Bull in a China Shop

In foreign policy, Joe Biden has done some good things. He’s ended US support for the horrific Saudi-led war in Yemen, reentered the World Health Organization and Paris Climate Accord, and pledged to reenter the Iran nuclear deal. Yes, he’s been lousy on Israel-Palestine. (Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken wouldn’t even say that East Jerusalem should be the capital of a Palestinian state, which would be frustrating if it weren’t so absurd. Given how mythical a Palestinian state has become, it was as if Blinken had deferred judgement on the borders of Narnia). But when it comes to Biden and Israel-Palestine, my expectations were low.

What worries me is Biden’s policy on China. Last week, he announced that America’s “whole of government effort” to respond to the challenge posed by Beijing would begin with one particular department of government, the Pentagon, which will launch his administration’s first major policy review. As the Quincy Institute’s Rachel Esplin Odell has argued, this makes no sense. China is not primarily, or even secondarily, a military threat. Ordinary Americans are endangered far less by its tanks and drones than by its wet markets, which incubate pandemics, and its coal-fired power plants, which stoke environmental disaster. And in sharp contrast to the Soviet Union, China’s power stems above all from its economic and technological dynamism, not its nuclear warheads.

Why not ask officials at the agencies that handle climate and global public health to quarterback a reimagined US China policy? Oh yeah, because barely anyone works at those agencies. To a government that spends most of its discretionary dollars building hammers, every superpower challenger looks like a nail. Or something like that.

The person running the review makes me even more worried. I don’t know Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense Ely Ratner, and given that he shares a name with the legendary restaurant (z’’l) where Meyer Lansky ate blintzes, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. But after reading his writing, I suspect that Biden would have been better off taking advice on China policy from the proprietors of Schmulka Bernstein’s (also, tragically, z’’l).

Ratner’s writing radiates indifference to both climate and global public health. Both subjects are absent from a chapter on China policy that he wrote for the Aspen Institute in 2020, from testimony he gave before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2019 and from testimony he gave before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2018. In 2019, he was the lead-author of a report entitled “Rising to the China Challenge” (Ratner, a fan of alliteration, employs the phrase “China challenge” often). In the 69-page report, the words “public health” appear once. Climate change receives two paragraphs. Which makes me fear that Ratner—who will lead the China policy review for a US military that emits more carbon emissions than most countries—is “climate clueless.”

When Ratner does devote more than a throwaway phrase to climate, it’s often to argue that the United States need not prioritize the issue. In a 2019 discussion, he told an interviewer that the Obama administration had “come out differently than maybe where you or I would have” on China policy because it “had a different set of priorities in terms of the U.S.-China relationship.” What were the Obama team’s misguided priorities? “They believed, as do many, that climate change was an existential threat to the world and the United States and that the U.S.-China relationship was so important to addressing that problem that… the cooperative elements on climate change were in a sense really important and needed to be protected and shouldn’t be pulled down because of other issues in the relationship.” Those sound like pretty good priorities to me.

To be fair, Ratner isn’t saying climate doesn’t matter. (Though it is a bit odd that he doesn’t include himself in the “many” who consider climate “an existential threat.”) He’s saying America need not prioritize climate in its dealings with Beijing because China will go green of its own accord. “They’re not cooperating on climate change to please Washington,” he told the interviewer, “they’re cooperating on climate change ’cause they understand both that the pollution problem and the environmental issues in Beijing and in China are severe.” That’s unconvincing. If US policy makes no difference to China’s behavior, why did Obama have to work so hard to reach a climate deal with Beijing in 2014? And if China is doing enough on climate of its own accord, why is it still building vast numbers of coal-fired power plants? Foreign policy, like life, is about priorities. And Ratner’s are clear: He’s more worried about whether Beijing’s man-made islands in the South China Sea are above water than whether Miami ends up below it.  

Not to worry, you might say, Biden has outsourced all that planet-saving stuff to climate czar John Kerry. But if the Pentagon—having been made first-among-equals when it comes to China—writes a policy review that treats climate as an afterthought, Kerry will find himself in a battle with a department whose spending on marching bands likely exceeds his entire budget. Kerry’s foes are already girding for bureaucratic combat. Last December, an essay by the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright cited anonymous Biden aides as warning that Kerry thinks “climate is by far the most important issue in the relationship between the United States and China” and will “be willing to make concessions on other issues to secure action by Beijing.”

Wright, like Ratner, thinks that’s a bad idea. Fine. But let’s have that debate in public, not via anonymous sources. Congressional Democrats should call hearings and ask Ratner and other Biden officials point blank which China-related issues they consider more important than a pandemic that has taken almost 500,000 American lives and an escalating environmental cataclysm that could make parts of the US uninhabitable. In light of what COVID has revealed about the real security threats facing ordinary Americans, it’s also worth asking Ratner whether he still believes, as he wrote in 2017, that “larger U.S. defense budgets are sorely needed.”

If the Biden administration’s China squabbles take place behind closed doors, the Pentagon—whose interests are deeply intertwined with the interests of defense contractors—will smash Kerry like Meyer Lansky smashing a blintz. The more responsive the Biden administration feels to ordinary Democrats—who in some polls rank climate and COVID as their top two issues—the stronger Kerry’s hand.

In today’s Democratic Party, domestic and foreign policy are parallel universes, mostly because the latter remains so insulated from grassroots influence. On health care or criminal justice, Biden could never appoint someone to lead a major policy review who has shown such disregard for the priorities of the people who elected him. On China, by contrast, such disregard passes almost without notice. If the Biden administration is serious about protecting Americans against environmental and public health catastrophe, that needs to change. When it comes to China policy, a little more democracy would do the Democratic Party good.

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Hope to see you Friday,

Peter