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U.S. Foreign Policy Discourse Vs. The Sources of American Conduct

U.S. Foreign Policy Discourse Vs. The Sources of American Conduct

The Source

To many Americans, foreign policy discourse comes in broad themes punctuated by very specific issues.  China policy may well form the largest of those themes, and reasonably so.  China could pose a threat to displace America’s international system, arguably the only one.  News and commentary focus heavily on China’s actions and their rulers’ intent: whether they aim to displace us in our influence or merely want to insulate themselves from us; whether they want to supplant democracy with their system; and how far they will go to disrupt our society.  Our China experts, and others, report every fact and parse every analysis of China.  They yield deep insight on China’s nature and intentions, possibly deeper than George Kennan’s 1947 study of the Soviet Union.

Relatively few raise the question of what the U.S. seeks in our China policy. AEI’s Giselle Donnelly calls for a true strategic approach, and Ali Wyne of Eurasia Group has queried what we compete over in “great power competition.”  We should recall the old adage about friendships and interests, and add that enmities as well as friendships defer to interests.  Kennan established the Soviet Union as an existential danger, so opposing that country became a proxy for our interests.  But today we lack consensus on America’s core interest.  Having been immersed in what China might do, our discourse should turn its focus, to coin a phrase, to the sources of American conduct.  The same holds for our foreign policy in general.

U.S. policy toward China will variously cite a rules based global order, democracy, human rights, trade, common interests in curbing climate change, U.S. competitiveness, and jobs.  Policies shift between these various concerns, but rhyme and reason to any given shift is hard to see, while the common denominator is that we oppose China.  And we offer no coherent and durable narrative to say why.  We do not confront the Chinese leadership with a durable counter to their self-serving but coherent interpretations.

America in fact has a fundamental bottom line.  The nation was conceived on a short, abstract creed, of unalienable rights and government that exists to secure those rights, under the consent of the governed.  This definition of national identity underpins American national legitimacy, the deepest interest a nation can have.  Yes, we have more tangible interests, of fair trade in principle and of trade advantages of our industries, of democracy in Taiwan and of peace, of human rights in Xinjiang and of climate policy.  But we need to organize our priorities around the deep interest, our commitment to the creed of the Declaration of Independence.

Today, U.S. foreign policy serves as a tool of bipolar politics.  Two partisan camps occasionally voice the same incontestable common points, but they are more concerned to do better than the other side. Everyone knows China is a one party dictatorship, so no one is overly friendly.  Everyone knows we share interests from financial market stability to climate issues.  But Republicans act to hobble China’s tech firms, while Democrats seek collaboration on climate policy.  What degree of support either side would muster for other goals is a matter of political convenience.  Both sides found reasons to ditch the Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact.  Will either find it useful to defend Taiwan?

Walter Russell Mead points out that all potential policy stances toward China carry risks.  He further asserts that a flourishing Asia is the answer to the U.S.’s China problem. If flourishing includes growth in personal freedom, as it has in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, then that approach also fits America’s founding ethos.  A world that not only protects, but promotes, people’s right to the pursuit of happiness best serves everyone, and fulfills our creed.  A flourishing world goes very far toward securing America’s deepest interest, for all of our foreign policy.  If U.S. foreign policy organizes itself to express that aspiration, then to the American public, and to billions of others, that’s what matters most.



George Paik

George F. Paik is a former political affairs officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, as well as a twenty year veteran of U.S. capital markets. He is a current board member and former chair of the World Affairs Forum (a sister to FPA in the World Affairs Councils of America network) in Stamford, CT. His work as a diplomat straddled the fall of the USSR, and included political analysis, human rights, trade affairs, and environmental policy, in postings were in Brazil and Trinidad, and in the Department of State. Financial experience includes stints with Mellon Bank, Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. and People’s United Bank. He currently holds the position of Managing Director at Lord Capital, LLC, a firm focused on international trade finance.

Paik graduated from Harvard University with a BA in Social Studies; he also holds an MBA in Finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He counts ten years playing Rugby, with club mates from countries around the globe, as part of his international experience.