Until a few days ago, not that many people in the international-relations community were paying attention to Dr. Kiron Skinner, the current Director of Policy Planning at the State Department. Skinner has the distinction of being the highest-ranking African-American woman in the Trump administration’s foreign policy team. She’s a full professor at Carnegie Mellon University; you can see some of her publications via Google Scholar.
Two developments changed all this. First, Skinner did an interview at the New American Foundation with Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter. Second, on Tuesday The Washington Examiner ran a profile of Skinner, which contained some… interesting content.
Skinner is leading an effort to develop a concept of U.S.-China relations on the scale of what she called “Letter X” — the unsigned essay by George Kennan, who assessed “the sources of Soviet conduct” in 1947 and outlined the containment strategy that guided American strategists for the rest of the Cold War. China poses a unique challenge, she said, because the regime in Beijing isn’t a child of Western philosophy and history.
“The Soviet Union and that competition, in a way it was a fight within the Western family,” Skinner said, noting Karl Marx’s indebtedness to Western political ideas. “It’s the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.”
There’s a lot here—especially in conjunction with the rest of the piece—to unpack. Many people have wondered about the disappearance of Imperial Japan from the historical record. Daniel Drezner does as well, but also (among other things) points out the slippage between racial and civilizational categories in Dr. Skinner’s comments.
… why in the name of all that is holy would you make a racial distinction with respect to the great powers?! If you want to say that China is Confucian, or based on a different set of civilizational principles than the United States, sure, give it a try. Why say “not Caucasian”?! Does this mean India or Japan or South Korea should also be approached differently, because they are not white civilizations?! Why use race as your unit of analysis?
Furthermore, if you are going to use a Huntingtonian frame, you should know that he treated Russia as “Orthodox” and therefore distinct from Western civilization. Sure, the Soviet Union incorporated the very Western thought of Karl Marx, but last I checked — hold on a sec — yep, I just checked again and it turns out that China’s ruling party is also totally into Marx! Why is China so different?
The problem here is that this isn’t some kind of error. It’s saying the quiet parts out loud. The Clash of Civilizations argument has always been a racist fantasia, with “civilizations” serving as a euphemism for race.
At Foreign Policy, Paul Musgrave has more to say about the cultural essentialism at the heart of this worldview, one where ethnic identity is destiny.
Most of her examples of how to realize Trump’s pronouncements—such as urging that U.S. foreign policy be made in the national interest—are banal. But some of them aren’t. That’s why it’s instructive that her most careful points came when discussing the 2017 National Security Strategy, helmed by former National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. She offered the document’s recognition of the arrival of a new era of great-power competition a backhanded compliment: “The National Security Strategy was an important document early in the administration,” she said. But “we’ve evolved since then.”
Post-McMaster, she argued, the administration had distinguished Russia’s role as a great-power competitor from the “more fundamental threat” posed by China. McMaster, she implied, had let China policy be seized by finance and economic advisors in the White House who did not grasp the problem they were facing. Their focus on economics and trade, she argued, was “really a symptom of the China problem, which has deeper historical and strategic roots than we’ve really understood.”
An extraordinary threat requires an extraordinary response, one that the hidebound foreign-policy establishment couldn’t imagine. Someone unburdened by expertise, like Trump, could break out of that rut. And it was Skinner’s job as head of policy planning, “the only foreign-policy think tank in the federal government,” to backstop the president by providing the “intellectual architecture” for the Trump Doctrine.
But even this isn’t explicit enough.
The ‘defense of western civilization’—whether conceived of either in crudely racial or in slightly more inclusive ethno-religious terms—is the glue that holds together the various right-wing nationalist groups of which Trumpism is but one example.
It isn’t just that ‘western civilization’ serve as a common transnational identity that allows Hungarian, Polish, French, Canadian, and American nationalists to be part of the same alliance against ‘globalism’ and ‘multiculturalism.’ It’s also one of the key commonplaces that spans the gamut from mainstream conservatives to neo-fascists and right-wing extremists—the Proud Boys creed, for example, includes a pledge to defend “western civilization”.
In short, whether in its more orthodox Huntingtonian or neo-Huntingtonian variants, the “clash of civilizations” plays a key role in modern right-wing ideology. With the triumph of Trumpism, as well as the fallout from the Iraq War, it’s marginalized its main rival in the Republican party, neoconservativism—which sees western notions of economic and political freedom as universal, rather than particular to the ‘European heritage.’
Some neoconservatives have made their peace with Trump, while others form the core of the last vestiges of #NeverTrumpism. If they weren’t so keen on killing people overseas, one might miss their influence.
As it stands, though, our foreign policy is being guided by a warmed-over version of interwar anxieties about the rising tide of yellow people. Foreign Affairs may need to revert to its original name.