Pompeo's China speech at odds with Trump's 'America First' foreign policy

Pompeo's China speech at odds with Trump's 'America First' foreign policy
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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s address at the Nixon Library on Thursday was a hard-hitting overview of his take on where U.S. policy toward China had gone wrong in the past and of where it needs to head. It was the fourth in a series of speeches on China given by senior administration officials, with the previous three delivered by National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, Attorney General William BarrBill BarrGOP lawmaker calls for Justice Dept. to probe international court Barr pulls over to thank pro-police rally in Virginia Trump: Yates either lying or grossly incompetent MORE and FBI Director Christopher Wray — addresses that the secretary stated he had asked each to give.

In short, in combination with the June release of an NSC document on the United States’ “strategic approach” to China, the impression is of an administration doubling down on its intent to meet the challenge of a rising, revisionist power that it set out in the 2017 National Security Strategy.

But there are differences between the Strategy and the “America First” vision of the president that are worth noting. Two in particular stand out. 

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The first and the most obvious is Pompeo’s emphasis on “change,” which the earlier strategy document shies away from, presumably because of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump suggests some states may 'pay nothing' as part of unemployment plan Trump denies White House asked about adding him to Mount Rushmore Trump, US face pivotal UN vote on Iran MORE’s disdain for, and criticism of, previous efforts at regime change. Here, however, Pompeo’s lead theme is change, picking up President Nixon’s line from a 1967 Foreign Affairs article that, when it comes to China, “Our goal should be to induce change.” And while it is not clear what Nixon meant by “change,” here Pompeo argues that we must not only “induce” a change in Chinese behavior externally but that we “must also engage and empower the Chinese people – a dynamic, freedom-loving people who are completely distinct from the Chinese Communist Party.” How profound the change, the secretary leaves open. However, his remark that he has “faith” in the possibility of change, “because we’ve done it before,” cannot rest easy with the leadership in Beijing, who have been obsessed with the collapse of the Soviet Union ever since.

A second distinct feature of the address is the call for other countries and institutions to join in the effort. Indeed, with a bit of humility not often found in Trump administration rhetoric, the secretary admits “we can’t face this challenge alone.” He then correctly notes that the “combined economic, diplomatic, and military power” of “the United Nations, NATO, the G7 countries, [and] the G20…is surely enough to meet this challenge if we direct it clearly and with great courage.” With echoes of Ronald Reagan and John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBill Maher delivers mock eulogy for Trump Hillary Clinton roasts NYT's Maureen Dowd over column CNN's Ana Navarro to host Biden roundtable on making 'Trump a one-term president' MORE in the air, Pompeo even suggests that “Maybe it’s time for a new grouping of like-minded nations, a new alliance of democracies.” Squaring these sentiments with the president’s own statements under the banner of “America First” might be possible if one were a pretzel maker extraordinaire but otherwise the secretary’s call for utilizing multilateral forums is striking.

As noted, Pompeo’s speech followed three other addresses given by senior administration officials. A complete set, one might argue, would include new, major speeches addressing the China issue from the Treasury secretary and the secretary of defense. For the defense secretary the question would be, is the defense budget, which is expected to decline, and the capabilities it provides sufficient to meet the ever-growing, ever-expanding challenge of the People’s Liberation Army? Changing Chinese behavior, as Secretary Pompeo wants, requires more presence, more deterrence, than the U.S. military presently has in the Indo-Pacific. If this is as serious as the secretary suggests, if confronting China is really “the mission of our time,” where is the requisite build-up to match?

And, for the Treasury secretary, where is the trade accord that would create a liberal economic order in that region? And instead of trade deals with Beijing whose focus is on increased sales of farm goods to China, where are the plans to work with Europe, Japan, Australia and the UK to leverage combined market access for China to get the kinds of reciprocity and fair trade practices that Americans in government and business have complained about for years? 

Although it’s correct to note that “we’ve done it before,” it would be equally useful to note just how comprehensive a diplomatic, economic, intelligence and military effort that had to be. Whether this administration or a new one is up to that effort remains to be seen. 

Gary Schmitt is a resident scholar in strategic studies with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., where he focuses on national security policy. His latest book is “Rise of the Revisionists: Russia, China, and Iran.”