For this year’s Thanksgiving Day column, The Cipher Brief revisits a unique column by Michael Morell, the former acting director and deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He agreed to The Cipher Brief’s request to play the role of a senior Chinese intelligence analyst responsible for making assessments about the U.S. and U.S. policy, as he’s so often told us that it’s critical to understand the perspectives of the “other guy.”
For the purpose of the interview, we will use the common Chinese name Wang Yong for our fictional analyst. Michael wanted our readers to know that these are not necessarily his views of the U.S. but rather how he believes a Chinese analyst might see us.
The Cipher Brief: Most of our readers will not know you, and they will not recognize your name or even that of the institute where you work. Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Wang Yong: Of course. I am the senior analyst responsible for looking at your country. I have worked on U.S. issues for the entirety of my 30-year career. I work at the Chinese Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, which is the analytic arm of the Ministry of State Security, our primary civilian intelligence service. I studied in your country, receiving an undergraduate degree in political science at Harvard and a graduate degree in U.S. history at Stanford. I have served several tours at our embassy in Washington and consulates around the U.S. I have a large number of contacts in the States, with whom I interact frequently. I regularly host in Beijing visitors from the U.S. – public officials, academics, and members of think tanks. I speak fluent English. I think I know your country very well.
TCB: How do you see the U.S. over the longer term? Where do you think we are going as a country?
Wang: The U.S. is sick – that is the word I use. The evidence for this judgment is compelling. Productivity growth, the lifeblood of any economy, has fallen sharply since the mid 1990s, and it has been weak since the late 1960s. Wealth and income inequality have increased substantially; the gap in wealth between the rich and poor is staggering; the U.S. is now an outlier among developed countries. The American dream – the Horatio Alger story – is fading into a memory; the probability of someone born in a lower income group moving to a higher one has declined, and many parents no longer believe that their children will have a better standard of living than them. These are all fundamental changes from the period after WWII.
Social divisions and social erosion have grown. Racial, ethnic, and religious tensions are on the rise; in polling, large numbers of Americans admit to holding discriminatory views of blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Muslims. It was once considered socially unacceptable to express racist views, but that norm is breaking down. Drug addiction is a serious problem across the entire society; drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, with a clear link to economic conditions.
Your political elite – your professional political class – has simply not dealt successfully with the country’s problems. As a group, they are, in short, incompetent. They have been so for at least a generation. How could you come to any other conclusion? This is a view shared by many of your own citizens. They do not believe that your government works. In the primaries for the 2016 election, more votes were cast for political outsiders than for professional politicians. That speaks volumes.
When I look at your country, I sense lost confidence. I see it in many of your citizens and politicians blaming other countries for your own problems. I saw it in the resonance of President Trump’s campaign slogan “Make American Great Again.” I saw it in President Obama’s statement that the U.S. would remain a global power for the next 100 years. Only someone not quite sure about that would need to say it.
Still, having said all that, I chose the word “sick” purposefully. Sick does not imply dying. The U.S. is still a strong and powerful country. It is still a global power without peer – including both hard and soft power. It has many strengths – creativity and innovation, entrepreneurship, the rule of law, higher education, and perhaps most importantly, America is where people in other countries most want to live.
Many think that America is destined to decline, but the future is not preordained. The U.S. has faced similar periods of “sickness” in its history – the Civil War, the social and economic inequalities of the Gilded Age in the late 19th century, the Great Depression, and the national malaise that followed Vietnam. In each case, the U.S. found a way to revitalize itself. That is still very much possible today, but absent such a revitalization, the illness will become more serious, and it will inevitably lead to long-term decline. The clock is ticking.
TCB: How do you think about U.S. foreign policy?
Wang: The illness that I described is deeply concerning to Americans, and it has turned them inward. President Obama and President Trump’s common instinct to spend the country’s scarce resources at home rather than abroad reflects this concern among the American public.
As a result, U.S. leadership in the world has suffered. “Pullback” is the only clear direction in U.S. foreign policy today. How else to explain President Obama’s “leading from behind” in Libya or President Trump’s “No more nation-building?” We’ve heard that President’s Trump’s key caveat on his generals’ Afghan plan was limiting how much money they could spend.
Most Americans think that we in China must be unambiguously happy about this. That would be wrong. The reduction in U.S. leadership in the world cuts two ways for us. We have benefitted significantly from the stability that the U.S. brought to the world in the decades after World War II. Your country has made mistakes in the world – when it has acted unilaterally, as it did in Iraq – but in general it has been a force for stability. We still value this stability, and the U.S. pullback from the world increases the risks for us.
At the same time, the U.S. stepping back from the world creates opportunities for China. It creates room for us to start playing more of a leadership role. That has costs for us, of course, but it has a great benefit in that we get to start writing the rules. It should be no surprise that when the U.S. wrote the post-World War II rules, it did so in a way that mostly benefitted them, that primarily served the interests of the U.S.
TCB: What do you think of President Trump?
Wang: Your President is obviously a focus of my colleagues and me. We spend many hours reading about him and talking about him. We have many thoughts. Perhaps most important, we see President Trump as a manifestation of the illness I described earlier and the voters frustration with the government’s inability to do anything about it. He did not create the frustration. He gave voice to it. We think President Trump is immensely talented at understanding the feelings of ordinary people, playing those back to them in words they understand, and convincing them that he can fix things.
This is also true, by the way, of politicians on the far left. People such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren also tap into the same frustration with government. All of this suggests to us that the 2016 election was not a sui generis event. It suggests that the politics of frustration and anger – and the populism that flows from it – is likely to be with you for some time.
As what President Trump means for my country again cuts in a variety of directions. His intentional unpredictability is worrisome. “I don’t want people to know exactly what I’m doing or thinking….I like being unpredictable,” he said in his book. Trump seems to believe that this produces fear and anxiety, which he believes can be utilized to get the best deal. Even if this is tactically right, this approach undermines U.S. leadership in the world. Leadership is produced by respect and understanding rather than by fear and confusion.
There are some specific plusses and minuses for us from President Trump’s approach. We are not sure how hard the President will push his fair trade agenda with us, but we fear it could be damaging to the global trade system, the health of our economy, and the health of the world economy. On the other hand, Trump will not be pushing us hard on the issue of human rights, if at all.
TCB: Can you comment on U.S.-Sino relations?
Wang: In our discussion so far, I think we have dealt with many of the key issues in our bilateral relationship. But, let me make a couple of points. We, in China, see the relationship between our two countries as the most important in the world, the most important for the long-term stability of the region and the world. But, we are worried that many in the U.S. do not feel the same way. We worry that many see China as a threat that needs to be contained.
These views have become policy – under the last three administrations. It does appear clear to us that the U.S. wants to block China’s growing influence in the world. How else to explain the Obama Administration’s decision to keep us out of the Transpacific Partnership? How else to explain Obama’s opposition to our Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank? How else do you explain the “pivot to Asia?”
TCB: Is war inevitable between our two countries?
Wang: No, of course not. But your question does raise what I think is the key strategic issue. The reason why the bilateral relationship between our two countries is so important is because the range of possible outcomes is so wide – from cooperation on one of the end of the spectrum, like we saw on climate change in the Obama Administration, to war at the other end of the spectrum. The decisions made in Washington and in Beijing and the interplay between those will determine where on that spectrum we end up. That is how important this is.