On February 22, 1946, George Kennan, then a young American diplomat in the Soviet Union, penned a secret cable to the State Department. Kennan warned the United States faced an enemy dedicated to destroying its principal adversary by first weakening her allies through subversion, bribery, and intimidation and then achieving total military superiority.
The clear-eyed assessment of the brutish Soviet regime, known to history as The Long Telegram, became the foundation for 45 years of the containment of Moscow and for the eventual triumph of the American ideal. This is 2021, not 1946, but replace Russia and Soviet power with China and the Chinese Communist Party and the Long Telegram once again becomes operative. As Kennan would have opined, China, “[is] undoubtedly the greatest task our diplomacy has ever faced and probably the greatest it will ever have to face.”
The Telegram’s prescience is as powerful today as it was when written under Stalin’s nose:
We have here a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with US there can be no permanent modus vivendi that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure. This political force has complete power of disposition over energies of one of world’s greatest peoples and resources of world’s richest national territory and is borne along by deep and powerful currents of Russian nationalism. In addition, it has an elaborate and far-flung apparatus for exertion of its influence in other countries, an apparatus of amazing flexibility and versatility, managed by people whose experience and skill in underground methods are presumably without parallel in history… how to cope with this force [is] undoubtedly the greatest task our diplomacy has ever faced and probably the greatest it will ever have to face.
At the time of the Telegram, the Soviet Union had already subjugated Eastern Europe and was planning to take control of the Bosporus, displace Britain as the predominant power in Greece, and ensure Communist control of the eastern Mediterranean. With wartime blinders off, President Truman announced that “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” The Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan were born, and America slowly turned its attention to the twilight struggle with Soviet Communism.
It is not clear whether the Biden administration understands it is in a similar situation, at least judging by its reactions to China’s global provocations and its haranguing of the Secretary of State at a March conference in Alaska. The Chinese Foreign Minister hammered Mr. Blinken by simply echoing President Biden’s own woke critique of America, noting the need for Black Lives Matter and condemning America’s suppression of human rights within her own borders. The Wall Street Journal posited that the Chinese made clear that “…after the Trump years, Beijing wants a return to the policy of Obama accommodation to China’s global advances.”
Mr. Blinken retreated in the face of the onslaught, mouthing Ivy League pieties about America’s “imperfections.” His inability to be anything but defensive about his own country sets the tone for what to expect in the next four years. How can America cope with a rampant China when her own leaders do not believe that the country is worth defending? If they will not stand for a nation grounded in the universal principles of human dignity and individual freedom — and the one nation in history to offer a helping hand to all the peoples of the world including our enemies — where will they stand?
What does this mean? The Biden administration sent the Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Asia to reassure allies with memories of Obama-era indifference that President Biden is cut from a different cloth. Secretary Austin offered one hand in friendship while the other was cutting an already stretched defense budget. The dichotomy was not lost on nations looking to stand together with America to prevent Chinese military dominance of the Pacific.
A failure to act decisively means a return to business as usual to China’s continued theft of intellectual and cyber property. It means continuing to flood American universities and research institutions with Chinese funding and influence. It means giving in to ending sanctions due to the repression of freedom in Hong Kong. It means crippling the US economy in the name of fighting climate change while Beijing laughs off its promises. Perhaps it means silence in the face of the genocide of the Uighurs. President Eisenhower sent the fleet over the dispute over Quemoy and Matsu. What happens the next time Taiwan is threatened?
The Belt and Road Initiative estimated to cost $8 trillion has the potential to connect Chinese power to the world’s strategic chokepoints. It lashes developing countries to the Chinese mast at the cost of national will. Corporate America is aiding and abetting Beijing’s designs.
We’ve been here before. The most recent episode was when liberal internationalists ran the Obama/Biden White House. When France was attacked by terrorists, John Kerry was dispatched with James Taylor to sing “You’ve Got a Friend” in the Quai d’Orsay. Iran was handed hundreds of billions of dollars at the expense of its Arab neighbors and Israel.
In the 1970s, the world assumed that the United States was on an inevitable decline driven by problems at home and indecisiveness abroad. The academics assumed, as they do now, that we had entered the Thucydides trap, with America as Athens and Russia as Sparta. Then-Senator Biden was on the wrong side of history in the 1970s and 1980s, or as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it, “He was wrong about every major national security issue for forty years.”
But American and Western decline was not inevitable. Ronald Reagan stepped forward with a cold and honest assessment of Soviet weakness and an economic and military vision that brought Moscow to its knees. Western leaders, in conjunction with courageous leaders behind the Iron Curtain like Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, faced down the brittle Soviet empire.
China is also not invincible. Its population is aging and growing at its slowest rate since the 1950s. It has laid environmental waste to vast stretches of its homeland. It has insufficient oil or gas reserves. Its economic growth, while impressive, is slowing. Beijing’s external endeavors are subservient to its internal security priority. As Secretary Gates has written, “China’s leaders are scared to death of their own people.” However, Beijing is a careful student of history, and may not make Moscow’s mistake of underestimating American resilience.
Importantly, China is surrounded by nations with thousand-year memories of Chinese aggression and imperialism. In the last 60 years, China has fought wars with Vietnam (it lost) and India. Time is overdue for the United States to take a serious view of China and reconsider its opportunities to invest in strategic relationships with those nations, as well as Japan, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, Malaysia, and even the Philippines. Strengthening them weakens Beijing.
The Long Telegram is waiting for a reprint. Sadly, we cannot expect one from the spiritual heirs of Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter. There is no George Kennan in this White House or at Foggy Bottom.
A former secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Robert L. Wilkie is a visiting fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.