'National interests' and dealing with U.S.–China distrust

From Kenneth Lieberthal, a political scientist now at the Brookings Institution, writing in a new report with Chinese scholar Wang Jisi, “Addressing U.S.–China Strategic Distrust“:

Too little understanding of how the Chinese political system actually functions also leads easily to Americans’ viewing Chinese decision making as strategic, coordinated, and disciplined. Disparate conflicting outcomes produced by the relatively uncoordinated initiatives of different ministries, enterprises, and localities are therefore often seen as part of a seamless web of Politbuto Standing Committee policy designed to confuse and deceive American policy makers.

Lieberthal is in a sense offering a think tank–style version of a much older insight that came to be known as the “fragmented authoritarianism” model. Nonetheless, presented here as part of an account of U.S.–China distrust, the message that U.S. leaders misunderstand Chinese political processes is important.

However, U.S. policy makers are not uniquely responsible, according to Lieberthal: “The Chinese system takes particular care to conceal its core political processes—such as selection of top leaders and civil-military interactions—from outside view.” Indeed, the lack of mutual understanding between the U.S. and Chinese governments is at times extraordinary.

I find the rest of the paper interesting, if not especially ground-breaking. Co-written with Wang (each author writing from the perspective of his government, and then co-writing the analysis), the Brookings paper has been touted by The New York Times as a “Rare Glimpse of U.S.-China Frictions.”

One thing that persists through the paper—though it includes some good ideas about potential for increased mutual trust—is that it stubbornly sticks to a rhetoric and vocabulary of “U.S. interests” and “Chinese interests.” This interests framework is terribly limiting: It fails to capture the entanglement and integration of the two countries’ economic, security, environmental, and political lives. Moreover, it buys the realist international relations conceit of self-same nation-states that possess characteristics like power and interests without internal differentiation or fundamental diversity.

As the paper argues, people in both countries would do better to think carefully about precisely who is doing what in the other country. The authors argue for more subtlety while using the language of simplicity. For a Brookings report (as opposed to for instance an academic conference paper), it’s perhaps hard to push a new way of thinking about “our nation,” but consider this:

Who do the so-called U.S. interests really represent, as practiced at the top of government? Has U.S. democracy been successful in aggregating, harmonizing, and empowering the collective interests of all citizens, or is it more likely that certain groups are being served more directly by U.S. foreign policy? How about in China: What precisely does a “Chinese interest” mean? As the report notes, various parts of the government don’t always act in coordination—so why should we expect interests to be more coherent than actions?

This is not a new argument, and indeed Lieberthal’s work helped introduce me to the notion of disaggregating the Chinese state for analysis, but it bears mentioning that even a paper about misperception and distrust falls into the old patterns of oversimplification. If there’s one message I’d like to pass across the trust divide here, it’s that we’re all baffled by the complexity. U.S. leaders are never sure what’s going to happen next at other levels of government. Chinese leaders may have little knowledge about what another department is up to. If top think tank and government thinkers start to acknowledge mutual confusion, perhaps caution will reign.

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  1. Pingback: Why are ‘national interests’ still everywhere? | Graham Webster

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