How a Lazy Historical Analogy Derailed Washington’s China Strategy
In a series of speeches this summer, senior officials in the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump have cast the United States and China as antagonists in a new Cold War. Speaking to the Arizona Commerce Authority in June, U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien compared Chinese President Xi Jinping directly to the Soviet dictator in power when the actual Cold War began: “Let us be clear, the Chinese Communist Party is a Marxist-Leninist organization. The Party General Secretary Xi Jinping sees himself as Josef Stalin’s successor.”
A month later in California, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo gave a speech about Xi that President Harry Truman could have delivered about Stalin. “General Secretary Xi Jinping is a true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology,” he said, adding that Xi’s ideology “informs his decades-long desire for global hegemony of Chinese communism.” Echoing American policymakers at the beginning of the Cold War, Pompeo framed the fight with Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as one in which only one side ultimately could win: “If the free world doesn’t change . . . communist China will surely change us.” He later repeated his warning on Twitter, writing, “China is working to take down freedom all across the world.”
In fact, Truman did give a similar speech to Congress on March 12, 1947, establishing what became known as the Truman Doctrine. Warning about the communist threat, Truman declared:
At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one. One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression. The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio; fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms. I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.
Three years later, in April 1950, Truman approved a secret policy paper known as NSC-68, which laid out his strategy for containing communism around the world. Passages from the document sound eerily like Pompeo’s and O’Brien’s speeches:
The Soviet Union, unlike previous aspirants to hegemony, is animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, and seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world. Conflict has, therefore, become endemic and is waged, on the part of the Soviet Union, by violent or non-violent methods in accordance with the dictates of expediency . . . The issues that face us are momentous, involving the fulfillment or destruction not only of this Republic but of civilization itself.