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Foreign Policy

General Wesley Clark’s Fanciful China Analysis

Oct 24 , 2014

Retired four star U.S. Army general Wesley K. Clark, 69, who in 2004 entered the U.S. presidential election race as a Democrat, is a man whose character and accomplishments in life are justly admired within America’s military establishment as well as by the general public.

It is disappointing, if not alarming, therefore, that Clark’s most recent attempt to remain relevant —a new book entitled “Don’t Wait for the Next War: A Strategy for American Growth and Global Leadership”—seems to posit China’s rise as a threat to the world order as we know it.

I have not yet read Clark’s book. Our understanding of it comes from an essay, entitled “Getting Real About China,” adapted from the book, published in The New York Times’ Op/Ed pages on October 10, 2014.   

Reading this essay, one is struck by statements or phrases that reveal, at best, incomplete understanding, at worst, grossly inaccurate, if not wildly fanciful, ideas about China’s basic policies, principles, concrete actions in both domestic and international affairs.

Clark’s analysis betrays a point-of-view, an attitude and conceptual bias that is prevalent among America’s political and national security establishments.

It begins: “China’s suppression of political dissent…and its close ties to Russia, Iran and North Korea, have finally laid to rest the dream that many Western leaders have had since the 1990s: the ‘constructive engagement’ would eventually, inevitably lead to more openness and democracy…Instead, the opposite has occurred: China is more confident, more assertive, and also more closed.”

Anyone who knows China knows that it is in no way “more closed” now than twenty years ago, or that it has not in myriad ways become more open and democratic, as well as prosperous. “Assertive” and “confident?”  Perhaps, but not in all things and all ways, and not in ways that should worry anyone of good will.

Clark continues:  “[China] has rejected both the move toward democracy and acceptance of human and civil rights that Americans had hoped would emerge from China’s astonishing economic rise. Even more worrisome, China’s foreign policy relies on keenly calculated self-interest, at the expense of international institutions, standards and obligations the United States has sought to champion.” 

All of this is highly debatable if not libelously wrong. But Clark does not stop here. He continues by accusing China of threatening the entire American-led international order: 

“…the deeper strategic problem for America is China’s more fundamental challenge to the global architecture of trade, law and peaceful resolution of disputes that the United States and its allies created after World War II. China’s strategic rise—patient, nuanced and farsighted—threatens all of this….China will seek structures and relationships that support Communist Party rule at home, and its policy that countries should not intervene in one another’s affairs….[Such as would lead to] a fundamental weakening of institutions and values, including the rule of law.”

Positing a “China threat” to the status quo in military and geostrategic terms, Clark, with a gratuitous and provocative, if fanciful reference to Okinawa, asserts: 

“As China presses its territorial claims on the South China Sea and East China Sea more forcefully—including even a claim, in some quarters, of jurisdiction over Okinawa, where American forces are based—the United States is being drawn into regional controversies…It will be in China’s interest to force us progressively to choose, on issue after issue, between China and the interests of our allies in the region.”

How should the United States respond?  Here, Clark demonstrates hardened Pentagon perspectives and the poverty of strategic imagination (or rather, Pentagon domination) in U.S. policy toward Asia prevailing in Washington during the past twenty years.  He implicitly argues for maintaining America’s position of overwhelming military superiority and regional military hegemony, underpinned by an expanding (clearly anti-China) alliance system, for continuing forward deployments of strategic forces, and for accelerating a largely U.S.-driven regional arms race.

“Even without any military confrontation, the balance of power in the western Pacific will shape the Chinese predisposition to push, threaten or compromise.”

What, we want to ask Clark, about recognizing that peace and stability of this region are overwhelmingly more vital for China than for the United States?  What about a review of American “forward bases” and strategic forces in East Asia against real threats to American security? 

What, in particular, we would have hoped to glean from Clark’s essay, or book, but did not, was a new strategic order that would fully recognize and appropriately accommodate China’s legitimate security and strategic concerns. China has been adumbrating the outlines of such a new order as “a new type of great power relations.” To be viable long-term, such relations would have to be based on strategic equality, which should mean dismantling the current highly unbalanced in U.S. favor alliance system. Regrettably, Clark is silent on this.

Instead, he asserts untruths about China’s stances toward international engagement:

“America must persuade China that its interests lie not in narrow self-aggrandizement, like expanding its territorial reach, but in assuming shared responsibility for global leadership, commensurate with its wealth and power.  The institutions of global governance—the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank and the like…remain the best framework for securing peace and prosperity around the world.  A China that turns its back on these institutions will find itself isolated and defensive….”

Clark’s book is not only, or even mainly, about China, or about American foreign policy. It is broadly about the need for and an outline of a multifaceted “national strategy.” “If we are to retain our global leadership, and be a constructive, countervailing forces as China rises, American needs a long-term strategic vision of our own:.,” he writes.

Clark’s is a progressive-internationalist (i.e., quintessentially mainstream Democrat) vision, very much in keeping with that of the Obama administration (and sure to be that of a future Hillary Clinton administration). Of course, he supports Obama’s (and Hillary’s) “pivot to Asia” policy.  

We perceive in Clark’s strained argument the Washington vested-interest driven construct of a “China threat” for justifying maintaining America’s burdensome “liberal hegemony” globally and the destabilizing U.S. alliance system in Asia. 

We can only hope that the next U.S. administration passes on most of his advice.

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