First published Strategic Culture Foundation
In my career I used to participate in regular meetings with an American intelligence agency. I – we – were always fascinated by their obsession with individuals. One time they proudly presented each of our group with a chart showing the Boss’ associates distributed into three groups. I’m sure creating this had cost a lot of time and money, but what use was it? Did it allow us to predict better, understand better? Of course it didn’t. Quite apart from the absurdity of thinking that an individual was 100% in one group and 0% in the other two – least one fitted two groups equally well – the truth was that they were a team which made decisions and outsiders had no idea what went on inside the process. The three-group division just led to more ungrounded speculation – if some decision were imagined to be to the benefit of one group, then a flurry of speculation about who was up and who was down would erupt. Theorising in the absence of data: a labour of crackpots. Lots of money, time and promotions but very little understanding. On another occasion their predictions at a leadership change were entirely personal – if X, then this, if Y, then that. (And the person who actually did succeed wasn’t on their list.) My group’s approach was to try and describe what constraints the as-yet-unknown successor would have to deal with. We were trying to work out the context; they were talking personalities. But there is an objective reality: and the most powerful and strong-willed individual can only shape the future within the existing possibilities. The American assumption seemed to be that the boss had unconstrained choices. Now it’s true that they thought of the country as a “dictatorship” but never even in the greatest tyranny has the ruler been able to do anything he wanted to. No wonder they have, over the ensuing twenty years, been invariably wrong. The simple-minded and ignorant obsession with personalities leads nowhere.
Did it begin with the Calvinists of Plymouth Rock and their division of humanity into the saved and the damned? Was it reinforced a century and a half later by the conviction that King George single-handedly caused “repeated Injuries and Usurpations” and urged on “the merciless Indian Savages”? Or is it of more recent origin? Hollywood’s rugged individuals saving the day at the end of the movie? Who can say, but it seems to be hard-wired into the American view of the world – or at least their view of the rest of the world. And the news media play along every time: the problem is Leader X, if we replace him, all will be better.
I have just finished a book about the CIA which mentions the Kennedy Administration’s obsession about Fidel Castro. “‘We were hysterical about Castro,’ Defense Secretary Robert McNamara acknowledged”; there were innumerable assassination plots. The missile crisis seems to have brought Kennedy to his senses and, a couple of months before his assassination, the CIA principal had to tell the mobster he had picked to organise it that the plot to kill Castro had been terminated. None of it amounted to anything and, in the words of one player “so much of the goddamn stuff was really juvenile.” Sixty years later, Fidel Castro is gone but Cuba remains – still defiant.
Mohammad Mosaddegh of Iran was a problem; after he was overthrown Iran was not a problem for a while but today it’s an even bigger problem; and they still resent his overthrow. Ngô Đình Diệm in Vietnam was a problem; but his death just led to more war. Mohamed Farrah Aidid of Somalia was another who had to go, but after the Battle Of Mogadishu it was the Americans and NATO who went; Somalia, much now as it was then, has faded from the news. Slobodan Milošević was the Butcher of the Balkans until a court found that he wasn’t so guilty after all. Saddam Hussein was a pretty comprehensive problem, the NYT informed us; now he’s gone and Iraq is still a problem – can’t win it, can’t leave it. Kims in North Korea come and go; it remains the same. And so on and on – Assad, Maduro, Qaddafi, Arafat, Daniel Ortega and Yanukovych; all individuals who were imagined to be the single roadblock in the path of… The Better, Progress, Democracy and all other Good Things.
But the two biggest are Russian President Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinpeng. I have written enough about the crazy American obsession with Putin: five years ago I wrote A Brief Compendium of Nonsense About Putin. Since then he has grown in monstrosity: election rigger, computer hacker, serial poisoner, “Russia under Putin poses an existential threat to the United States and other countries of the West, Russia’s neighbors, and his own people” is a typical effusion. Note the personalism: the “existential threat” is “Russia under Putin”, not “Russia”. If only Putin could be got rid of…
The author of this piece goes on: “China will be at the top of the to-do list”. And the Atlantic Council has emitted The Longer Telegram: Toward A New American China Strategy written by Anonymous. Clearly it is supposed to echo Mr X’s (George Kennan’s) Long Telegram. But some differences: this is longer – much longer, grinding on for seven times the length of Kennan’s essay. Secondly, Kennan himself didn’t think that his recommendations had been well followed and was utterly opposed to NATO expansion and Western triumphantasies. I will certainly not waste my time reading this midden of prolixity (one wishes an ex-PFC Wintergreen had binned it), the summary is more than enough – and it’s longer than Kennan’s essay. The very first sentence puts us on familiar ground
The single most important challenge facing the United States in the twenty-first century is the rise of an increasingly authoritarian China under President and General Secretary Xi Jinping.
“China under President and General Secretary Xi Jinping”, “Russia under Putin”. Back to personalities.
…Xi has returned China… quasi-Maoist personality cult… systematic elimination of his political opponents…. Xi has used ethnonationalism… Xi’s China… Xi has demonstrated… China under… Xi is no longer just a problem for US primacy. He now presents a serious problem for the whole of the democratic world…
He is the problem and “All US political and policy responses to China therefore should be focused through the principal lens of Xi himself.” No Xi, no problem; no Putin, no problem; no Saddam, no problem; no Qaddafi, no problem. Away we go again.
Better informed people point out that Xi Jinpeng’s policies have a context: we start with Deng Xiaoping’s strategic guideline “hide capabilities and bide time”. Once capabilities could no longer be hidden, they moved to Hu Jintao’s “Actively Accomplish Something”. That something – or rather, those many somethings – are being actively accomplished by Xi Jinpeng. Far from a polity captured by a personality, China has a collective leadership focussed on a long-term strategy.
But that is only one voice in the background and the personality-obsessed (Very Much) Longer Telegram comes from the Atlantic Council which has a far greater influence on US and NATO activities. As it is engummed in personalism, so are they.
What do the personality-obsessed suggest be done to get rid of Xi? Well, this is a little more difficult than other cases: bombing got rid of Saddam and Qaddafi but China is too strong. Economic measures, as even someone as dim as Anonymous realises, might hurt the USA more than China. Stripped of nostalgianism (the US must “retain collective economic and technological superiority”), delusion (“Dividing Russia from China in the future is equally [critical]”) and degraded touchstones (“current rules-based liberal international order and, critically, its ideological underpinnings, including core democratic values”), the strategy offered is pitiful.
We are invited to be “laser focused” on the assumption that Xi’s so-called one man rule is resented by many in China; if a wedge can be driven into the leadership, Beijing will return to the happy pre-Xi state when
China, under all five of its post-Mao leaders prior to Xi, was able to work with the United States. Under them, China aimed to join the existing international order, not to remake it in China’s own image. Now, however, the mission for US China strategy should be to see China return to its pre-2013 path—i.e., the pre-Xi strategic status quo.
One is reminded of Napoleon’s delusion that Russia’s nobles could be wedged away from Alexander and the undying conviction that one more targetted sanction will make Putin’s henchmen kick him out. But, enough of Anonymous’ fancies – they have no base in reality: the USA out-sourced its manufacturing to China long ago and won’t be getting it back, wokeism is killing its education system, its politics are broken, its military is losing everywhere and doesn’t realise it, a tsunami of debt has built up. Most absurd of all, after years of needless hostility to Russia, Washington has no hope of separating Moscow from Beijing. And Xi Jinpeng is not some rogue who seized control – he is the top of a robust pyramid.
The only significance of this paltry effort is that it gives us another – and depressingly influential – example of the curious American obsession with personalities – everything in Chinese-US relations was going along swimmingly until Xi. But actually, as anyone capable of seeing reality knows, China is much, much more than one man.
China/Russia/Iran/Iraq/insert-name-of-country was happy to accept its place in the Rules-Based International Order until that nasty Xi/Putin/Ayatollah/Saddam/insert-name changed everything; get rid of him and it will all fix itself.
When are they going to understand that it’s a whole country, not just one guy?