Apocalyptic visions have seeped into American grand strategy about China. In disguise and in subtle nods, many strategists now think of China as a well-ordered efficient power that will soon engulf the world and spread its corrupt, atheistic authoritarianism and bankrupt America.
The apocalypse is not necessarily the end of times, however. The Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation are apocalyptic works because they show a revealing of truth—they just happen to be a revelation of things to come, and show the end of times. Their baroque imagery of gigantic empires illustrated as beasts, fiery destruction, and divine justice makes for captivating reading, but they also have a rhetorical style that’s been adopted for contemporary discussions.
This ‘revealing’ aspect of the apocalypse can be seen in the grand strategists of the Trump’s administration: Mike Pompeo, Peter Navarro, Michael Flynn, Robert Lighthizer, Mike Pence, John Bolton, Michael Anton, Steve Miller and Steve Bannon. Their political thinking throughout their times in office have tried to uncover some truth that Americans aren’t yet facing, and that they have the answers for it. For them, the U.S.-led liberal order is ideologically blind to geopolitical competition. As system of governing the world order, they find the international liberalism has reduced America’s exercise of military and economic force. Their great revelation is that China and economic globalization are self-inflicted wounds, built up by the U.S. over decades.
Mike Pompeo best exemplifies this thinking in his visualization that China has world-domination ambitions. Pompeo declared in a speech at the Claremont Institute in 2019 that the U.S., before Trump, had drifted away from the Founders’ wisdom about foreign policy restraint and realism in the hope of creating a democratic Russia and China. Pompeo’s story is that the U.S. had become prideful and wildly optimistic about how it could shape the world in its image, and worse, it thought that what was good for the world was good for the U.S. Pompeo makes Trump out as a kind of messenger from the wilderness who demanded that the U.S. confront China. He’s unafraid to put other nations (like the U.K.) “on notice” if they sell “key infrastructure and technology companies to China.”
More recently, Pompeo’s speech in December 2020 at Georgia Tech University envisions China as brazenly coercive in its false imprisonment of Georgia Tech’s own Professor Wang, its stealing of American technology, and its repressive tactics on any dissenters from the Chinese Communist Party. China’s Confucius Institutes at U.S. universities were insidiously watching America. He even blends the foreign and the domestic when he claims that the U.S. “can’t let the CCP weaponize political correctness against American liberties.”
This has apocalyptic dimensions. For Pompeo, prior to Trump, the U.S. in the liberal order was breaking the fundamental rule that world politics was inherently competitive and was misinterpreting the purpose of the U.S. government. It was living on a misguided lie. He cites Madison: “[Security] is an avowed and essential object of the American Union.” That is, homeland security to keep the distinctive American way of life is the first and foremost duty of the government, not spreading it across the world.
Along a similar line, Mike Pence in his 2018 Hudson Institute speech appealed to a Christian universalist tradition: “When American missionaries brought the good news to China’s shores, they were moved by the rich culture of an ancient and vibrant people. And not only did they spread their faith, but those same missionaries founded some of China’s first and finest universities.” But for Pence, when Communism took over, it broke any path to world harmony through Christian unity. He shows that China represses its Christian, Buddhist and Muslim populations through burning sacred texts, demolishing religious buildings, and mass imprisonment. China’s dark global ambitions are clear to see: “As history attests though, a country that oppresses its own people rarely stops there. And Beijing also aims to extend its reach across the wider world.” Like Pompeo, Pence argues that Trump said the unsayable and ripped up the old playbook of economic liberalization and made the U.S. recognize what China really is.
Apocalyptic literature tends to lay out a chronological sequence of empires and events, showing how disasters and catastrophes engulf the world. The pattern of one empire following another is acutely familiar to Pompeo and Pence in a theological sense. But the wider secular foreign policy establishment is well versed in imperial successions. The U.S. took over from Britain post-1945, just as Britain did from France in the early 19th century. Now, China comes after the U.S. in the 21st century. Crumbling empires provide an apocalyptic backdrop especially when combined with predictions about the precise year that China overtakes the U.S. and becomes the world’s largest economy. It could be 2024 or 2028 or 2035. This technical economic data is a clock for the End Times.
Biden’s liberal globalist staff—Blinken, Sullivan, McDonough, Rice, Harris, Kerry, Haines, Yellen—speak in different tones, but they adopt a similar pattern of understanding China as a global threat, and the U.S. as a benevolent state. They too seek to reveal China, and even free trade, as a lie that hurts America.
These Democratic officials’ political histories generally include an optimism in the 1990s about making China economically interdependent on the broader world to limit its military and territorial ambitions. The EU and China’s investment agreement shows longstanding allies aren’t sticking with the U.S. strategy as a given norm anymore. What’s the Democratic Party’s strategy on China now?
They’ve drawn on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legacy to justify a Green New Deal, as well as stimulus bills, infrastructure spending projects, and correcting the oligarchical tendencies in the U.S. economy. His legacy is also a legitimate source to understand the world order. He managed to combine protecting liberty with geopolitical and destructive visions to prepare Americans for the coming war against European and Asian totalitarianism. He revealed that the U.S. could find itself surrounded by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. In a speech to Congress in 1939, after the Munich Agreement, he said:
A war which threatened to envelop the world in flames has been averted, but it has become increasingly clear that peace is not assured. All about us rage undeclared wars, military and economic. All about us grow more deadly armaments-military and economic. All about us are threats of new aggression, military and economic. Storms from abroad directly challenge three institutions indispensable to Americans, now as always. The first is religion. It is the source of the other two: democracy and international good faith.
There’s an ideological current in Biden’s braintrust that specifically ties domestic concerns about income distribution with traditional foreign policy concerns like international trade and China. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Advisor, has begun to think in terms of securing middle-class wealth as a national security issue. His take echoes Biden’s own view that foreign policy and domestic policy are entwined. Susan Rice’s appointment in the Domestic Policy Council when her career history has been in foreign policy in the Clinton and Obama administrations. In these appointments and arguments, the Biden administration, in a subtle way, agrees with Pompeo and Pence and others, that the U.S. needs a revelation: that China is an existential threat to the United States.
With Anthony Blinken as Secretary of State, it seems likely that the U.S. will try to gather more allies to join its pressure campaign on China. Blinken ‘internationalizes’ this revelation. In November 2017, Blinken wrote that the U.S. needs to unite the world (or as much as it can) against China. In terms of policy, Blinken hasn’t sought to tear down U.S. tariffs on China’s exports, but instead coordinate them with allies. This isn’t a refutation of Trump’s strategy. The apocalyptic visions that are now woven into Republican and Democratic strategic thinking are a choice as institutional paranoia envelopes Washington. How do critics of American global power respond to what is increasingly becoming a bipartisan consensus on China?
Thomas Furse is a PhD candidate at City University of London. He researches American strategic thought in the latter half of the twentieth century.
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