On Tuesday, the Washington Examiner reported the State Department’s policy planning staff, led by Director Kiron Skinner, is “preparing for a clash of civilizations” with China. Skinner’s office is composing what it calls “Letter X” — styled after George Kennan’s “X Article” that laid out an argument for containing the Soviet Union during the first years of the Cold War.
The Examiner’s description of the State Department’s thinking contains remarkable details. Skinner describes great power competition with China as “a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology, and the United States hasn’t had that before.” China “poses a unique challenge … because the regime in Beijing isn’t a child of Western philosophy and history.” The Cold War constituted “a fight within the Western family,” while the coming conflict with China is “the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.”
Skinner is right that “you can’t have a policy without an argument underneath it.” But the argument that seems to be informing U.S. China policy is deeply flawed and dangerous.
Has the United States never competed with a great power whose ideology or civilization was dramatically different from ours?
Skinner’s claim that China is the United States’ first ideologically distinct great power competitor is wrong. For one thing, it is not at all clear that such an ideology is central to Sino-American competition. For another, this mangles history. Nazi Germany is an obvious counterexample. The Soviet Union is a second. Skinner has written extensively on President Ronald Reagan, who would be surprised to learn that American competition with the U.S.S.R. — the “evil empire” — did not involve ideological differences.
To Skinner, the Cold War did not constitute a conflict of civilization because it took place within the “Western family.” She takes her cue from Samuel Huntington’s ideas about the “clash of civilizations.” But those ideas do not stand up to scrutiny. The concept of “civilization” lacks empirical support. Also, the enterprise of classifying countries according to dominant civilizations ignores the variety and contingency of identities, treating some as fixed or natural while erasing others. Nor is it clear that Russia was ever understood (or understood itself) as a fully Western or European nation.
Fortunately, Skinner offers a further clue about what she means. China, she notes, is the first great power competitor that the United States has faced that is “not Caucasian.” In the end, the argument is not about ideology or civilization. It is about race. China — unlike Russia — is not predominantly white, and thus must be dealt with differently.
Before World War II, Japan came to believe it wouldn’t be treated equally in world politics because of Western racial attitudes.
Japanese-American relations provide a warning against focusing on racial differences between great powers. As I detail in my 2017 book, during the decades before the Second World War, Japan was — like China today — a rising power that wanted to be recognized as a fully equal member of the great power club. Several crises eventually convinced Japanese elites that they faced an impenetrable racial barrier to acceptance. Many of these involved the treatment of Japanese immigrants. For instance, in 1906, the San Francisco Board of Education decreed that Japanese students would be segregated from white students; in 1913, California prohibited Japanese from owning land in the state; in 1924, the U.S. Congress prohibited Japanese immigration altogether.
Such actions — combined with narratives about the “Yellow Peril” flowing from Western capitals since the late 19th century — made Tokyo anxious enough about racial discrimination in world politics that Japan insisted on including a “racial equality clause” in the League of Nations charter. That effort failed, which underlined Japanese worries that racial prejudice would keep them out of the great power club.
In September 1931, the League of Nations condemned Tokyo’s invasion of the Chinese province of Manchuria. Japan — primed to see Western powers as racially discriminatory — interpreted this as further evidence that the interwar order was rigged against it. This ultimately drove Tokyo to withdraw from the League in 1933 and strengthened hard-liners in ways that made Japanese foreign policy more confrontational — and more dangerous to U.S. interests and allies. The story ended with a war fought especially viciously (on both sides) in part because of the racial animosity that had developed earlier.
Will the United States take the same attitude toward China?
Is American grand strategy going to be explicitly oriented around the idea that China is racially different? If so, another ambitious, rising great power may realistically come to believe that it will face racial discrimination in international politics. This could again contribute to the perception that the international order is fundamentally unjust and won’t make a place for Chinese ambitions. That could empower Chinese hard-liners who favor a more confrontational foreign policy than Beijing has so far pursued.
But there’s a difference between then and now. In the early 20th century, U.S. presidents discouraged California and Congress from taking actions that treated the Japanese as racially inferior — specifically because they worried about what these would do to Japanese-American relations. Theodore Roosevelt opposed San Francisco’s segregation policy and called its backers “infernal fools.” William Howard Taft successfully persuaded California not to pass the Alien Land Law during his term, and Woodrow Wilson opposed its passage in 1913. Calvin Coolidge objected to the 1924 Immigration Act (though he ultimately signed it).
By contrast, the Trump administration is intentionally signaling that China is racially “other” so it can treat Beijing as an exceptional threat — warranting an exceptionally robust response.
This is not the first time that China has been identified as an outside “civilization” in a way that encouraged other powers to treat it as legitimate prey. European powers (and, at times, the United States and later Japan) treated China as not fully “civilized” from the second half of the 19th century through the first half of the 20th, effectively carving it into a collection of spheres of influence during what the Chinese call the “century of humiliation.”
That experience remains important in China. The combination of a rising power sensitive about having been treated as beyond the pale of “civilization” and an established power that actively promotes that view could be dangerous.
Steven Ward (@Steven_m_ward) is an assistant professor in the government department at Cornell University and the author of Status and the Challenge of Rising Powers (Cambridge University Press, 2017).