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Let’s grade the State Department’s director of policy planning on her grand strategy musings!

Someone said some bad things.

On the first anniversary of taking office, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addresses unveils a new departmental "ethos" in the lobby of the State Department in April 2019. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Once upon a time, the director of policy planning for the State Department was a pretty prestigious job. George Kennan, he of the “Long Telegram” and “Sources of Soviet Conduct” fame, was the first director. Some of the others — Paul Nitze, Bob Bowie, Walt Rostow, Dennis A. Ross, James Steinberg, Richard Haass, Anne-Marie Slaughter — have been among the more distinguished foreign policy thinkers in this country. A strong director of policy planning can serve as a vital adjunct to the secretary of state and act as a reminder about the nation’s strategic interests. A good policy planning director is adept at avoiding trivia, distinguishing the important from the urgent, and acting as a check against an administration’s worst impulses.

Brian Hook, the director of policy planning under Rex Tillerson, was granted a tremendous amount of authority but stumbled badly. He was a relative neophyte attempting to counsel a complete neophyte on the ins and outs of the job. He did ... poorly.

When Mike Pompeo came on, he hired Kiron Skinner to run policy planning. In contrast to Hook, she has thought about this stuff for a while. She has the academic credentials and publishing record one would expect for that job. She is also an African American woman, a rarity in the upper echelons of the Trump administration (particularly in the diplomatic corps).

Since coming on in September of last year, however, Skinner has made some odd statements. She penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed last December that made it clear she had written Mike Pompeo’s badly received Brussels speech that caricatured multilateralism beyond all recognition. In the op-ed, she claimed that “the Trump administration is acting to preserve a just, transparent, and free world of sovereign states,” which sounds way too close to Vladimir Putin’s notion of “sovereign democracy” for my comfort.

On Monday, she sat down with Slaughter to chat about the Trump administration’s grand strategy at the New America Foundation. The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen attended and found it unnerving:

A large part of Skinner’s job is listening to what the President says and trying to make sense of it. She said as much. “The president provides the hunches and instincts,” she said, “and it’s my job, and that of Secretary Pompeo, to turn those hunches and instincts into hypotheses.” She called the hypotheses the “Trump Doctrine” and the “Pompeo Corollary.” Slaughter, logically, asked what the Trump Doctrine was. “That’s a tough one,” Skinner responded, without a hint of irony. “It is, in a kind of broad way, a set of pillars that address 21st-century realities.”
The pillars were: the “return to national sovereignty”; national interest; reciprocity in international relations and trade; “burden sharing,” particularly in defense; and “new regional partnerships” for what she described as “particular crises.”

Skinner’s comments unnerved Gessen for the same reason that her WSJ op-ed unnerved me: “I had heard the isolationism and destruction of Putin’s rule be framed in phrases such as ‘sovereign democracy’ and in a lot of other plausible-sounding policy gobbledygook that served to rob every word of familiar meaning.”

To be fair, however, Skinner did say some things that were a lot of things, but decidedly not gobbledygook. The Washington Examiner’s Joel Gehrke reported on that element of Skinner’s comments, in which she was described as leading an effort to develop a concept of U.S.-China relations akin to what Kennan did for the Soviet Union:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s team is developing a strategy for China based on the idea of “a fight with a really different civilization” for the first time in American history....
“The Soviet Union and that competition, in a way it was a fight within the Western family,” Skinner said, noting Karl Marx’s indebtedness to Western political ideas. “It’s the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.”....
Skinner suggested that human rights arguments might not be as useful against China as they were against the Soviet Union, which was weakened by a 1975 agreement that allowed Soviet dissidents to cooperate indirectly with Western powers to advocate for “the rights of emigration and religious freedom,” according to the State Department.
“It was a really important Western concept that opened the door really to undermine the Soviet Union, a totalitarian state, on human rights principles,” she said. “That’s not really possible with China.”

So there’s a lot going on in just those few paragraphs. Because I was just handed a whole bunch of final papers to grade, I have grading on the brain right now. Here’s how I would grade Skinner if she had made an oral presentation like this one for my Art and Science of Statecraft class:


You observe, correctly, that Donald Trump has forced the foreign policy community to revisit “first principles.” And what you said to Slaughter was certainly consistent with the key components of the Trump’s administration’s National Security Strategy, which prioritizes great power competition as the priority for the United States going forward. Furthermore, although controversial, your implicit use of Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” frame does get at one aspect of the Chinese challenge: to Beijing, this is not about a rise to great power status, it is a return to that status, consistent with its civilizational history.

That said, there are some real flaws with your oral defense. For one thing, your claim that China represents the first non-Caucasian great power competitor to the United States is factually incorrect, unless the Germans really did bomb Pearl Harbor. For another thing, why in the name of all that is holy would you make a racial distinction with respect to the great powers?! If you want to say that China is Confucian, or based on a different set of civilizational principles than the United States, sure, give it a try. Why say “not Caucasian”?! Does this mean India or Japan or South Korea should also be approached differently, because they are not white civilizations?! Why use race as your unit of analysis?

Furthermore, if you are going to use a Huntingtonian frame, you should know that he treated Russia as “Orthodox” and therefore distinct from Western civilization. Sure, the Soviet Union incorporated the very Western thought of Karl Marx, but last I checked hold on a sec yep, I just checked again and it turns out that China’s ruling party is also totally into Marx! Why is China so different?

Finally, I am very unclear as to why China’s civilization renders it less vulnerable to human rights treaties than the Soviet Union. If you recall, conservatives really disliked the Helsinki Final Act when it was actually negotiated, and it caught many of them by surprise that it helped inspire the Charter 77 movement and other acts of dissidence. It is not like China has no history of dissident appeals to Western liberal values (see here and here). Furthermore, you should be familiar with works by Iain Johnston, or Stacie Goddard, or Rosemary Foot and Andrew Walter, that discuss how China’s participation in Western institutions has had an impact on its self-perception.

There are perfectly valid reasons for the Trump administration to prioritize China as a strategic threat. This is one of the few Trump statements that generates bipartisan support. If you are trying to articulate a “Sources of Chinese Conduct” essay, however, it would be a very good idea to get beyond the fact that China is not a country filled with Caucasians. In fact, maybe just disregard the race angle altogether. It inflames far more than it illuminates.

Kennan could write “Sources of Soviet Conduct” because he was a longstanding expert on Soviet politics. Your comments on China suggest you could use a few old Asia hands to help with some tutoring. You clearly have a lot more work to do to persuade me that American grand strategy isn’t doomed.

Grade: incomplete.