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Human Rights, the China Challenge, and American Foreign Policy: A Conversation with Peter Berkowitz

The aim of our Constitution is to secure freedom in America by securing rights. The aim of American foreign policy should be to secure freedom at home, with a view to opportunities and threats abroad. We must always ask: what’s the best mix of military might, economic power, diplomacy, and championing of human rights that enables us to secure freedom at home and maintain a free and open international order?

In this month’s interview feature, Dr. Peter Berkowitz discusses his experience serving in the State Department as a member of the Trump administration. He discusses some of the major challenges facing US foreign policy today; the relation between academic study and on-the-ground political experience; and the question of what constitutes a distinctively conservative approach to foreign policy. The interview took place on April 8 with Contributing Editor Daniel Burns and has been edited for length and clarity.

Dr. Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. From 2019 to 2021, he served as Director of the Office of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department. He is also director of studies for the Public Interest Fellowship. He is the author of four books on topics in political thought and international law and is a contributor at RealClearPolitics. He has previously taught political philosophy at Harvard University and law at George Mason University School of Law.

Daniel Burns: Peter, great to have you here. Please, to start with, tell us a bit about the Office of Policy Planning. What was your specific role in the State Department during the last two years of the Trump administration?

Peter Berkowitz: It’s good to be with you for this conversation, Dan.

The Office of Policy Planning was created in 1947. It stems from the most famous document ever produced by a State Department official. That’s the Long Telegram that George Kennan wrote in February 1946, from Moscow, in response to queries from the State Department. Less than a year after the end of World War II, he addressed the question: what are we to make of the Soviet Union? The Long Telegram is Kennan’s 5,000-word-or-so reply about how to understand “the Soviet challenge.” Then-Secretary of State George Marshall, impressed by the document, established a small office in the State Department, within the Office of the Secretary of State, that focused on the bigger picture, on long-term questions. The office would not, as so much of American diplomacy must, deal with day-to-day events and putting out fires (metaphorical fires) in regions around the world, but would instead consider America’s strategic imperatives; evaluate the implementation of various lines of effort; propose options for more effectively securing the department’s objectives; and anticipate, and contend with, unintended consequences of policy.

The office has grown considerably since Kennan became its first director in the late 1940s. It’s now an office of twenty to twenty-five members. The members cover the range of regions around the world, and the range of (as we say) “functional” areas that the State Department handles: Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment; International Organizations; Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; and more. The Policy Planning Staff’s principal job is to write short memos that go directly to the Secretary of State, without clearance from other offices.

DB: Compared to the expectations you had going in, what ended up being most surprising about your actual government service? What was least surprising?

PB: There were no great surprises about the character of the service. And it’s a good thing, too! After all, I’ve been studying political ideas and political institutions for decades now. It would be strange if I were shocked to discover, for example, that the State Department is a massive, in many ways inefficient, bureaucracy; if I discovered that this bureaucracy suffered from pathologies, both of the sort endemic to all bureaucracies and those specific of the State Department; if I discovered that a variety of interests animate not only our friends, partners, and rivals abroad but State Department colleagues as well.

These, however, are formal observations. It’s another matter entirely to attempt to navigate the specific features of any particular bureaucracy, not least the US Department of State. You must learn which offices you can work with and how, which offices abound in hurdles and stonewalling, what lies behind this or that corner, how to craft the various kinds of memos. . . . In that sense, there was surprise after surprise. Or rather, an enormously steep learning curve. Of course, that was not a surprise, either!

Consider an analogy to undergraduate education. In this day and age, even at so fine a school as the University of Dallas—or maybe especially at the University of Dallas—students have an experience I had when I was an undergraduate at Swarthmore, many years ago. By the time I was graduating, I realized: It’s only now I’m beginning to understand the meaning of a liberal education. Now I’m ready to begin . . . but they’re about to hand me a diploma! I wouldn’t be surprised if many of your graduates are grateful to the University of Dallas because you teach the significance of education and how to pursue it. Many of your graduating students probably think as I did: now I’m in a good position to get started. Similarly, when I left the State Department, because of all that I learned—all of those non-surprise surprises that I had every day—I considered myself reasonably well equipped to navigate the challenging bureaucracy.

 

At the center of the State Department stands a permanent bureaucracy. Many of the men and women who serve in the State Department are in position before a particular Secretary of State arrives and will remain there after that Secretary of State leaves. Many of these career foreign service officers and civil servants are very intelligent, and they serve their country with pride and honor. Nevertheless, all function as parts of an enormous bureaucracy. The work of the bureaucracy grinds slowly. It is dominated by committees, meetings, and memos. You create committees whose principal output is the creation of additional committees. The bureaucracy suffers from inertia. They don’t like change. Even to the extent that the permanent bureaucracy within the State Department leans progressive, they are small-c conservative in the sense of believing that how the State Department has been doing things is the way the State Department should continue doing things. The bureaucracy often looks at the new political appointees of incoming administrations—but particularly Republican administrations—as interlopers.

None of this is news. One can read studies. But learning how best to grapple with the realities of State Department bureaucracy can only be done from the inside. With experience, you acquire tools, you develop know-how, you make friends and allies. So we return to the paradox: I can’t say that I encountered any big surprises about how government works and how power is exercised, but every day I learned more about how to maneuver within the State Department bureaucracy.

DB: I’d like you to fit your work at the State Department into bigger questions about the present and future state of conservatism. You’ve been part of the intellectual ferment that’s been going on in the conservative movement since at least 2016, if not before. Tell me what you see as distinctively conservative about a conservative foreign policy.

PB: Sure. That’s a huge question. Let’s begin with two major projects we undertook at Policy Planning.

One was the Commission on Unalienable Rights, which Secretary Pompeo created in July 2019. He named his mentor, the great Mary Ann Glendon, head of the Commission. When I was named head of Policy Planning in August 2019, I was also named the commission’s executive secretary. Mary Ann put together a formidable team of commissioners, and I worked closely with her and fellow commissioners to execute the Commission’s mission.

The mission came from Secretary Pompeo. It was to provide advice to the Secretary of State based on America’s founding principles and constitutional traditions, and on the obligations that the United States took on in 1948, when the nation voted in the UN General Assembly to approve the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Secretary Pompeo’s announcement of the commission was immediately greeted with denunciations. Some 250 human rights scholars, activists, journalists, and organizations sent Pompeo an open letter—this may have never happened in the history of independent commissions—demanding that he immediately dismantle the Commission before it had even begun its work, and indeed before its members had been appointed.

Why the outrage? It came mostly and perhaps exclusively from progressives. They were particularly upset about the idea of grounding America’s commitment to human rights in America’s founding principles and constitutional traditions. To them, this smacked of patriotism and nationalism, which they have a hard time distinguishing from jingoism.

In contrast, Mike Pompeo saw, on the one hand, that the great post-World War II human rights project had been to a significant extent hijacked by individuals and organizations that tended to equate human rights with a progressive political agenda. But here, I think, Secretary Pompeo also saw an error on the Right. That is, the Right jumped to the conclusion that because of abuses on the left, human rights are inherently aligned with progressive political preferences. Secretary Pompeo understood that in the eighteenth century, “unalienable rights” was the language Americans used to speak about the rights inherent in all human beings.

 

Now, you and I are students of political philosophy. We know that subtle differences are involved in speaking about natural rights, inalienable rights, and human rights. But it is fair to say: each is a claim about rights that inhere in persons just because they’re human beings. You don’t have to pass a test; you don’t have to receive a license from the state; and such rights are independent of any characteristics you possess or groups to which you belong. Secretary Pompeo understood that, to the extent that you’re devoted to conserving what’s best in the American political tradition—and surely that includes America’s founding principles and constitutional traditions—you have a profound interest in conserving unalienable rights, human rights. That doesn’t mean you must accept the currently fashionable, dominant interpretation of them. Rather, you should embrace the interpretation that’s best grounded in our principles and our traditions.

It was our mission to restate America’s founding principles, clarify America’s distinctive and dynamic rights traditions, and draw implications for the conduct of American diplomacy. The introduction of our report lays out the controversies about human rights. The first major part sketches the American tradition of unalienable rights, starting from before the Founding. We emphasize the multiple traditions that converged in the American Founding: the Biblical tradition, the civic-republican tradition, and the modern tradition of freedom. We show how they braid together notwithstanding the tensions among them. And we argue that the better way to understand American history is as a persistent struggle to bring the reality of American politics more in line with the original promise of American politics. We also have a chapter on the UDHR. It shows how, on a careful reading of that seminal statement, the United States recognized a small set of core human rights that peoples and nations around the world can affirm. The UDHR serves not as a legal document but as “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” And reasonably read, it continues to provide excellent guidance to the United States and other nations concerning how to fit a commitment to human rights into a responsible foreign policy that must always deal with urgent questions of national security and economic wellbeing.

Despite the initial and persistent outrage, the Commission’s report enjoyed a significant diplomatic accomplishment. Affiliates of the largest Muslim organization in the world, Nahdlatul Ulama, reached out to me in September 2020, a month after the report was published, to say that they had found in it an excellent expression of their own understanding of human rights and of the relationship of human rights to the diverse peoples and nations of the world and to international affairs. They invited Mary Ann Glendon and me to come to Jakarta to discuss the report. When I mentioned this to Secretary Pompeo, he said, “Great! When do we go?” And in the end, he went too, presenting the report in Jakarta to representatives from Nahdlatul Ulama. This vindicated our aspiration to produce a report that was not only useful to the Secretary of State, colleagues in the State Department, and fellow citizens, but that also invited peoples and nations around the world—not in the first place to learn Jefferson and Madison and Lincoln and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Martin Luther King, Jr., although that would be good—but to turn to their own distinctive moral, philosophical, and religious traditions to affirm the basic rights and fundamental freedoms shared by all.

DB: That sounds to me continuous with, for example, Reagan’s own defense of human rights, not merely as a tool against Communism (although also that), but as representing the best of our own American tradition applied to our foreign policy. So now tell me the other side: what about possible discontinuities? In what ways did you see the Trump administration as offering a course correction to previous American, and even previous Republican, foreign policy?

PB: Another challenging question! Of course, we know that Donald Trump ran against the elites. He differed from other Republicans in that he opposed not just Democratic Party elites, but also Republican Party elites. He associated the Republican Party elite with—in my view, it was a caricature, but one that’s widely accepted—neoconservatives and neoconservatism. He charged that neoconservatives were responsible for the mistakes of Afghanistan and Iraq and maintained that a central feature of neoconservative foreign policy is using the American military to undertake regime change to promote democracy. Donald Trump rejected all that. He was going to bring our troops home, he was going to end endless wars, and he was going to make America great again by putting America first. That did not entail isolationism. Putting America first did not mean only America.

I should add that Donald Trump also ran against China. But he focused on trade. He complained that because of unfavorable trade deals, China was eating our lunch; that we had outsourced our manufacturing base. Accordingly, we needed better trade deals, and we needed to bring manufacturing home.

 

Secretary Pompeo gave expression to, but also deepened, President Trump’s criticisms of China. Secretary Pompeo came to the conclusion that America’s number one foreign-policy challenge was presented by the Chinese Communist Party, which exercised one-party repressive rule over the people of China. Under the CCP, China was no mere power (seeking only hegemony in its region), or even only a great power (seeking to dominate world order). Rather, it was a revisionist great power that wanted to transform world order. The CCP aimed to place Beijing at the center of a world order more favorable to authoritarian forms of government.

When I was named director of Policy Planning, I did what I presume many of my predecessors did. First, I asked myself, what are the Secretary’s priorities? By the summer of 2019, the answer was clear: the China challenge. Second, I reread Kennan’s Long Telegram. And on that reading, I took from it several lessons. One lesson involved the importance of grasping the interplay of ideas and interests in foreign affairs. In addition, in the concluding paragraphs Kennan made two observations that really caught my attention. First, for America to prevail in what was likely to be a long struggle with the Soviet Union, it was incumbent on the United States to rally around what was best in the American tradition, to remain faithful to American principles. Second, he emphasized the need to promote the serious study of Russia—culture, history, politics, economics, religion, language, and more—so that we would acquire a better understanding of the Soviet challenge.

Kennan’s insights factor substantially into The Elements of the China Challenge, our second big project, which my office published in late 2020. Secretary Pompeo agreed that it would be useful for the Policy Planning Staff to undertake a paper that did not so much “push forward the frontiers of knowledge”—as we say in universities, when we’re advising people about doctoral dissertations—but rather, that would synthesize what was already known about the China challenge and provide a framework for developing a sound policy to secure American freedom. Accordingly, the Policy Planning Staff drew on the best scholarly writings, journalism, and historical documents as well as official papers produced by our colleagues in the Trump administration to distill an accessible account of the character and the magnitude of the China challenge.

The first thing I did was ask my Policy Planning colleagues to write three-to-five-page papers in their areas of expertise (regional and functional) examining China’s actions and inroads—the China challenge in their domain. What I received was stunning. In every region and in every functional domain, the Chinese Communist Party was pursuing hegemonic power, principally through schemes of economic cooptation and coercion. I realized that in addressing the China challenge, it is inadequate to think, as did the Obama administration, in terms of a “pivot to Asia.” Yes, the region is home to more than half of the world’s population and to the most rapidly growing markets. But turning to China shouldn’t mean pivoting from, or turning our backs on, the rest of the world. We must turn to the Indo-Pacific, and simultaneously improve our diplomacy in every other region of the world, because we take the China challenge seriously.

China’s claims on Taiwan are a very serious matter, involving military considerations that affect America’s posture throughout the Indo-Pacific. But China also competes with the United States, particularly in the economic realm, in Central Asia, in Africa, in the Middle East, in Europe, in Central and South America, and in North America. As Secretary Pompeo made clear in a speech he gave to the National Governors Association, in early February 2020, the CCP also competes in all fifty states: for American money, for influence, for power. We must acquire better awareness of how the CCP’s various schemes of economic cooptation and coercion operate. Such considerations informed the research, drafting, editing, and publication of The Elements of the China Challenge.

 

DB: When you look at conservative thought, as a public intellectual yourself: in what ways would you say that your approach to China is drawing on the conservative tradition in American foreign policy? And are there any elements of conservative thought that contributed to whatever it was that blinded us to the rise of China for those decades that we weren’t paying enough attention to it? What, if anything, do we need to do a better job of paying attention to? Or to recover about our own tradition?

PB: Let me take the second question first. For a long time and for a number of reasons, the United States overlooked the China challenge. We were overly optimistic. We saw that China opened its economy in the late 70s and early 80s and incorporated free-market elements. We thought that economic liberalization would bring political liberalization. That’s what the political scientists told us. Both parties wanted to engage with China. We were lured by the hope of not just cheap products, but China’s enormous consumer markets.

The Berlin Wall was dismantled in November 1989. A few months before that, Francis Fukuyama published his famous essay, “The End of History?” (a title that, we should emphasize, contains a question mark). That article, which swept the world; the dismantling of the Berlin Wall; then the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union, at the end of 1991: the combination of these fostered the belief that liberal democracy was not only the regime best suited to human beings in the modern world—let’s call it, with an allusion to Aristotle, the best practical regime for human beings in the modern world—but also the belief that liberal democracy was destined to spread around the globe because of its internal logic, because of its alignment with human nature, and because of its intrinsic appeal. Buoyed by such beliefs, the United States supported China’s joining the World Trade Organization. All the while, we overlooked or downplayed the CCP’s authoritarian rule, and we failed to spot what appears now to many of us to have been the CCP’s patiently proceeding in accordance with a saying repeated by its leaders: hiding capabilities and biding time. That is, the CCP first patiently enlarged China’s economy and built a formidable military, and only gradually acted more aggressively in the Indo-Pacific and around the word.

These misunderstandings are rooted in a single problem: education. We didn’t have enough people studying China. We didn’t have enough people studying the CCP’s actual conduct in regions around the world, and we didn’t have enough people studying what the CCP says about its rule in China, about its domestic priorities, and about its larger aspirations in world politics. One of our key recommendations in The Elements of the China Challenge is that we must reform our educational system, including ramping up programs for the serious study of the Chinese language and Chinese history.

I haven’t yet answered your question about conservatism. I would like to see a shift away from what I regard as an arid debate within the academy: “Are you a realist, a liberal internationalist, or a constructivist?” It would be better to ask: “What is the proper aim of American foreign policy?” Reflection on America’s founding principles, constitutional traditions, and US history gives a clear answer. The aim of our Constitution is to secure freedom in America by securing rights. The aim of American foreign policy should be to secure freedom at home, with a view to opportunities and threats abroad. Over the course of America’s history, the quest to secure freedom at home has issued in different views about America’s role in the world. In the founding era—George Washington’s presidency, John Adams’s, Thomas Jefferson’s—the emphasis was on avoiding entangling alliances. For the sake of what? The first presidents wanted the nation to avoid entangling alliances to protect freedom at home. Less than a generation later, President Monroe, aided by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, adopted a new policy: we would not accept European powers bringing their authoritarian ways to our hemisphere. But the goal remained the same: secure freedom at home.

 

The development of American foreign policy over the decades to come, into the new century, as America crystallized its status first as a power, then as a great power, then as a superpower, exhibited a certain consistency. It revolved around securing freedom at home—even as changing circumstances called for increased involvement in world affairs. That’s because America grew in strength and influence. And thanks to successive technological revolutions in transportation and communications, happenings elsewhere in the world had a more direct impact on the United States. American prosperity became ever more entangled with the prosperity of other countries and a well-functioning international economy. Take a contemporary example: even if tomorrow, the United States were somehow (by taking advantage of the actual resources we have) able to supply all the natural gas, all the oil, for that matter all the nuclear energy, that we need to produce electricity for ourselves and fuel for our cars, we would still have a cold, hard interest in maintaining the flow of oil and gas from the Arab Gulf. Why? Because other countries—Japan, India, the Europeans—would still rely on Arab Gulf, Persian Gulf oil. Were serious blows inflicted on that economy because the price of oil soared to say $200 a barrel because of instability in the Middle East, we would feel the impact on the international economy in the United States. And by the way, who would feel it most? Not the elites, but poor people, lower-middle-class people, working-class people would feel it the most. And that’s just one example. America has a significant interest in a well-functioning international economy, or as we called it in Mike Pompeo’s State Department, a free and open international order. That is, an order in which free and sovereign nation-states can engage in trade based on fairness and reciprocity.

We say in The Elements of the China Challenge that America’s goal should be to secure American freedom. That means securing freedom at home and preserving a free and open international order abroad. In contrast, in every area of the world, the CCP seeks an international order more favorable to authoritarianism. Securing freedom at home does not mean that the United States has a license to go around the world, or should go around the world, changing regimes, and compelling non-democratic regimes to become democratic or telling democratic regimes how to govern. We do have a greater affinity for regimes that are better at protecting freedom and better at basing government on the consent of the governed, and we should work with friends and partners who seek greater freedom and democracy. But we fully recognize that in formulating a complex foreign policy to deal with the China challenge, we must partner with a variety of nations. We must always ask: what’s the best mix of military might, economic power, diplomacy, and championing of human rights that enables us to secure freedom at home and maintain a free and open international order?

DB So let me speak for some friends of mine, who can read a report like yours from the Commission on Unalienable Rights, and hear about a foreign policy that secures American founding principles, especially at home and where possible abroad. And they think: “This all sounds wonderful, and I would be fully supportive of it, but when I hear about the US State Department or American diplomacy abroad, that’s not what I see happening. And in fact, when I look at the US-led global order, it looks like it’s very helpful for certain tech companies, for certain woke corporations, and for the export of what may be the worst aspects of American culture.” This has even affected the way some friends of mine view, for example, the Ukraine conflict. It’s not that anybody is sympathetic to Putin, but they look at the Western-backed Ukrainian regime on the one hand, and Putin on the other hand, and they don’t see as obvious a moral imbalance as I think you would.

So how would you respond to this complaint, especially from social conservatives, that if you were in charge of American foreign policy, that would be great, but that since you’re not, it gets harder to know whom to root for?

PB: [Laughs] I appreciate that, thank you! Yes, these are serious concerns. It’s because we took them seriously that, in The Elements of the China Challenge, we insisted that the United States must fundamentally reexamine and reform international organizations. We must consider whether they are advancing the interests they were originally created to serve. Some aren’t. We must reevaluate and restructure our alliance system to meet the China challenge. We must take account of America’s limitations, including the limitations imposed by our resources, our know-how, and our attention span.  And not least, we must rededicate ourselves to what is best in America’s constitutional traditions. We’ve got enormous work to do. The CCP is not sitting on the sidelines while we regroup.

 

Now, on the specific question of Ukraine. I have little sympathy with those who have more sympathy for Vladimir Putin. Putin is a thuggish autocrat. He has violated the most basic principles of international order, beginning with the prohibition on acquiring territory by force, to say nothing of his relentless attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure throughout Ukraine. People ask, “What interest does the United States have in opposing Russia’s brutal invasion?” The United States has a keen interest in maintaining a shared understanding around the world that free and sovereign nation-states should not be subjugated by violent attacks.

It’s ironic that friends and colleagues, especially some who call themselves “national conservatives,” are not horrified by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine—which is a violation of the essential principle, affirmed by the UN Charter and the UDHR, that the nation-state is the essential unit of international affairs. We have a vital interest in standing with those who stand for the principle of free and sovereign nation-states against those who would redraw borders by military conquest.

DB: Peter, thank you very much for your time. This has been terrific.

PB: My pleasure. Thank you.

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