A top Trump official made a comment that has rattled our politically correct elites and foreign-policy establishment. The Chinese, in turn, are trying to turn it into a handy propaganda tool.
The controversy stems from an interview given on the Trump Doctrine and China policy by Dr. Kiron Skinner, Director of Policy Planning in the Trump State Department. Skinner is widely regarded as a brilliant scholar — a rare mix of analyst, academician, and even historian and biographer. She broke on to the scene two decades ago with her seminal work on Ronald Reagan — specifically, she unearthed the lost radio transcripts from Reagan’s syndicated broadcasts in the latter 1970s. She published the groundbreaking book, Reagan, In His Own Hand. A top Reagan scholar, she had been research assistant to Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz, with a longtime affiliation with the Hoover Institution. She was something of a prodigy, entering Harvard at a young age, where she received her master’s degree and Ph.D. Overall, Skinner has a keen discernment of foreign policy stemming less from headlines than a profound awareness of what we learned from the Cold War. That’s her unique understanding as a historian and professor as well as a policymaker and practitioner.
All of that is key background to grasping the significance of where Skinner is now and what she said at the recent Future Security Forum 2019 in an interview with Anne-Marie Slaughter, a scholar to the left of Skinner but likewise respected for her thoughtfulness on foreign policy.
Skinner’s position as director of policy planning in the State Department is one of the most prestigious jobs in the federal government. The Policy Planning Staff serves a unique role as effectively the State Department’s and president’s think-tank on foreign policy, housing the leading strategic thinkers on international relations for over 70 years. Among the best-known names assuming that position (in addition to Skinner and Slaughter herself) were the likes of Paul Nitze, Walt Rostow, and its inaugural holder, the esteemed George Kennan. Kennan crafted the historic “X” letter/telegram, published in Foreign Affairs in 1947 under the title “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” That statement is credited with creating the policy of containment that became the cornerstone of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union.
Skinner’s April 29 dialogue with Slaughter should be applauded for the valuable insights it gives us about Trump foreign policy, but instead has provoked handwringing hysterics from drama-queens among our policy elites because of a mere passing remark about the Chinese not being Caucasians. Before considering that remark, let’s look at what ought to be remembered from the discussion:
Skinner and Slaughter began by placing their conversation within the context of the mind and work of George F. Kennan, with Skinner noting that everyone who serves in that position does so in the “shadow of George Kennan.” This means to think strategically, to look at the big picture, to be attentive always to broader doctrine.
Four Pillars of the Trump Doctrine
Central to Skinner’s job, as she openly acknowledged in this interview, is to help provide “the intellectual architecture for the Trump Doctrine.” It is there, in her position, with that Policy Planning Staff, that this happens. She thus proceeded to lay out in this interview perhaps the single best elucidation of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy. She identified four pillars of what appears to have evolved into what we can call a Trump Doctrine: 1) national sovereignty, 2) reciprocity, 3) burden sharing, and 4) regional partnerships. Here’s what she said on each:
National sovereignty. Pointing to Donald Trump’s rhetoric in 2016 on the campaign trail and ongoing since, she noted that the president has “really forced us to go back to first principles” and to ask the hard question of “where does national sovereignty fit in American foreign policy and in international relations more broadly?” She notes that it’s the view of President Trump, particularly when he talks about “America First,” that national sovereignty, “for whatever its problems,” is the best way for a nation-state “to protect people and to allow for prosperity and for human rights and civil rights in the world.” Conceding the importance of international organizations like the United Nations, as well as international laws, she nonetheless says that “there’s no comparison” that “in the [Trump] hierarchy the nation-state matters…. And I think he’s [Donald Trump] been trying to advance the case that the nation-state does have some core responsibilities around political and territorial sovereignty that no international organization could take.”
This is the first and key pillar of the Trump Doctrine, namely: “the national interest, and not the interest of multilateral or international organizations or transnational actors, should guide what a nation actually does.” Skinner adds that Donald Trump understands this by “hunches and instincts.” He need not be familiar with the “whole body of literature” studied by the pontificators of international-relations theory and ruminators of the role of the nation-state. Rather, Trump relates to this instinctively, and it’s worth taking seriously, least of all because he’s president and was elected in part for these views. In fact, says Skinner, “we’re thinking about that hard at the State Department.”
Reciprocity. The second pillar, says Skinner, is reciprocity, which is simple enough to discern, and which Donald Trump has consistently hammered since 2016. States Skinner: “international agreements, trade negotiations, should be marked by a reciprocity that’s clearly defined.” In other words, when America signs agreements, it must seek, demand, and expect good faith from the nations it negotiates with. That isn’t asking much, but sadly many presidents have not been vigilant in terms of enforcement.
Burden sharing. The third pillar identified by Dr. Skinner is burden sharing, which Trump “fundamentally believes and talks about all the time, especially in those big rallies, but also more thoughtfully in his UNGA [United Nations General Assembly] speeches, and when he speaks abroad.” This means that the United States must insist on a “greater burden sharing” from its allies abroad “simply because the U.S. cannot take on the whole globe, even though we provide extended nuclear deterrents for all of our allies, many of our near allies, and we provide conventional deterrents as well.”
What stands out in this area, of course, is NATO, whose bell Trump has been clanging since 2016, often alarmingly. Skinner and other Trump administration and State Department officials are working to formulate a clearer policy around this. Skinner told Anne-Marie Slaughter:
I think that conversation has been important. During the campaign, as you know, Anne-Marie, he talked a lot about NATO, and he talked about NATO in the context of campaigning in those 30-odd flyover states that many foreign-policy elites have ignored and that many presidential candidates frankly have ignored. And he said in those speeches that resonated with people, that as important as NATO has been, it can’t be the case that the U.S. provides the lion’s share of defense security for 28 other countries, especially ones like Germany that have the capacity to do more. That is not a sustainable model.
And he stuck to his guns, and in the two years that he has been president, NATO countries have put at least $41 billion of additional money into defense spending. Now I know that it’s multi-factoral why that happened, but I have to believe that President Trump insisting on 2% of GDP towards defense [spending] has to be a factor.
Regional partnerships. The fourth pillar of the Trump Doctrine detailed by Skinner focuses on the United States creating “new, regional partnerships” around the world. She here provided a corrective to leftists who view Trump’s abandonment of the likes of the Paris Peace Accords as symptomatic of him altogether forsaking multilateral or bilateral arrangements. Rather, the Trump administration is evaluating old arrangements and identifying those in which the United States should remain or should develop anew. The latter includes partnerships with the likes of Poland and the Baltic nations “to deal with the eastern flank threat.” This would constitute, as Slaughter put it, the fostering of “coalitions of the willing.”
In sum, those are the four pillars, which Slaughter herself summed up nicely: “If I can summarize the Trump Doctrine: The United States is a sovereign nation guided by its national interests that expects [that] we’ll do for you if you do for us — if you share the burden. [This] is a realist view of the world. It may not be hostile to multilateralism, but it certainly puts the nation first, and does not accept many constraints on sovereignty.”
That is well put. And kudos to both Skinner and Slaughter for framing this in a way easier for all of us to comprehend and not skewed by partisan axe-grinding. They are striving to communicate the intentionality and purpose at work here, and to help the president himself direct it into policy. That’s a crucially important service to the country.
Dealing With China and the Fight Ahead
After delineating those four pillars, Skinner addressed the elephant in the global living room: China. She flagged the “long-term fight” ahead. This is a “long-term competition” that has “historical, ideological, and cultural” underpinnings, notes Skinner, that many Americans and many in the foreign-policy community have not quite grasped. She underscored the mistake of trying to project America’s and the West’s traditional understanding of the world onto China, which is an altogether different animal. She said that that has been “a huge mistake, and what we are working on at the State Department is a comprehensive China policy now…. We’re now looking more deeply and broadly at China, and I think State is in the lead in that broader attempt to get something like a Letter X for China — what Kennan wrote. You can’t have a policy without an argument underneath it.”
Alas, this is spot-on. What Skinner is asking for is indeed badly needed: She invokes George Kennan’s “X” statement on the Soviet Union at the start of the Cold War and applies it to China today, our lead competitor if not adversary in today’s post-Cold War world of the 21stcentury. She’s unerringly correct: what has been lacking has been a sort of “Letter X” level of analysis of China and how to respond. There has been nothing near any sort of articulation let alone consensus. “And what hasn’t happened in this century is that we haven’t advanced the argument,” says Skinner, “and that’s what we’re working on, both the argument and the broader threat at State. If it will happen, it will happen at the State Department.”
Skinner stressed that this new threat is so different from Russia today, from the USSR in the 20th century, from the Cold War, from the nuclear rivalry of the past. Russia and the USSR were, for all their differences from the United States and West, “part west, part east.” China, however, is an altogether different creature, least of all because it’s no west and all east. Skinner stated:
That’s not really possible with China. This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology, and the United States hasn’t had that before, nor has it had an economic competitor the way that we have. The Soviet Union was a country with nuclear weapons, a huge Red Army, but a backwards economy, and that was the insight of Reagan when the intel community told him differently.
He said I just don’t see the signs that it [the USSR] can survive a technology race with the West. So, in China, we have an economic competitor, we have an ideological competitor, one that really does seek a kind of global reach that many of us didn’t expect a couple of decades ago, and I think it’s also striking that it’s the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.
In all, this was excellent analysis from Skinner. Honestly, doesn’t reading this make you feel better about our foreign policy? The critical policy planners are not asleep at the wheel. To the contrary, the wheels are turning.
So, what’s the controversy? Why is Skinner in hot water as a result of this intelligent interview? Because of a word she used that has been reflexively deemed “racist” by the modern warriors of identity-politics. Because of that final word: “Caucasian.”
Yes, no kidding. That one word prompted gnashing of teeth and knees to jerk all across the Beltway.
Can you believe it? That word was at best a passing comment. When I read the transcript of the interview, even knowing ahead of time that the word was there, I almost missed it. I can’t even say that I shrugged it off, which would be an overstatement. Perhaps I’m consumed by toxic masculinity for not noticing and throwing a hissy-fit. It’s pretty clear that Skinner meant that China isn’t a traditional Western adversary, nor an adversary like the USSR or Russia that’s part western, part eastern and is, for lack of a better term, Caucasian — as were the dominant threats we faced in World War I, World War II, and the Cold War.
Granted, if we all sit down and scratch our heads we can come up with a better word or term, I suppose, for what Skinner was trying to convey in a give-and-take unscripted discussion, but we need not toss tantrums to demonstrate our moral magnificence to the PC crowd. Skinner’s phrase was deemed racially offensive by the thought-patrollers, including respected voices in the Washington think-tank community.
“Race baiting anyone or anything, especially a country like China,” grumbled the president of the Center for Strategic & International Studies, “is morally wrong.”
Yes, but obviously that wasn’t what Skinner was doing.
The height of irony here is that Kiron Skinner is, for the record, African-American. She is the first black female to hold the post of director of policy planning. We can credit that to Donald Trump, not Barack Obama, not Bill Clinton, not any Democratic president.
To suggest that Kiron Skinner’s thoughts in that interview were grounded in some sort of nascent racism is silly.
Unfortunately, however, that’s our modern America. Thanks to our universities, it’s overwhelmingly difficult for our elites to summon a more insightful or charitable understanding. It’s an almost insurmountable intellectual hurdle for a generation trained by our universities to view everything through the prism of race, gender, and sexual orientation. The brainwashing from the moment of the first freshmen “diversity and sensitivity” session is so steep that any whiff of race sends them into an emotional tailspin.
Of course, had someone like Hillary Clinton said this, the Washington elites would be completely forgiving and accepting. We wouldn’t be talking about it. But Kiron Skinner is a conservative working for a Republican administration; thus, there must be zero tolerance. She must be denounced for insipid racism.
As for the communist Chinese, they’re far tougher and shrewder than our snowflakes. Sensing an opening, they’ve dived right in. They are pouncing on Skinner’s comments, with a Chi-comm foreign ministry spokesman deeming it “simply absurd and utterly unacceptable to look at China-U.S. relations from a clash-of-civilizations or even racist perspective, which deserves every harsh rebuke and resolute opposition.”
The Chinese are big boys. No doubt in reality hardly offended at all, and probably grinning as they print the propaganda sheets, they are feigning outrage. Bring the smelling salts! Our elites are dishing them the grist for their propaganda mill. You just know that Beijing is loving every minute. It’s moments like these that must be great fun for a communist propagandist.
Even the press in the Arab world — globally renowned for its embrace of diversity — has gotten in on the act, quoting American analysts, conveniently.
President Xi Weighs In
And so, all of that hullabaloo began unfolding about a week-and-a-half ago. Well, don’t look now, but the fireworks are suddenly getting louder and hotter.
Clearly sensing an opening amid the quickly escalating U.S.-China frictions with President Trump, President Xi himself has gotten into the act, directly rebuking — and exploiting — Skinner’s word choice.
“If someone thinks their own race and civilization is superior and insists on remolding or replacing other civilizations, it would be a stupid idea and disastrous act,” President Xi said in a speech in Beijing on Wednesday. “We should hold up equality and respect, abandon pride and prejudice, deepen our knowledge about the differences between our own and other civilizations, and promote harmonious dialogue and coexistence between civilizations.”
Of course, as we all know, the Chinese communists are famous for all these things. China is a legendary exemplar of human rights.
Kudos, alas, to Kiron Skinner for getting under Xi’s skin. Well, maybe — assuming Xi is actually aggrieved. More likely, his response is purely political, Machiavellian. Predictably, the press framed Xi’s comments within the context of President Trump’s “trade war” with China: “the U.S.-China trade war is really a clash of civilizations and ideologies.” Xi himself seems to be exploiting the remarks in just that way.
“All countries should conduct exchanges beyond borders of state, time and civilizations, and work together to protect the peaceful time we have, which is more precious than gold,” said Xi.
One wonders if Xi would have bothered with any of this if he and his advisers had not cynically observed the histrionics by American foreign-policy elites. If not for their PC antics, the “Caucasian” remark might have barely survived Skinner’s chat with Anne-Marie Slaughter.
Avoid Trivia, Folks
Ironically, Kiron Skinner had begun her interview with Slaughter noting that the venerable George Marshall had first advised George Kennan with two memorable words when he became the director of policy planning: “avoid trivia.” Skinner is avoiding trivia, but her detractors have instead opted to be diverted by the trivial. They have trivialized a very thoughtful discussion by exploding it into some mountain-out-of-molehill racial conflagration.
Even more ironic, Skinner and Slaughter had concluded their discussion with Skinner calling for more “diversity in all dimensions” in American international-relations programs, public-policy schools, and among our nation’s foreign-policy elites and establishment. (Most if not all of those Americans who have complained about Skinner’s “Caucasian” remark are themselves Caucasian and not representative of that diversity.)
Alas, while it’s both unfortunate and ridiculous that the “Caucasian” phrase is getting all the attention, perhaps there’s a hidden blessing here. The PC circus has brought attention to Kiron Skinner’s pronouncements on the Trump Doctrine and the president’s China policy, which are not to be missed. Now perhaps they can’t be.