China’s True Nature is ‘Hyper-Nationalism’
An Interview With Dr. Peter Berkowitz


Dr. Peter Berkowitz

In 2019-2021, Dr. Peter Berkowitz served as the Director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Since 2007, he has been the Tad and Dianne Taube senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is the author of “Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self-Government, and Political Moderation” and “Nietzsche: The Ethics of an Immoralist,” among other works.

What should the Biden administration address in its post-midterms agenda? The Liberty spoke with Dr. Peter Berkowitz, a senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo under the Trump administration.

(Interviewer: Satoshi Nishihata)

This interview was conducted on 11/09/2022.


Nishihata: How do you think this election will be positioned against the Biden administration?

Dr. Berkowitz: The elections didn’t produce the decisive repudiation of Biden administration policies that many Republicans were hoping for. On the other hand, it seems to me a mistake for the Biden administration to be elated over the results.

If the Republicans do take the House of Representatives, as seems overwhelmingly likely right now, it will be very difficult for President Biden to pass any legislation without significant compromises with the Republicans. In my view, that would be good for the country. Moreover, the new House majority will likely conduct oversight investigations of many White House actions. I think the Biden administration faces significant challenges going forward. Although a so-called ‘red wave’ —we even spoke of a red tsunami—did not appear, this election marks a significant shift of power by providing Republicans in the House the power to check President Biden’s legislative agenda.

But even if there had been a proper red wave of Republicans, the president controls foreign policy in the American [political] system. I wouldn’t expect a significant change in U.S. foreign policy as long as President Biden is in the White House.

Nishihata: How do you think the Biden administration’s foreign policy will be changed after the midterm elections?

Dr. Berkowitz: I hope that the House of Representatives and perhaps the Senate will push the Biden administration to take actions that more consistent with some of its rhetoric, especially on the China question, the China challenge.

In February 2021, just a few weeks after he entered the White House, President Biden gave a major foreign policy speech. In it, he adopted language about China that was new for a Democrat. He referred to China as a strategic competitor. He said that the United States faces an authoritarian moment, and that the United States has to gear up for strategic competition.

Now, this language was a break with the kind of language that the Obama administration had used just four or five years earlier. The Obama administration spoke of a pivot to Asia. What does that mean? The Obama administration said we’re devoting too much time and energy to the Middle East and not enough to Asia. Asia is home to about half the world’s population and some of the world’s fastest-growing markets.

But after Mike Pompeo was named Secretary of State, a new way of speaking about China came into focus. Mike Pompeo spoke about the Chinese Communist Party, the CCP, which he distinguished from the Chinese people. Mike Pompeo insisted the CCP has malign intentions, not just to compete with the United States in the Indo-Pacific, not just to compete with the United States within the established world order, but to transform international order from – to borrow a language that was coined, as you know, by a Japanese leader, Abe to refer to the Indo-Pacific – a free and open order. China wanted to transform the free and open international order by making it more friendly to authoritarianism. And not just in the Indo-Pacific but around the world.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for whom I worked as head of the policy planning staff in the State Department, helped shift that rhetoric. Biden adopted the Trump administration view – that China, led by the Chinese Communist Party, represents a strategic competitor that wants to shift world order to make it more friendly to authoritarian government.

So to answer your question, it’s my hope that a Republican-led House of Representatives and perhaps the Democratic-led Senate will push the Biden administration to adopt policies that are more consistent with the good rhetoric it has adopted, which begins to recognize the China challenge.

Nishihata: The Biden administration appears to be promoting division throughout the world, as with the case of Saudi Arabia.

Dr. Berkowitz: First, we should say that the United States was already quite divided when the Biden administration came to power. I agree that President Biden has adopted policies and he has employed rhetoric that further divide the nation. As you know, in the last three months, he’s given speeches – one in Philadelphia near Independence Hall, one just recently near Union Station, Washington, D.C. – in which he has essentially pronounced half the country as opposed to democracy. This is an outrageous accusation.

Regarding foreign policy, I also think you’re right. Especially on the question of Saudi Arabia. Joe Biden, in the 2020 campaign, declared that Saudi Arabia deserved to be regarded as a pariah nation. I don’t remember Biden using any rhetoric like that about the Islamic Republic of Iran. Both are authoritarian, but there are very important differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran is fomenting terrorism and destabilizing regimes throughout the Middle East; Saudi Arabia is not. Second, Iran regards the United States as a principal enemy; Saudi Arabia regards the United States as a principal friend. Third, the world economy, and therefore the American economy, is closely bound up with Saudi oil.

While it may be necessary for the United States to engage in tough diplomacy with Saudi Arabia in a difficult, dangerous, and important region of the world like the Middle East – which is still responsible for supplying a large percentage of the world’s energy needs – it’s important for the United States to recognize who its friends and partners are and who its adversaries are, and to work better with our friends and partners — Saudi Arabia being one of them.


The Trump Administration Was Centered on ‘Freedom’

Nishihata: What do you think is the difference between the Trump administration and the Biden administration?

Dr. Berkowitz: The Trump administration, especially the State Department led by Mike Pompeo, thought in the first place in terms of, ‘What is necessary to secure American freedom and American prosperity?’ We recognized that preserving a free and open international order was part of that. We also recognized that it’s easiest for the United States to work with fellow rights-protecting democracies. They share our values. They share our sensibilities. It’s easier to cooperate with such countries which have democratic regimes. But the world is a complicated place. And in defense of America’s freedom and a free and open world order, we sometimes also work with states which were not liberal democracies, like Saudi Arabia and Vietnam. But the greater good we aimed at was protecting American freedom — a synonym for that is liberty – through cooperation with partners to advance our shared security interests. This was our goal in the Trump administration, in the Mike Pompeo State Department.

Now, we shared the Biden administration’s distrust of authoritarian regimes. But we also recognize that for the greater good of American freedom and a free and open international order, it was sometimes necessary to work with authoritarian states, Saudi Arabia, for example. The question there for us was always, ‘Are you friendly to America? And are you with us in wanting to preserve room for independent nation states?’ So to the extent that the Biden administration believes that they can only work with democracies, I think they make a mistake. If their argument is that we tend to work best with democracies that protect rights, I agree. We work best with those countries, and we prefer them. But in the long-term struggle against the Chinese Communist Party, some of our allies, some of our friends and partners, will not be free and democratic in the way we think individuals deserve.

In the Trump administration, we spoke less of democracy and more of freedom. Our question in pursuing friendships and partnerships was, ‘Are you with us in defending a free and open international order?’ Our first question was not, ‘Are you a democracy?’ If your first and final question is, ‘Are you a democracy?’ then you create unnecessary obstacles for yourself, and you may deprive yourself of friendships and partnerships you need. Again, I emphasize we, the United States, are likely to work better, more effectively with democracies that protect rights. But we can’t restrict ourselves to those rights-protecting democracies. The world is too big and too complicated and too dangerous, and the competition with China is too intense.


The Biden Administration Looks Away From Deprivations of Freedom in China

Nishihata: The Biden administration doesn’t touch on the issues of Hong Kong or the Uyghurs. What do you think about this?

Dr. Berkowitz: I believe that the Biden administration should have followed in the footsteps of the Trump administration. As you know, in January 2021, shortly before the Trump administration left office, Secretary of State Pompeo issued a formal State Department determination that the Chinese Communist Party was guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide in Xinjiang for its outrageous treatment of the Uyghur people. Secretaryt Blinken has affirmed that determination. I think that the United States has many tools in the diplomatic toolbox to further bring to the world’s attention the human rights abuses committed by the CCP in Hong Kong, in the northwestern part of China, in Xinjiang, and for that matter, throughout China.

Six million Tibetans or so are oppressed in China, three or four million ethnic Mongolians in northeastern China, 70 million or more Christians in China. In fact, the CCP oppresses most Chinese people who live under a massive surveillance state, the largest surveillance state ever created by a government to monitor the population and intrude on their privacy. The U.S. government could do more. For example, the White House or the Secretary of State could meet with dissidents and call to the world’s attention the deprivations of freedom in Hong Kong and throughout the People’s Republic of China.


China’s True Nature Isn’t Simply Communism. It’s ‘Hyper-Nationalism’.

Nishihata: Some people claim that the Biden administration doesn’t understand the true nature of the CCP. What is your view of China’s true nature?

Dr. Berkowitz: There are certainly figures inside the Biden administration who have an excellent understanding of China’s true nature. One is Rush Doshi who published an important book last year called The Long Game. He understands China’s long-term strategy.

Still, there is reason to be concerned about how well we understand the CCP. You cannot begin to understand the conduct of the Chinese Communist Party until you pay attention to the fact that the Chinese Communist Party is, well, communist. What do I mean by that? I mean that they have adopted a Marxist-Leninist view of governance in China. What do I mean by Marxist-Leninist? They have created a one-party repressive dictatorship. The party is above the government. First comes the party, then comes the government. They rule by terror. The army is not of the people but of the party. The CCP does not protect individual rights. They believe that the individual should serve the government.

However, and you know we laid this out in the policy planning staff report called The Elements of the China Challenge, it’s not enough to understand that the Chinese Communist Party is communist. They’re also nationalists and hypernationalists.

Marxism-Leninism is not enough to explain Chinese actions. I’ll give you an example. There’s nothing in Marxism-Leninism that says that Hong Kong always has been and always must remain a part of China. There’s nothing in Marxism-Leninism that says that Taiwan always has been and must remain a part of China. And there’s certainly nothing in Marxism-Leninism that says that China is the Middle Kingdom, that Beijing must be the center of a new world order that reflects socialism with Chinese characteristics.

None of this comes from Marxism-Leninism. It comes from a commitment to a hyper-Chinese nationalism that teaches China is the Middle Kingdom, that China must be the center of world affairs, that while China need not conquer countries around the world, countries around the world must show their due deference to China’s power, greatness, and centrality. To understand the CCP’s efforts to exert hegemony not only in the Indo-Pacific but around the world, you have to understand China’s conduct, and to understand the goals of its conduct you must understand both its communist ideas and its hypernationalist ideas.

Nishihata: What do you think is needed to stop China from invading Taiwan?

Dr. Berkowitz: I think we must do more of what we began to do in the Trump administration to prevent any changes to the status quo that are not agreed to by both the PRC and Taiwan. First, we need to bolster American defenses and the American alliance system within the Indo-Pacific region to deter the CCP from taking unilateral actions. That includes selling the Taiwanese the sophisticated weapons they need to deter the Chinese.

We need to continue, as Mike Pompeo did, to strengthen the Quad – the organization Prime Minister Abe helped originally launch – of Japan, India, Australia and the United States to pursue a variety of America’s interests in the larger Indo-Pacific region. America needs to conduct itself in other regions of the world – in the Middle East, in Europe, in Africa and South America – in ways that give our friends and partners in the Indo-Pacific confidence that they can rely upon us. America has to concentrate on getting its own economic house in order.

Those are the places where I’d begin. To summarize: We need a better deterrence strategy in the Indo-Pacific, starting with selling Taiwan the weapons it needs. We need to conduct ourselves and the rest of the world in ways that inspire confidence in our friends and partners. And we need to get our economic house in order so that in the event of hostilities, the United States will be operating on a strong and prosperous base.


Chasing Down the Covid-19 Question: China, Wuhan Lab and the WHO

Nishihata: How do you think we can make the Biden administration adopt a more responsible China policy regarding Covid-19?

Dr. Berkowitz: Concerning Covid, there are a number of issues. First, what is China’s role in this worldwide pandemic? We amy not know for certain the origins of Covid-19, but we know that long after China prohibited flights from the city of Wuhan to other parts of China, China continued to permit flights from Wuhan to other parts of the world. I think the fair inference is that China already knew that they were dealing with a dangerous virus. They didn’t want it to spread through China, but they permitted it to spread through the rest of the world. This is egregious conduct, and it requires investigation. The Biden administration ought to be pursuing this.

Second, around March, April, May 2020, Senator Tom Cotton and Secretary of State Pompeo both suggested the possibility that Covid-19 originated in a laboratory, the Wuhan Institute of Virology. They were ridiculed and denounced for this suggestion. They were accused of engaging in conspiracy theories. Now, more than two years later, the weight of the evidence suggests that they were right that the virus likely originated in the laboratory. The matter has not been decisively resolved. I would have liked to see the Biden administration much more aggressively investigate this matter. But at best, they’ve dragged their heels.

Third, the United States must do a much better job of investigating what role if any the World Health Organization played in cooperating with China to obstruct the dissemination of timely information about Covid-19. There’s a lot we could still do to call the CCP to account for its role in covering up the virus and depriving the world of information it desperately needed about the virus.


Bringing Together the Harsh Realities of Foreign Affairs and War Along With the Moral Dimension

Nishihata: The Reagan administration believed that balancing through a strategy of deterrence was an immoral strategy, and we think the idea behind it was, ‘Why wait to dismantle the Soviet Union?’ It seems his policies were based on moral values, but the Biden administration doesn’t have the moral clarity that Reagan and Trump had. How do you feel about this issue?

Dr. Berkowitz: It’s true that Ronald Reagan identified the strategy of mutual assured destruction as based on immorality, but he didn’t outright overturn or reject it. He said, ‘We have to move away from it to the extent possible because it is based on an immoral idea.’ It seems to me that the Biden administration makes two kinds of mistakes. They moralize. And they behave in ways that neglect morality altogether.

Take the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Biden administration supposedly condemns Saudi Arabia on moral grounds. But where were the moral considerations when the Biden administration withdrew so chaotically from Afghanistan without a concern for our translators and our friends in Afghanistan who had made sacrifices working with the United States?

The trick of foreign policy is to weave together as coherently as possible moral considerations with considerations of the harsh realities of foreign affairs, diplomacy and war. This is a formidable challenge for every regime. Every administration, Democratic and Republican, wrestles with it. But I think the Biden administration could do a much better job in bringing together the moral dimension along with the realistic dimension.

Nishihata: It seems very difficult to have coherence.

Dr. Berkowitz: Yes. That’s what I want to say. As the United States has great power responsibilities, we can’t avoid tragic dilemmas. Our interests and responsibilities necessarily entangle us in very difficult moral questions. My worry is, though, that the Biden administration combines high-minded preaching about morals, like to Saudi Arabia, and then disregard of morality, say, in Afghanistan or in the failure to stand up for human rights when it comes to dealing with the Chinese Communist Party.

Nishihata: Thank you. The last question is about Iran. There have been big protests in Iran. What is your view on the issue of Iran’s democratization?

Dr. Berkowitz: Americans have been hoping for decades that Iran will democratize. We don’t have an embassy in Tehran. We don’t have people on the ground in Iran, at least not that I know about. It’s very difficult for us to influence policy directly there. But I would like to see the United States come out much more strongly in support of the women and others who are demanding freedom in Iran.

I worry that the Biden administration is inhibited by their headlong pursuit of a second Iran deal, just as the Obama administration in 2009 declined to speak out forcibly on behalf of the Iran protesters after the corrupt election of 2009. Presumably, the Obama administration hesitated because it didn’t want to drive the Ayatollahs away from negotiating a deal over Iran’s nuclear program. We’re making the same mistake today. We’re pursuing a vain Iran deal while missing the opportunity to show that America stands with people all over the world who seek freedom.

China’s True Nature is ‘Hyper-Nationalism’
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