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Malcolm Riddell

Founder of CHINADebate

The 'Longer Telegram' & Its Discontents
The 'Longer Telegram' & Its Discontents
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February 7, 2021

In today’s issue:

1. Biden Lays Out His China Policy

  • 'Remarks by President Biden on America's Place in the World
  • 'Brookings experts analyze President Biden’s first foreign policy speech: Focus China'

2. The 'Longer Telegram' & Its Discontents

  • ' "Longer Telegram" Sets Off Fierce Global Debate'
  • ' "Longer Telegram" | To Counter China’s Rise, the U.S. Should Focus on Xi'
  • 'Why the ‘Longer Telegram’ Won’t Solve the China Challenge'

3. Calling Mr. Kennan

  • 'In Search of Today’s George Kennan'

4. A Look Back to 1947 & 'X'

  • 'The Sources of Soviet Conduct' by X

‘A proliferation of new policy ideas often accompanies a changing of the guard in Washington,’ writes Axios’ Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian.

  • ‘But this time around, growing concern over China's rise has driven debate into overdrive, as numerous stakeholders present competing visions for a U.S. response.’
  • ‘Numerous analysts are seizing this moment to showcase their ideas for containing China's authoritarianism and rejuvenating democracy, in the hope that their proposals might influence the Biden administration's future direction.’

‘Some U.S. strategists have made comparisons to the early days of the Cold War, when State Department official George Kennan published an anonymous essay based off a cable, later known as the "Long Telegram," that laid out what would become the U.S. strategy of containment toward the Soviet Union.’

  • ‘In November 2020, the Trump State Department's office of policy planning produced a 70-plus-page China strategy paper that openly drew inspiration from the Long Telegram but was not named after it.’
  • ‘Last week, the Atlantic Council published a lengthy strategy paper called "The Longer Telegram," attributed to an anonymous former U.S. senior official.’

With this in mind, let’s look at three points:

  1. Why everyone wants to be George Kennan
  2. Why the ‘Longer Telegram’ is no ‘Long Telegram’
  3. Why the ‘Longer Telegram’ or any other proposed China strategy won’t make any difference

1. Why everyone wants to be George Kennan

‘In 1947 X penned his history-changing “Sources of Soviet Conduct” in Foreign Affairs,’ wrote Edward Luce in the Financial Times in 2018.

  • ‘The piece, which crystallised America’s cold war containment strategy, was the making of George F Kennan’s life-long reputation as a master of geopolitics.’
  • ‘As the architect of a doctrine that won the cold war.’

In the past few years, there has been no shortage of folks trying to come up with that simple, ‘crystallized,’ Kennan-like doctrine from which all U.S. policy toward China could be organized.

  • No one has come close.

As Mr. Luce notes:

  • ‘America is desperate for the kind of strategic nous Kennan once personified.’
  • ‘A few years ago we may have looked to people such as Zbigniew Brzezinski or Henry Kissinger to offer some kind of answer.’
  • ‘The first is dead and the second places too high a value on his access to Trump, Putin, Xi Jinping and others, to risk plain talk.’

‘We need new minds.’

  • ‘All of us in Washington can point to dozens of smart foreign policy specialists in their own fields.’

‘But where is the grand strategist?’

  • Where indeed.

2. Why the ‘Longer Telegram’ is no 'Long Telegram'

Every so often I re-read Mr. Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’ (excerpts below in ‘4. A Look Back to 1947 & “X” ’).

  • Each time I am struck by the brilliance of the analysis and the powerful simplicity of the ‘containment’ doctrine.
  • And each time, like a mathematician trying to solve some centuries’ old conundrum, I try to come up with the same kind of solution for U.S. strategy for China. No luck.
  • But if I ever were to come up with an idea, I wouldn’t consider publishing with any mention of George Kennan.

So it takes a lot of chutzpah to call your tract the ‘Longer Telegram’ (vice the ‘Long Telegram’) and to sign it ‘Anonymous’ (vice ‘X’).

  • And I was expecting something pretty terrific.
  • But invoking the spirit of Vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen: ‘Anonymous, you’re no X.’

My take on what the big idea is is the same as Paul Heer’s. He wrote in The National Interest:

  • “All U.S. political and policy responses to China therefore should be focused through the principal lens of Xi himself”—is the author’s conclusion.’
  • ‘Washington should be seeking to escape from, and even try to effect the removal of, Xi’s leadership because that could restore U.S.-China relations to a potentially constructive path: “its pre-2013 path—i.e., the pre-Xi strategic status quo.” ’
  • ‘Washington should do this by directing its strategy “at the internal fault lines of domestic Chinese politics” because “the party is extremely divided on Xi’s leadership,” and particularly on his foreign policy assertiveness:’
  • ‘ “Xi’s critics contend that [his] ‘forcing of the pace’ has resulted in Beijing taking unnecessary risks by bringing about a fundamental change in U.S. strategy toward China much earlier than was either necessary or desirable.” ’

Mr. Heer continues:

  • ‘One of the author’s central premises is that “if leadership change were to occur, it would be more likely to move in the direction of a more moderate collective leadership” that would be easier for Washington to work with, and presumably less assertive and confrontational toward the United States.’
  • ‘ “If leadership change does not occur, then the objective is to maximize internal political pressures on Xi to moderate Chinese policy of his own volition or to roll back various of his international initiatives.” ’

A far cry from the elegance of ‘containment.’ And, as Mr. Heer argues, also:

  • ‘Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the “Longer Telegram's” emphasis on Xi.’

‘This is a profoundly misguided if not dangerous approach.’

  • ‘First, it almost certainly miscalculates (by exaggerating) the potential differences between Xi and any alternative leadership on the core issues in U.S.-China relations, or on the overall direction of Chinese foreign policy.’
  • ‘In addition, it would be a hazardous venture for Washington to attempt to exploit the internal fault lines of Chinese politics and play one faction or leader off against another.’
  • ‘This is precisely the kind of “intervention in China’s internal affairs” that fuels the visceral nationalism of Chinese leaders,’
  • ‘Such a venture almost certainly is more likely to be counterproductive than to yield the desired result of accommodation to U.S. goals.’

For me, though, despite some very good analysis, the Longer Telegram fails because it lacks the single organizing principle from which a comprehensive strategy could be developed and implemented.’

  • That Anonymous, along with so many others, didn’t succeed perhaps points to the complexity of the U.S. relationship with China within China itself.
  • In that case, we wait for our George Kennan in vain.
  • And Anonymous, if he cares about his/her reputation, will remain so.

Why the ‘Longer Telegram’ or any other proposed China strategy won’t make any difference

Whatever the merits or otherwise of the Longer Telegram, it has, as George Kempe, president of the Atlantic Council which published the essay, notes caused a stir:

  • 'The fierce global debate set off this week by a thought-provoking paper – “The Longer Telegram: Toward a New American China Strategy” – has underscored the urgency and difficulty of framing a durable and actionable U.S. approach to China as the country grows more authoritarian, more self-confident and more globally assertive.'
  • 'The 26,000-word paper, published simultaneously by the Atlantic Council and in shorter form by Politico Magazine, has served as a sort of Rorschach test for the expert community on China.'
  • 'The reactions have ranged between critics, who found the paper’s prescriptions too provocative, to proponents, who lauded its ground-breaking contributions.'

'Beijing took notice, not least because of the author’s apparent familiarity with Communist party politics and focus on President Xi Jinping.'

  • 'China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson accused the anonymous author of “dark motives and cowardliness” aimed at inciting “a new Cold War.” '

While I acknowledge that anything that engenders serious debate about how the U.S. should manage its relationship with China is a good thing, I also acknowledge that neither the Longer Telegram nor any other proposal will make a whit of difference in the Biden team’s approach.

  • As covered in our last issue, the Biden team is already working off the same playbook on China.

And this week, the Boss confirmed it in his first foreign policy address. Regarding China, President Biden said:

  • “And we’ll also take on directly the challenges posed by our prosperity, security, and democratic values by our most serious competitor, China.”  
  • “We’ll confront China’s economic abuses; counter its aggressive, coercive action; to push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance.”
  • “But we are ready to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so.  We will compete from a position of strength by building back better at home, working with our allies and partners, renewing our role in international institutions, and reclaiming our credibility and moral authority, much of which has been lost.”
  • “That’s why we’ve moved quickly to begin restoring American engagement internationally and earn back our leadership position, to catalyze global action on shared challenges.”

Maybe not George Kennan; but no doubt about the approach either.

CHINADebate, the publisher of the China Macro Reporter, aims to present different views on a given issue. Including an article here does not imply agreement with or endorsement of its contents.
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