Pompeo’s account, by contrast, is a Manichean politicized caricature. For instance, consider the difference between Pottinger’s document and Pompeo’s speech on Chinese students. The official strategy says:
“Chinese students represent the largest cohort of foreign students in the United States today. The United States values the contributions of Chinese students and researchers. … The United States strongly supports the principles of open academic discourse and welcomes international students and researchers conducting legitimate academic pursuits; we are improving processes to screen out the small minority of Chinese applicants who attempt to enter the United States under false pretenses or with malign intent.”
At the Nixon Library, the sum total of what Pompeo said about Chinese students was the following:
“We know too, we know too that not all Chinese students and employees are just normal students and workers that are coming here to make a little bit of money and to garner themselves some knowledge. Too many of them come here to steal our intellectual property and to take this back to their country.”
In the first, the U.S. welcomes the Chinese people to its shores and recognizes that a small minority could have ill intent. The second is torn right out of the Trump “I assume some are good people” playbook.
It’s a subtle but important difference that repeats itself again and again. The official strategy talks about China’s hegemonic aspirations in Asia, particularly in the maritime domain, and not “global” domination of “Chinese communism.” It says that “the United States stands ready to welcome China’s positive contributions” and mentions several examples and ways of going about that. Pompeo is utterly dismissive of any cooperation or engagement. Some, he says,
“are insisting that we preserve the model of dialogue for dialogue’s sake. Now, to be clear, we’ll keep on talking. But the conversations are different these days. I traveled to Honolulu now just a few weeks back to meet with Yang Jiechi. It was the same old story—plenty of words, but literally no offer to change any of the behaviors.”
That was as constructive as it got.
Pompeo’s tirade will discredit the case for competition with China among allies, in Asia and Europe, who are petrified of a full-blown Cold War where the U.S. and China have no interest in diplomacy. He couldn’t resist a thinly veiled, and inevitably counterproductive, sideswipe at German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is under pressure to take a tougher stance on China, saying cryptically,
“We have a NATO ally of ours that hasn’t stood up in the way that it needs to with respect to Hong Kong because they fear Beijing will restrict access to China’s market. This is the kind of timidity that will lead to historic failure, and we can’t repeat it.”
By far the biggest problem with Pompeo, or the administration, invoking the free world is that he said nothing about the free world itself. Free societies are in trouble. As the NGO Freedom House has documented, the world has become less free over the past four years, due in large part to illiberal forces within democracies. Many democracies also struggle to cope with fundamental challenges, including inequality, racial injustice, the automation of work, and new technologies such as artificial intelligence. Free societies also face the very real threat of political interference from authoritarian states and networks of corruption.