90 Miles From Tyranny : Consider the Possibility That Trump Is Right About China

Friday, April 10, 2020

Consider the Possibility That Trump Is Right About China






Critics are letting their disdain for the president blind them to geopolitical realities.


When a new coronavirus emerged in China and began spreading around the world, including in the United States, President Donald Trump’s many critics in the American foreign-policy establishment were quick to identify him as part of the problem. Trump had campaigned on an “America first” foreign policy, which after his victory was enshrined in the official National Security Strategy that his administration published in 2017. At the time, I served in the administration and orchestrated the writing of that document. In the years since, Trump has been criticized for supposedly overturning the post–World War II order and rejecting the role the United States has long played in the world. Amid a global pandemic, he’s being accused—on this site and elsewhere—of alienating allies, undercutting multinational cooperation, and causing America to fight the coronavirus alone.

And yet even as the current emergency has proved him right in fundamental ways—about China specifically and foreign policy more generally—many respectable people in the United States are letting their disdain for the president blind them to what is really going on in the world. Far from discrediting Trump’s point of view, the COVID-19 crisis reveals what his strategy asserted: that the world is a competitive arena in which great power rivals like China seek advantage, that the state remains the irreplaceable agent of international power and effective action, that international institutions have limited capacity to transform the behavior and preferences of states.

China, America’s most powerful rival, has played a particularly harmful role in the current crisis, which began on its soil. Initially, that country’s lack of transparency prevented prompt action that might have contained the virus. In Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, Chinese officials initially punished citizens for “spreading rumors” about the disease. The lab in Shanghai that first published the genome of the virus on open platforms was shut down the next day for “rectification,” as the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported in February. Apparently at the behest of officials at the Wuhan health commission, news reports indicate, visiting teams of experts from elsewhere in China were prevented from speaking freely to doctors in the infectious-disease wards. Some experts had suspected human-to-human transmission, but their inquiries were rebuffed. “They didn’t tell us the truth,” one team member said of the local authorities, “and from what we now know of the real situation then, they were lying” to us.

Now China’s propagandists are competing to create a narrative that obscures the origins of the crisis and that blames the United States for the virus. This irresponsible behavior and lack of transparency revealed what Trump’s National Security Strategy had identified early on: that “contrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of others.” Instead of becoming a “responsible stakeholder”—a term George W. Bush’s administration used to describe the role it hoped Beijing would play following China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001—the Chinese Communist Party used the advantages of WTO membership to advance a political and economic system at odds with America’s free and open society. Previous National Security Strategy documents had tiptoed around China’s adversarial conduct, as if calling out that country as a competitor—as the 2017 document unequivocally did—was somehow impolite.

But at some point, an American administration needed to shift the conversation away from hopes for an imagined future China to the realities of the Communist Party’s conduct—which is hardly a secret. For the decade and a half prior to 2017, Republican and Democratic leaders publicly worried about China’s unwillingness to play by the rules, but were reluctant to deal head on with China’s authoritarian government and statist...

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