Last month there was a minor hullabaloo about the latest entry in the “Kennan Sweepstakes,” a long document published by the Atlantic Council titled “The Longer Telegram.”1
Anonymous, “The Longer Telegram: Toward a New American China Strategy,” Atlantic Council report (28 January 2021).
I read it three times.
I did not like it.
This week Foreign Policy gave me some column space to explain why. I will note here that I did not choose the title they gave my column and am not especially pleased with its vulgarity. But I stand by everything beneath it.
Here is how I introduce the problem:
When George Kennan wrote his famous “Long Telegram” in 1949 to warn the United States about the nature of Soviet ambition, he did not appreciate the true threat the U.S. foreign-policy community would face: a future where every few years a scholar, pundit, or government official decides that they too must write a long missive that will redefine American grand strategy for the decades to come.
The latest entry in this timeworn genre was published on Jan. 28 by the Atlantic Council. The document’s anonymous author (described by the Atlantic Council as a former senior government official, presumably but not certainly American) has cleverly titled their report the “The Longer Telegram.” “Longer” is an apt adjective: the full report is 85 pages long. Unfortunately, the so-called telegram’s contents are not as clever as its title. It fundamentally misunderstands the nature of both the enemy it seeks to deflect and the democratic institutions it is purportedly designed to protect.2
Tanner Greer, “Oh God, Not Another Long Telegram,” Foreign Policy (4 March 2021)
That last sentence lays out the two prongs of my critique. The first deals with the document’s focus on Xi Jinping as the source of China’s current ills. Our would-be-Kennan argues that rapprochement with an aggressive China is not possible, but neither is containment or any attempt to crack the stability of the PRC government or the power of the Chinese Communist Party. Instead we must launch a pressure campaign that will convince the Chinese to ditch Xi Jinping and return to the merry “hide and bide” behavior of the 1990s.
This is silly:
Will a grand strategy designed to unseat or outlast Xi accomplish what the anonymous author hopes it will? Only if Xi is the actual source of Beijing’s dangerous behavior. But is there is no compelling reason to believe this is actually the case. As the expert Rush Doshi has shown, almost all of the foreign-policy initiatives thought of as characteristic of the Xi era actually began under the presidency of Hu Jintao. The period from 2008 to 2009 was a key turning point: The 2008 Olympics were China’s coming-out party to the world, a party that coincided with the immolation of one Western economy after another in the Great Recession. After the events of those two years, no Chinese leader was willing to accept a second-place role in a Western-built order. Beijing would move toward a stronger, more self-confident strategic course. Xi did not create this assertive diplomatic and economic strategy so much as rebrand it as a central plank in his own personality cult.
China’s return to stricter authoritarian controls also predates Xi’s presidency. The unrest that rocked Tibet in 2008 and the Urumqi riots of 2009 convinced many in the CCP that a more coercive and less accommodationist approach toward China’s minorities was needed. The 2011 Wenzhou bullet train crash demonstrated to the party leadership that they had lost control over the Chinese internet; the contemporaneous Arab Spring reminded them of the potential consequences of their lost control. The Charter 08 dissident manifesto showed party leaders that they were losing important parts of the intelligentsia to Western ideas about rule of law, democracy, and universal human rights, and it convinced them that these ideas (and those who proposed them) posed a threat of “Westernizing and dividing China.”
The result of all of this was a firm decision to crack down and regain control over Chinese society—one that came to fruition under Xi, but where key decisions predated him… even in those decades—which “The Longer Telegram” sees as the model for proper Chinese behavior—Chinese leaders expressed incredible discontent with the existing liberal world order, perceived this order as an existential threat to their continued rule, and proclaimed that it was China’s eventual destiny to forge a political model superior to liberal capitalism. Xi did not force these ideas onto an unwilling CCP. Rather, the party willingly gave Xi awesome power so that he could realize these ideas.3
Those three paragraphs are chock full of links in the original piece, so if you are interested in my sourcing on this stuff, visit Foreign Policy‘s website.
While I did not mention it in the column, pieces like the “Longer Telegram” are a reminder of the generational split that divides “China hands.” Those who have been around the block a few times tend to view the aughts as a golden age in U.S.-China relations, the time when China was properly submissive and Chinese officials were eager to learn from the West, when the fruits of the work diplomats and bureaucrats plowed into the relationship a decade before were bearing fruit, and when every ex-official had a promising retirement career at a China-related investment firm or strategic consultancy waiting for them. If your career began in the late ’80s or early ’90s (much less the ’70s) this is an entirely understandable viewpoint. Those of us whose China experience is tilted towards the 2010s tend to be far more cynical about that era. We did not benefit from it personally, of course, and cannot help but seeing it through the lens of present realities: not as the zenith of Sino-American camaraderie, but as the period in which the PRC gained the strength and wealth that powers its current bid for supremacy.
The other, and in my mind more serious, error found in the “Longer Telegram” is its refusal to deal seriously with the limited means available to American strategists. This is true in its discussion of our allies:
The problems posed by Taiwan’s defense point to the second great flaw in “The Longer Telegram”: a failure to come to terms with the limitations facing American political leaders. The author argues—in an endnote!—that America must “develop … a plan that provides Taiwan with sufficient military capacity to deter a PRC attack,” without discussing the obstacles that stand in the way of doing so. These include a morale problem in the Taiwanese armed forces, a crisis in Taiwanese manpower, a mismanagement of the Taiwanese conscription and reservist systems, crushing failures in logistics, basic gaps in training, a military brass and domestic industrial complex overly attached to shiny toys, poor civil-military relations, and a bitterly partisan political class that has trouble developing or exercising control over military strategy.
Deterring a Chinese attack on Taiwan requires thinking through why the Taiwanese themselves have failed to make many of the reforms necessary for their own long-term survival. It requires U.S. leaders to figure out what—if anything—American statecraft can do to change not only the calculations made in Beijing but also those made in Taipei. This point extends past Taiwan. “The Longer Telegram” urges its strategy to be “implemented nationally, bilaterally, regionally, multilaterally, and globally,” describing treaty allies as “no longer optional but crucial” to American success. Very little is said about how the United States will convince these crucial nations to play their assigned part.4
But it is even more true when talking about ourselves:
A recognition of America’s limitations is even more critical on the domestic front. In light of the last decade of U.S. politics, long passages of “The Longer Telegram” read as positively delusional. Our would-be Kennan would have the United States increase “public investment in STEM education, universities, and basic scientific research”; increase spending on “economic infrastructure”; reduce the national debt “without creating an inflation crisis”; build “a new political consensus on the future nature and scale of immigration”; open the American economy to free trade with the democratic world; turn “the US, Canadian, and Mexican economies into a single integrated North American economic entity”; and resolve or at least reduce “the severe divisions now endemic in [America’s] political system, institutions, and culture.”
…the report informs us, “each element of the above list needs to be viewed as a matter of national security rather than a normal part of the internal political divide.” As newly minted national security concerns, political leadership over immigration, trade, public investment, taxation, debt, and cultural division must be stripped from Congress and instead “driven from the White House.”
This is an extraordinary call to demolish the American constitutional structure for the sake of competition with China—and one that is not even justified in the memo itself. Nowhere in the 85 pages of “The Longer Telegram” is there an explanation for why U.S. Trade Representative-designate Katherine Tai or Sen. Elizabeth Warren should prioritize China policy over the wages of American workers, or why Sen. Tom Cotton should care more about Chinese power than immigration levels. “The Longer Telegram” assumes that competition with a country on the other side of the Pacific Ocean should matter more than the battles over culture, race, rights, and political economy that now dominate American politics…
This is as good of evidence as any that professionals in “the Blob” have grown estranged from the nation they serve. The American people do not flourish for the sake of “maintaining US global conventional military dominance over any other adversary.” The United States should seek military dominance only in as much as it helps the American people flourish. Any national security professional who forgets this—regardless of their previous rank or experience—does not deserve to be given a serious place in the national debate.
…American theorists often describe strategy as the coordination of ways, ends, and means. A useful counter-China strategy would begin with a realistic assessment of the means actually at U.S. strategists’ disposal. It would admit to the restraints strategists in Washington face. Its recommendations would not be for some parallel United States whose people have put aside every divide in their devotion to the cause of hegemony, but for the messy and limited country that actually exists. A strategy that cannot be implemented by America’s vehemently partisan, easily distracted political system is no real strategy at all.5
In the piece I argue that this new Telegram “is not a strategy. It is a wish list.” The same could be said for most entries in this genre. But why so much of this strategy-by-wish-listing? The desire to live up to George Kennan is surely a part of this story. But that Kennan is a myth. In reality, George Kennan deplored how his ideas were implemented and found himself at odds with almost the entire Washington foreign policy establishment for most of the Cold War. Which makes sense, really: with a few extraordinary exceptions (exceptions, notably, that deal entirely with war planning), “grand strategy” is a bottom-up, incremental process. They are the product of tit-for-tat interactions with rivals and adversaries, the competing demands of electoral politics and bureaucratic power struggles, and gradual shifts in the cultural and ideological frames which decision makers use to understand themselves, the countries they lead, and the wider world they seek to shape.
In other words: real world grand strategies are not planned. They emerge.
Few wonks like hearing this. The closest thing 21st century America has to imperial Spain’s Don Quixote is the Washington wonk. The wonk dreams of saving America with a finely tuned idea, plan, or policy platform taken straight from realm of thought, unsullied by the compromises and passions of the world of action. What medieval knights were to Don Quixote, George Kennan is to the security wonk. Both turn with longing to a gilded past where great men like themselves dared great deeds. In both cases, their chosen models were more romance than reality.
I fear this is all somewhat inevitable. As long as we need geopolitical nerds, we will have wish-lists masquerading as strategy. It is an inevitable byproduct of geopolitical nerdery. The best we can do is point out when the wonks have overstepped their bounds. A program that seeks to rejigger America’s culture, economy, and political system for the sake of out-competing the Chinese? That is overstepping bounds. American prosperity is an ends, not a means, no matter how many thinkers in the “nat sec” world may forget it.