19 November, 2020

Do Not Choose Susan Rice

Image source

There is a grand tradition in American politics of bashing the other side's nominees. In the spirit of that tradition, I have a new piece out in the American Conservative that questions whether Susan Rice is fit to be the Biden administration’s nominee for Secretary of State. Rice is a controversial figure for all sorts of reasons. Most go back to her role in the Clinton administration’s response to the Rwandan genocide, or of her handling of the Libyan and Syrian crises in the Obama administration. Most famously, Rice became the Republican beat-up-doll of choice in 2013, when the terrorist attack in Benghazi was being used for maximum partisan advantage.

I have always considered the Benghazi stuff to be a bit spurious. Larger questions surrounding the wisdom of American intervention in Syria and Libya have far more merit, and I was disappointed—if not surprised—to find that Rice’s memoir does not honestly grapple with the poisonous legacies of America's decision to intervene in either of these conflicts. But my critique of Rice in the American Conservative is not grounded in her behavior in the Near East, but the Far.

 The Biden administration has talked a great deal about the need to ground China policy in a cooperative framework with America’s allies. But it is precisely Susan Rice's track record on this issue that makes Asian diplomats and officials so concerned about her potential return to power. There are two issues at play here here. The first involves Rice’s personal foibles and her consequent dismal reputation across the Indo-Pacific. But also at issue is a broader set of misconceptions about the respective strengths and weaknesses of the Obama and Trump administration’s approach to Asia. My hope is that now that the election is over there is room to be a bit more clear-eyed on these questions. My fear, however, is that the Biden administration will succumb to the sore temptation to abandon any genuine good done over the last four simply because a Trump official was the one who do it. An evenhanded evaluation of the Trump era’s mistakes and accomplishments in this domain is needed, so that new the administration may jettison less helpful schemes without throwing out the policies that increased America's credibility and leverage in the region.

I am sure that today’s piece will be the first of many in this vein. It should be seen as building on earlier work written by James Crabtree and Jeremy Stern earlier this year. [1] Both have pointed out that Trumpish diplomacy was not nearly as subversive in Asia as it was in Europe. I particular recommend reading Stern’s eloquent Palladium essay, “America’s New Post-Western Foreign Policy,” which is one of the best pieces I have read on American foreign policy in the 2010s. I quote from Stern in my new American Conservative piece, but if you only have enough time today to read one essay, read his, not mine. 

Stern observes that while Obama had a declared commitment to Asia and seemed destined to be the harbinger of a new Pacific order, his administration's foreign policy was tradition-bound, wedded by ideology and personal style to the values, institutions, issue sets, and personalities of the transatlantic relationship.

Susan Rice personifies the worst tendencies of this strain of Obama-era diplomacy. This is why so many foreign policy figures in countries like Taiwan, Japan, Australia, India,  and the ASEAN states dislike her. I provide several quotations to this effect in AmCon. Some might accuse me of cherry picking here, and there is some merit to that critique, but if I am cherry picking—well, Susan Rice is just about the only diplomatic figure that I could cherry pick about. If not every diplomat despises Rice, no other American official generates enough discontent that it leaks out into the open press at all (there are a few more common punching bags in private. One day it might be necessary to write about them too).

The one group of people who unequivocally  appreciate Susan Rice are the Chinese. I describe why this is so in my piece:
Above all else, Rice has earned a well-deserved reputation as the senior American official most willing to sacrifice the interests of American partners to chase what Rice calls “expanded cooperation” with Beijing. Susan Rice credits herself with a commanding role in the implementation of Obama’s China strategy. In her memoir Rice describes why she, as National Security Advisor, needed to take control of America’s relationship with China, instead of allowing another NSC “Principal” (like the Secretary of State) to take charge: 
China has long preferred dealing directly with the White House on bilateral affairs . . . [and] given the complexity of the relationship, its many economic and strategic facets, and the need to ensure that multiple disparate agencies sing from the same hymnal, strong White House leadership makes sense. As NSA I embraced this responsibility. 
This framing may seem innocuous, but its sentiments raise alarm bells across Asia. By elevating U.S.-China relations as the bilateral relationship in American foreign policy (Rice often describes it as “the most consequential bilateral relationship in the world”), the one realm of cooperation that demands continuous cross-domain coordination from the White House itself, Rice devalues America’s actual partners in the region. Taiwanese, Filipino, Australian, and Indian diplomats (to say nothing of their Singaporean, Thai, or Vietnamese counterparts) know that if all aspects of the China relationship are cross-linked, then their interests will always be traded out for better Chinese behavior with respect to Iran, North Korea, climate change, the cyber realm, or any other domain the Chinese decide to pull a tantrum over that week. This framing is even more humiliating for the Japanese. It forces them into an undeserved second-class spot. Though Tokyo is America’s most important ally, the hub on which U.S. foreign policy depends, and a power more crucial to American-led financial and macroeconomic coordination than Beijing has ever been, Tokyo was not given the same bilateral access to the Obama White House that Rice arranged for the Chinese Communist Party. Susan Rice owned the China relationship; Japanese concerns did not command the attention of any of the Principals. Obama hardly spoke to Putin without first hearing Merkel’s take; the Japanese were given little input into American strategy for managing China.[2]

The Trump administration, in contrast, made a point of seeking Japanese input on all aspects of China and North Korea policy, both at the level of the President and those a few rungs below him. In two years Trump had quadruple the personal contact with Prime Minister Abe than Obama had during his two terms as President. As I note,
Before Trump, this sort of cooperation and engagement was reserved for the Chinese, favored European allies, and Middle Eastern countries then subject to American counterinsurgency campaigns. Rice’s autobiography reflects this focus. Of its 482 pages, only 13 cover China—most of which are spent celebrating the administration’s 2015 cyber agreement with Beijing (which never had a credible enforcement mechanism, was still not fully implemented at the end of Obama’s tenure, and was abandoned by the Chinese shortly after he left office) and the administration’s unsuccessful efforts to convince the communists to take a harder line against North Korea. But these 13 pages are a mountain compared to her sparse treatment of America’s Asian partners. Across the book, Japan and India are only given a few scattered mentions. The U.S.-Philippines relationship is reduced to a sentence. There is no entry for “Taiwan” in the index. 
Rice boasts in her book that she “understands the interests and the idiosyncrasies” of the Chinese, but never demonstrates similar knowledge or concern with any other power in the region.[3]

There were other examples I could have given in the column had I the space to do so. Rice's declarations on Asia do not inspire confidence. She was the first American official to adopt China's "new type of great power relations" framing as official American policy. After leaving office she has repeatedly affirmed the supremacy of the U.S.-China bilateral relationship and continued to argue that all aspects of that relationship should be cross linked to each other. See this interview for a good example of that sort of talk—and see that terrible quote at the end:
Rice also told Rose that although China has been more aggressively building a presence in the South China Sea, she believes the U.S. has “managed” them in that regard.[4]

We managed them! America did not manage the Chinese in the South China Sea; they managed us. That an American official could look at the aftermath of the Scarborough Shoal incident and spin it as some sort of victory in relationship management—well, is it any surprise that she has such a low reputation in the region?

Biden ran on a return to normalcy. He also ran a friend to the American alliance system. The tension here is that America's Indo-Pacific partners do not want a restoration of the 2016 status quo. They have benefited in too many ways from being at the diplomatic center of America's newfound strategic approach to China. The Trump administration's abrasive, tackless, and at times malicious dealings with our European partners were unnecessary, and evils done there must be undone. But another factor behind European angst is the larger shift in American attention, resources, and commitments from West to East. This shift must not end. It would be a mistake for Biden to restore the old Obama administration's obsession with European issues and Middle Eastern crises on the one hand, and the privileged position it gave to Chinese perspectives on the other. That is what is actually at stake in Rice's appointment.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
If you found this take on American policy in Asia of interest, you might also find the posts  "Why I Fear For Taiwan," "Losing Taiwan is Losing Japan," "The Road to Beijing Runs Through Tokyo," and "Give No Heed to the Walking Dead." To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 [1] Jeremy Stern, “America’s New Post-Western Foreign Policy,” Palladium (4 September 2020); James Crabtree, "Asian leaders underestimate the danger of Trump's reelection," Nikkei (27 February 2020); "Biden Has a Serious Credibility Problem in East Asia," Foreign Policy (10 September 2020).

 [2] Tanner Greer, "Susan Rice is Asia's Worst Nightmare," American Conservative (19 November 2020).

[3] ibid

[4]  "Susan Rice: "We can’t afford to play fast and loose" with China," CBS News (17 January 2017).

1 comment:

Eugine Nier said...

In case you haven't been paying attention, the election isn't over.