy toward it.” Yet across the Pacific, with Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power, some observers worry Beijing might be suffering from groupthink of its own. The Chinese, these observers fear, have converged on the view that Washington is out to halt China’s rise while it still can. If both sides persist in holding these views, a dangerous spiral downward in relations can likely lead to conflict.

However, not all of Washington is suffering from groupthink on the China issue. Irving Janis’ original description of the term fits poorly with the current situation, as it applies to small-group decisionmaking settings—not sprawling marketplaces of ideas like Washington DC foreign policy debates. There is plenty of robust discussions and different thinking on China in American national security circles. The question, then, is why do more hawkish voices dominate and how can they be balanced out?


The China Paradigm Shift

Groupthink comes about as a result of needing to maintain group coherence. As anyone who has ever been in a sufficiently large meeting knows, groupthink occurs when no one opposes the direction of a discussion or agreement because doing so seems worse than any sub-optimal decision the meeting might reach—including not reaching any agreement at all.

Yet in practice, maintaining the U.S. foreign policy community’s coherence is the opposite of what America’s security experts hope to achieve as they participate in a lively ongoing debate on U.S.-China policy.

Reverting complex processes to psychological diagnoses like groupthink is commonplace—think of cognitive bias or negative stereotyping. Though these labels have a scientific ring, they also serve to shift attention away from often politically-charged social realities towards a supposedly de-personalized collective mindset. Blaming mere groupthink, in other words, obscures the messier processes behind the paradigmatic change in how Washington views Beijing since 2016, which marked the end of the “engagement” era.

This shift in predominant views of China—from potential partner to rival, and increasingly toward the de facto enemy—is better described as an exercise in “policy capture” by anti-engagers. Those arguing for a reinvigoration of engagement and the careful management of America’s competition with China are, at most, politely tolerated, and are certainly not in positions of authority. The individuals who are in power have concluded Washington and Beijing are locked in a decades-long ideological conflict.

To be fair, it was inevitable that Washington’s approach to China would move away from the rose-tinted views encapsulated in the pro-engagement approach. A resurgent China was never likely to accept U.S. predominance in East Asia, was bound to crack down on freedoms in Hong Kong, amplify threats toward Taiwan, and convert its massive economic gains into military might. Concern with developments in China was gaining strength during Barack Obama’s second term. Yet it was with the Trump administration that engagement critics’ ideas were translated into policy—from the trade war to the China Initiative, which was aimed at reshaping bureaucratic priorities across the government. Far from pursuing a reversal, the Biden administration instead stayed the course and drew on expertise in Washington with views very similar to those who had worked for Trump.

America’s current China policy is, in effect, a number of bureaucratic processes set in motion by the Trump national security team and continued by the succeeding administration. At the executive level, the National Security Council has modified America’s strategy, outlining a new competitive approach in May 2020 which was echoed in last year’s National Security Strategy. Defense Department planning for an era of great power competition predates Trump, and China is now firmly America’s “pacing challenge”—driving procurement and force posture decisionmaking. With their victory in last year’s midterm elections, House Republicans have firmly targeted pushing a more robust government approach toward China.

Re-Centering the China Debate

Yet the notion that this shift toward a more hawkish approach constitutes bipartisan groupthink in Washington foreign policymaking ignores those China experts—think tankers, former diplomats, and business people—who have raised concerns about this new direction. Pro-business voices, like former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, have questioned the logic of decoupling. Misdiagnosing the contemporary China debate as groupthink rather than policy capture matters because it leads to inappropriate solutions. Moreover, experts have voiced concern over whether the demise of engagement has left the United States with a dangerous lack of the bilateral connections with China needed for crisis management.

The remedy to groupthink beyond foreign policy is “thinking outside the box.” Companies use specifically-designated “devil’s advocates” in meetings. The U.S. military has a well-established tradition of “red teaming”—tasking specific groups with challenging assumptions and evidence to combat groupthink. But applying this is difficult in Washington—whereas groupthink can come about unintentionally, policy capture is very much intentional. Asking the same individuals who are purposely pushing for a harder line on China outside-of-the-box thinking will not necessarily lead to a change.

Not all of America’s foreign policy elite is of the same mind on China—not just on the facts of the CCP’s actions and intentions but what Washington should do in response, what America’s interests are, and what policies best serve it. Many fear that competition has too easily slipped into confrontation, and that a return toward a managed form of great power competition would be wise. The administration should listen to other voices pushed aside, since these voices present different understandings of America’s interests, which remain firmly against conflict.

David M. McCourt is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Davis. He is working on a book tentatively titled The End of Engagement: America’s China and Russia Watchers and U.S. Strategy Since the Cold War.

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