Exclusive Interview: Former U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul discusses democracy and U.S.-China tension

It is no secret that bilateral relations between the United States and China have become strained in recent years. The meteoric rise in tension between the two superpowers has led many casual observers and experts to liken the current situation to a new Cold War. 

In his December 2020 Washington Quarterly article “Cold War Lessons and Fallacies for US-China Relations Today,” former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul acknowledges that there are parallels between present U.S.-China tensions and the tensions between the United States and Soviet Union that dominated the second half of the 20th century’s geopolitical landscape. However, he calls for a more nuanced approach from U.S. leading thinkers and policymakers in order to better understand the unique challenge posed by China and avoid a genuine Cold War. 

In a one-on-one interview earlier this spring with the USC Global Policy Institute, McFaul stressed that while there exist key differences between the Biden administration’s approach to China and that of the Trump administration, wariness of China is now a bipartisan consensus. In other words, there will be no “fundamental shift between — analytically — the way that the Biden administration sees the China challenge and the way the Trump administration” saw the challenge.

An early sign that this would be the case came in the U.S.-China Alaska meeting in March. McFaul explained that while many in China believed Biden’s election would ring in “a return to the way things were” in the Sino-American relationship, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made it clear in Alaska “that’s not going to be the case,” as he chided the Chinese delegation about human rights abuses in China, aggressive regional posturing, cyberattacks on the United States, and economic pressure placed on U.S. allies.

McFaul applauds President Biden and his administration for signaling early on that they are unafraid to challenge China on human rights abuses. However, he also states that the Biden administration must be careful to avoid falling into “rhetorical backs and forths” that could lead to ideological limits on U.S. debate on China and increase Sino-American tensions even more.

McFaul — who worked for the Obama administration as special assistant in the U.S. National Security Council and knows President Biden personally — emphasizes that a crucial aspect to analyzing Biden’s approach to China and foreign policy in general is understanding his “view of the world.” For one, Biden, unlike his predecessor, values alliances. In particular, he is committed to maintaining and bolstering NATO and the transatlantic alliance. Conversely, some experts believed that Trump would have abandoned NATO entirely if reelected in 2020. Additionally, McFaul said, Biden “cares about democracy and human rights” and “he’s more than willing to … meet with non-governmental actors, human rights activists, [and] civil society leaders.” 

One issue that particularly concerns McFaul is the discourse surrounding different policy approaches to China. He argues the dialogue has become somewhat “cartoonized.” For example, individuals have been labeled either “hawks” or “doves” and categorized as either “tough on China” or not tough on China. In McFaul’s mind, this false dichotomy distracts from what should be the main concern for U.S. policymakers and analysts: “How does this policy impact American national interest?”

McFaul also contends the debate has been characterized as involving only those who believe we are and should be entering a Cold War with China and those who believe the China issue has no relation to the Cold War. He recognizes that there are certainly some similarities between the Soviet-American relationship in the mid-20th century and the modern Sino-American relationship. For example, much like Soviet-American tensions, Sino-American tensions pit the Global East against the Global West in an ideological struggle. But he stresses that the Cold War 2.0 viewpoint of U.S.-China relations is a drastic oversimplification. He believes a black-and-white depiction of many nuanced opinions on China runs the risk of creating mass misunderstanding of the unique challenge China poses to the United States today and will continue to pose for the foreseeable future. In McFaul’s opinion there is no “more important policy to be debating healthily than the China policy,” and hopefully “there will be enough voices […] interrogating assumptions that the policymakers are making.”

McFaul, who is now a professor at Stanford, is opposed to deeming tensions between the United States and China a repeat of the Cold War but he firmly believes that analyzing U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War can help the United States optimize its choices when it comes to dealing with China. In his words, there are “some things that we did well in the Cold War and there are some things we did really poorly in the Cold War […] so let’s not just run that playbook again.” We should “take out some of the bad plays so that we’re more effective this time around.” These bad plays include the Vietnam War, the narrowing of acceptable political discourse in the United States, and the toppling of democratically elected leaders around the world – particularly in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. Moreover, he stresses U.S. leaders must “remember that there are some things that are categorically unlike the Cold War.” 

Indeed, unlike the Soviet Union, China is entrenched in the global capitalist system and is involved in numerous multilateral organizations that the United States also belongs to. Thus, whereas the Cold War was a contest between capitalism and communism, current Sino-American competition is a contest between democracy and authoritarianism. Due to the key differences between modern U.S.-China tensions and the Cold War, McFaul argues that rather than completely decoupling from China, the United States would do better by remaining “coupled in international regimes and international rulemaking bodies that can influence [China’s] behavior.” Still, he argues that in more precisely targeted arenas, in which it is “too dangerous […] to be dependent on China,” decoupling should be pursued.

McFaul is no hardliner on Beijing, but he recognizes that China poses a considerable threat to the liberal democratic norms that the United States seeks to maintain and promote around the world. “We cannot ignore China’s normative arguments for autocracy” and efforts to export autocracy across the globe, he stresses. He believes the best way to counter China’s authoritarianism is not through provocations and bellicose rhetoric, but rather by improving the state of American democracy. Political polarization, racial inequity, and efforts to undermine faith in elections have put U.S. democracy through the proverbial ringer in recent years. 

The Chinese Communist Party, says McFaul, is betting that the United States will be unable to reverse its democratic decline. In other words, it believes that democracy in the United States – and around the world – is proving that it no longer works. The most effective way to combat China’s rise on the global stage, per McFaul, is to prove this theory wrong and restore faith in democracy both in the United States and around the world. This can be done by making strides on racial justice, improving voting rights protections, reducing gerrymandering, and seeking political common ground. 

Of course, this is all easier said than done. Yet McFaul notes that improving American democracy is imperative to maintaining global peace. From a normative standpoint, doing so will provide the United States with greater moral authority to speak out against China’s human rights abuses. Meanwhile, from a security standpoint, bolstering democracy at home would serve as a strong deterrent against Chinese regional aggression. As McFaul says, “you don’t want Beijing thinking the U.S. is so divided that it won’t protect Taiwan.” For if China comes to this conclusion, it may very well gamble on an invasion of the island. Such an invasion would have the potential to trigger war between China and the United States. 

Asked at what point U.S. cooperation with China ceases to be an option due to the CCP’s campaign of genocide against Uyghur Muslims and its persecution of countless other ethnic minorities, McFaul stated that he is unsure of what would be the breaking point. What he did offer, however, is hope that the CCP realizes that state-sponsored crimes against humanity are hurting its international standing. He pointed to protests against China’s genocide of the Uyghurs that have taken place throughout the Western world as evidence.

The future of Sino-American relations is as unclear as ever. What is clear to McFaul, however, is that the United States can avoid a repeat of the Cold War if its leaders learn from the key lessons — positive and negative — from that era and recognize the key distinctions between the Soviet Union of decades past and the China of today. However, McFaul also believes that if the United States fails to act tactfully it could provoke China into launching something far worse than a Second Cold War. In a high-stakes geopolitical game, McFaul believes the United States’ answer to China lies in making difficult but necessary strides at home.

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