US-China relations: how Mike Pompeo’s brusque diplomacy fails to win friends
In a recent interview on Fox News Channel’s Life, Liberty & Levin, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed the Trump administration’s foreign policy actions. For those who don’t closely follow the news or are less versed in foreign policy, much of Pompeo’s rhetoric probably sounded good. For a critical listener, however, it immediately rang false.
Pompeo praised US President Donald Trump’s “America first” campaign and how, by ensuring prosperity and human rights at home, the example would spread abroad. Meanwhile, the United States faces increasing protests addressing racial issues, the economy is faltering and an ongoing pandemic has killed more than 200,000 Americans.
While failing to acknowledge these facts, he went on to discuss a foreign policy where “we have to take the facts as they are and not as we wish them to be”. The disconnect was jarring. As the interview continued, Pompeo’s priorities and characteristics as secretary of state became increasingly clear and worrisome.
I spent nearly 50 years working for the US government. I taught future diplomats at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute and advised ambassadors, members of Congress and White House officials in my role as head of the Chinese and Korean Section at the US Library of Congress.
I have witnessed first-hand the work of secretaries of state and diplomats over the years. Based on my own experience and in watching Pompeo throughout his tenure, one thing is painfully clear – Pompeo is not a diplomat.
The secretary of state is the president’s key adviser on foreign policy, head of the State Department and US foreign service and a lead negotiator in international affairs. For Pompeo, however, a key priority of his is to travel throughout the United States in support of Trump’s policies.
In September alone, Pompeo had interviews with more than a dozen US radio and television hosts, half of them affiliated with Fox. This does not include interviews with other US organisations, speeches, press statements and social media posts.
It may seem trivial, or even beneficial, that he gives so much attention to speaking to the public. That is not the case, however, when these efforts eclipse and even damage international relations and foreign policy agendas.
His speeches and rhetoric are aimed at propagandising the American public, not building better relations with foreign nations or promoting US interests abroad.
A key example of how Pompeo’s words aimed at his domestic audience have exacerbated international tensions can be seen with China. In many of his remarks on China, Pompeo criticises the past 50 years of US policy.
He claims Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger went to China with the idea that doing so would open and democratise the country, and that this plan failed. That premise is false – Nixon went to China to gain a strategic advantage against the Soviet Union, which was a success.
If the goal is to democratise China, though, does the current strategy fare any better? Recent polls show there is growing distrust by Americans towards China, which is in line with Pompeo’s rhetoric. In China, however, public sentiment is turning against the United States.
A tough-on-China stance is not new, and the US and China have many long-standing areas of disagreement. Pompeo, however, goes beyond listing grievances or laying out policy goals. He uses harsh rhetoric and direct attacks on the Chinese leadership. On July 23, for example, Pompeo delivered a speech about the dangers of the Communist Party.
He said “securing our freedoms from the Chinese Communist Party is the mission of our time” and “we can’t treat this incarnation of China as a normal country, just like any other”.
Pompeo attacked the legitimacy of the Communist Party and positioned the US as a stalwart against it. While that message might play well at home, it only serves to increase US-China tensions and make any form of diplomacy more difficult.
At the same time, Pompeo has demanded China change its policies and adopt new trade practices. Why would Beijing trust or negotiate with US leaders who have made it clear they want the Communist Party to fall?
By attacking China as a whole, rather than focusing on specific issues, Pompeo has only served to bolster the nationalist, anti-US voices in the party and silence the more moderate ones.
There is now a feedback loop of negative rhetoric, protectionism and antagonism between the US and China. With leaders in both countries concerned about domestic nationalism and maintaining power, is there any room left for cooperation and compromise?
Pompeo has not reserved his negative rhetoric just for China. He also consistently criticises policy decisions of other countries, particularly their actions towards China. He even called out the Vatican for engaging with Beijing. Ridiculing other countries only burns bridges and makes multilateral action against China more difficult.
Other analysts have also found fault with Pompeo’s record. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called Pompeo “the worst secretary of state in American history, without a single diplomatic achievement”.
A Washington Post piece questioned Pompeo’s ethics, found fault with his failure to fill dozens of State Department positions, highlighted a historic low in department morale and concluded that the US has only become more isolated under his tenure.
As we approach the US presidential election, it is essential to consider the foreign policy implications of who we elect. While domestic considerations are important, responsibility for those policies are shared with governors, members of Congress and local officials.
However, the president, the secretary of state and other officials he chooses are almost solely responsible for US foreign policy. In a globalised society, the effects foreign policy decisions have on our security, economy and place in the world cannot be understated.