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Sean Speer: We need a ‘long telegram’ on the growing great power competition


At 3:52 p.m. on February 22, 1946, an incoming diplomatic cable from Moscow was received by the State Department in Washington. It was addressed to Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, who had previously been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 but resigned after just 465 days because he couldn’t resist the pull of politics.

Byrnes is a highly underrated figure in post-WWII historiography. After serving in various senior bureaucratic roles during World War II (which earned him the unofficial title “assistant president”), there was an expectation that Byrnes would be Roosevelt’s running mate in the 1944 presidential election. Yet politics ultimately prevailed and Roosevelt instead chose Harry Truman.

Soon after Roosevelt’s untimely death and Truman’s swearing-in as president, Byrnes was appointed secretary of state and had tremendous scope to shape America’s post-WWII foreign policy including attending the Yalta Conference with Roosevelt and subsequently attending the Potsdam Conference and Paris Conference with Truman. He was a major figure in American strategizing about post-war geopolitical arrangements including the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union. For these efforts, he was named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1947.

The incoming cable back in February 1946 helped to inform and shape Byrnes’ thinking on geopolitics in general and the Soviet Union in particular. It was drafted by a senior diplomat and Sovietologist named George Kennan who had grown frustrated by his perceived lack of influence with the Truman Administration. His 5,363-word memorandum to the secretary of state was a last-ditch effort to urge him to abandon any hopes of America-Soviet cooperation and instead to see the relationship through the lens of a new economic, geopolitical, and ideological rivalry.

As he wrote:

“…we have here a political force [Soviet communism] committed fanatically to the belief that with U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure.”

In light of this, Kennan called for a systematic response that recognized the Soviet threat represented the “greatest task our diplomacy has ever faced and probably greatest it will ever have to face.”

We’re missing a Kennanian strategy for how we engage China in the post-pandemic age.

Kennan’s memorandum, which famously became known as the “long telegram”, outlined a new, comprehensive strategy for managing relations with the Soviet Union. He later published an abbreviated version in Foreign Affairs magazine under the pseudonym “X.” The two documents came to fundamentally shape America’s Cold War strategy for the subsequent 40 years.

Kennan’s thinking and strategizing had such profound influence for three main reasons. The first is it was hard-headed yet empathetic. He sought to put himself in the mind of Soviet leaders and the country’s population to understand the impulses and objectives that would guide Soviet policymaking and the relationship between the day-to-day lives of ordinary citizens and the state apparatus.

The second is he was systematic. At the time of his writing, there was emerging thinking about the West’s economic relationship with Soviet Union, its defence and national security positioning vis-à-vis the Soviets, and questions about geopolitics and the future of Europe. Yet too much of this strategizing was siloed and disconnected. Kennan implored western policymakers and strategists to bring them together in a systematic strategy for the Cold War.

The third was timeliness. It was clear by the time of his writing that World War II collaboration with the Soviets would be replaced by a growing ideological and geopolitical rivalry. (Winston Churchill would deliver his famous “iron curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri, just 11 days after Kennan’s memo reached Washington.) His memo arrived at a crucial time as policymakers were coming to realize the scope and the nature of the forthcoming challenge. Kennan armed them with a strategic framework at the precise moment that they needed one.

We could sure use a modern version of the long telegram today as the U.S.-China geopolitical rivalry intensifies and the threat of a new Cold War looms. While there’s a growing consensus that western countries need to rethink their economic and political relationships with China, there’s far less agreement on the goals, purpose and tactics of a new strategy. As Princeton University professor Aaron Friedberg has put it: “We’re now running behind [the evolving U.S.-China relationship] trying to figure out exactly what we want it to look like.”

The immediate impetus for these fast-moving developments is the COVID-19 pandemic and a growing view that the Chinese government’s cloak-and-dagger handling of the virus contributed to its global explosion and the resulting public health and economic crisis. But the truth is the West’s relationship with China has been increasingly fraught for several years. A combination of economic, geopolitical, technological, and human rights considerations has caused western policymakers and their populations to revisit basic assumptions about the relationship.

The previous strategy, which presupposed that leaning into economic cooperation in the form of expanded trade and investment would lead to a combination of greater prosperity and democratic reform, has shown itself to be a spectacular failure. China got richer but it produced a significant “shock” to certain industries and workers in western economies and the promised political liberalization never transpired. President Xi’s China is now more ruthlessly and efficiently authoritarian than it was at the start of the century.

Donald Trump’s shocking election in 2016 was due in part to his willingness to call out this failure. Now everyone from former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers to former Speaker Paul Ryan basically concedes as much.

It’s a remarkable reversal from the optimism with which we began this century. The Canadian government at the time was among the biggest boosters of the view that China’s transition from communism to something approximating market economics represented both an enormous opportunity for western businesses to leverage China’s low-cost workforce and massive domestic market as well as the geopolitical prospects of its full partnership in global governance.

Those assumptions were predicated on Korea’s history of development which saw a correlation between growing household wealth and democratization as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union which started with glasnost and ended in perestroika.

The tools of statecraft will necessarily be different than in the Cold War.

This became in academic, business and political circles a universalist theory that foresaw a predestined relationship between rising GDP per capita and burgeoning democracy. Yet China’s real-life experience hasn’t conformed to this overdetermined theory. Instead it’s once again shown that history isn’t History — a proper noun reflecting autonomous forces unfolding to an inner logic — but rather a matter of individual and collective choices. Western leaders forgot this crucial insight. They somewhat ironically proved to be more Marxist than China’s communists.

The question, of course, is what comes next?

We need a modern version of the long telegram to fully and properly answer it. We’re missing a Kennanian strategy for how we engage China in the post-pandemic age.

This is particularly important for Canada which has already experienced the profound challenges of being stuck in the middle of a growing “great power competition” between the U.S. and China. A protracted, zero-sum conflict between its first and third largest trading partners will necessarily have far-reaching consequences for Canada’s economic and geopolitical interests.

It’s not quite correct, by the way, to describe the U.S.-China rivalry as a new Cold War. The two countries are much more economically integrated than was the case with the Soviet Union. Their rivalry is also less about ideological conflict and more about technological competition in strategic areas such as artificial intelligence, biopharma, and semi-conductors. That these technologies tend to have both commercial and military applications only reinforces the seriousness and urgency. Former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has called it a battle for the “commanding heights of the 21st century economy.”

The tools of statecraft will therefore necessarily be different than in the Cold War. A technology-based competition will require serious and practical thinking about, among other things, supply chains, intellectual property, basic and industrial research, foreign investment, free trade, and cybersecurity. It will be less about vanquishing the other side and instead more about staying ahead in an ongoing technological race.

The policy and governance implications for Canada are significant. Recent essays for The Hub by famed foreign policy expert Janice Stein, Macdonald-Laurier Institute scholar Balkan Devlen, former Religious Freedom Ambassador Andrew Bennett, and anti-money laundering expert Matthew Grills outlined various considerations for Canadian policymakers.

What’s interesting though is that as much as Kennan’s long telegram was focused on policy and governance questions, his key recommendations were mostly about our own social cohesion, community vitality, and civic confidence. As he wrote:

“Much depends on health and vigor of our own society. World communism is like malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue. This is the point at which domestic and foreign policies meet. Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqués. If we cannot abandon fatalism and indifference in face of deficiencies of our own society, Moscow will profit.”

This is a key insight: although foreign policy issues tend to be highly contingent, there’s nothing stopping us from trying to “solve internal problems of our own society.” Recommitting ourselves to the aspirational goals of growth, dynamism, and a renewed sense of collective purpose is squarely within our purview.

It turns out that the best way to navigate the tumultuous world of post-pandemic geopolitics is the same thing we need to do to address the growing pessimism and polarization in our society. Basically we need a narrative and vision to overcome what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has called “decadence” and to replace it with something perhaps approximating what American conservative writers David Brooks and Bill Kristol once referred to as “greatness.”

A “national greatness” agenda may be too grandiose. The Hub contributor Howard Anglin, for instance, has written in favour of more modest ambitions. But the key point here is that, as Kennan notes, we must reject fatalism and indifference and instead recognize that we have greater control over our destiny than we often realize. As he put it in his memo: “I would like to record my conviction that [the Soviet] problem is within our power to solve.”

Many experts agree that the U.S.-China geopolitical and technological rivalry will likely shape the rest of this century. How countries such as Canada navigate this new world will be the key question facing their political leaders in the coming years. It should start with a plan to get us out of decadence. A modern-day George Kennan and his long telegram would help too.

Andrew Bennett: The Chinese Communist Party is routing its oldest foe: religion


China makes headlines for good reason, though often not because of good news. Consider how often today’s challenges have prompted you to reflect on the Middle Kingdom and the pall it casts.

In the misty origins of the present pandemic and the deception wrought by the Chinese government to cover up the initial extent of infection there linger many what-ifs. The ongoing unjust imprisonment of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig angers us. We stand shocked and helpless at the growing spread of authoritarianism in Hong Kong with the collapse of democratic rights and the flagrant violation of international law by China.

As ever, like a waving Mao now standing in stone atop a plinth stands the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and President Xi Jinping. They act with utter impunity and disregard for what we in the West naively assumed were objectively and universally applicable: rule of law, human rights, an international order. The illusion of the last three decades that China could be brought into the liberal international system as it took its place as a global power have now been shown up as credulous. The rhetoric that surrounds the China of Xi speaks of a “new era” and “the progressing times,” all of which is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and the havoc it wrought on the Chinese people. Yet, this is not a return to the days of bands of Red Guards roaming every village and town brutally enforcing Maoist doctrine and purging all forms of legitimate self-expression and perceived foreign influence.

The current efforts of the CCP are focused on subordinating all of civil society to the state so that there can be no possibility of divided or unclear loyalties. Motivated by the need for unity and national security, the enslavement of Chinese civil society is being achieved through a highly organized system of intimidation, deprivation of social and economic status, arbitrary arrest, torture, so-called re-education, false imprisonment, and now genocide. For a clear illustration of how this is being accomplished on a mass scale one need only look at how the CCP is dealing with its old foe: religion.

At the CCP’s National Congress in 2017 Xi declared that “we will fully implement the Party’s basic policy on religious affairs, uphold the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation and provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to socialist society.”

This sinicization of religion in China has been aggressively pursued in the ensuing four years through the continuing instrumentalizing of religious communities to advance CCP propaganda goals. New regulations introduced in 2018 strictly prohibit “foreign forces” from controlling religion in China. These regulations have provided the CCP and government at all levels the authority to launch a full assault against unofficial religion in the country with disastrous effects. In the last three years there has been a significant increase in the destruction of churches and temples, arbitrary arrests of clergy and laity, disappearances, and measures such as the banning of anyone under the age of 18 from religious worship or religious education even in the home. Subtle forms of societal and economic discrimination against openly religious people affecting their employment and access to housing and government services assert state control.

The CCP’s relationship with religion goes back to the years immediately after the 1948 Maoist revolution that brought the CCP to power. In 1951, the Religious Affairs Bureau, later the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) was established to regulate religion in the country. From its very beginning SARA was effectively under the control of the United Front Work Department of the Central Committee of the CCP — the main intelligence gathering organization and enforcer of CCP doctrine. In 2018, all pretense was abandoned and SARA was for all intents and purposes absorbed into the United Front Work Department. The UFWD directly responsible for the sinicization of religion.

The U.S. estimates there are more than one million Uyghurs being arbitrarily detained in internment camps.

In China there are effectively four categories of religion. The first are those beliefs which have been entirely co-opted to serve the CCP, namely Confucianism. Secondly there are the five officially sanctioned religious organizations wholly under CCP control: the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (for Protestants), the Buddhist Association of China, the Chinese Taoist Association, and the Islamic Association of China. With their origin in the mid-1950s these are among the most effective controls the CCP has over religion. In concert with the new 2018 regulations, each one of these patriotic movements have adopted 5-year plans for the sinicization of their respective faith communities. Such plans include the mandatory singing of the Chinese national anthem and other patriotic songs in worship, flying the national flag at places of worship, commemorating significant CCP anniversaries, and reinterpreting doctrine and sacred texts through the lens of Chinese socialism.

The third category involves those religious communities viewed as being controlled by foreign entities and therefore posing a direct existential threat to the CCP: Tibetan Buddhists, Uyghur Muslims, the underground Catholic Church, and the diffuse network Protestant house churches. These groups are suppressed with varying degrees of brutality.

Finally, there are those communities identified as xie jiao, often translated as ‘evil cult’, such as Falun Gong and the Church of Almighty God, both of whose members have suffered imprisonment and torture. There are credible, independent reports cited by the U.S. State Department that conclude that China’s organ transplantation industry has benefitted significantly from the forced harvesting of organs from prisoners a majority of whom are thought to be Falun Gong practitioners. Members of these communities have been subject to mass arrests, including a roundup of 6,000 Falun Gong practitioners in 2019 alone as cited by the U.S. State Department.

The CCP’s highly organized policy in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is without doubt the most coordinated effort to suppress a religious group. Its efforts to eradicate what it has termed the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism” has been a brutal scourge against the ethnically Turkic Uyghurs of that region. The Uyghurs are predominantly Muslim and comprise more than half of China’s total Muslim population of between 21-23 million. The approach taken in Xinjiang is similar to the CCP’s decades-long persecution of Tibetan Buddhists with one major difference. In Xinjiang, the CCP has created a laboratory for the modern surveillance state with mandatory biometric ID cards that are required to undertake the most basic activities of daily life including use of public transport and shopping for groceries. Surveillance cameras that aid profiling and police stations exist on nearly every block in the regional capital Urumqi. The U.S. government estimates there are just over one million Uyghurs being arbitrarily detained in purpose-built internment camps, what the CCP terms ‘re-education centres’ where those imprisoned are subject to sleep deprivation, physical and psychological torture, forced sterilization, and sexual abuse.

In January of this year the U.S. government labelled the situation in Xinjiang a genocide; our own House of Commons subsequently passed a non-binding motion to the same effect with Prime Minister Trudeau and the cabinet abstaining from the vote. A report published this March by the Newlines Institute and Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights in which several Canadian human rights experts were involved, including former justice ministers Irwin Cotler and Allan Rock, concluded that China bears responsibility for breaching the 1948 U.N. Genocide Convention in its treatment of Uyghurs.

While the treatment of the Uyghurs is the most egregious example of China’s persecution of religious groups the persecution of Tibetan Buddhists continues unabated, both within Tibet and in the rest of China. The CCP controls all aspects of Buddhism in Tibet including monasteries, monks, and the schools. In 2016, Chinese authorities turned their attention to the large Tibetan Buddhist centres of Larung Gar and Yachen Gar in Sichuan province. In the past five years it is estimated that thousands of buildings have been destroyed in a so-called “renovation campaign” and that thousands of monks and nuns, possibly as many as 17,000 according to the U.S. state department, have been driven out of these communities and been subject to arbitrary arrest.

This situation facing Chinese Christians varies greatly depending on where you are in the country and whether you are a member of the two official patriotic associations. A sustained campaign demolishing churches and removing crosses, often based on the arbitrary interpretation of regulations by local officials, is now sustained country-wide with officials in provinces such as Shaanxi, Hubei, Inner Mongolia, Hebei, and Henan known for their zealotry. Local officials also enforce regulations requiring that closed-circuit cameras be installed in every place of worship. In churches across the country images of Christ and Mary and plaques with the Ten Commandments are being removed and replaced with images of Xi Jinping, the national flag, and the text of the Constitution.

Numerous Christian clergy have been arrested and imprisoned including Pastor Wang Yi of the Early Rain Covenant Church, a noted advocate for religious freedom who in December 2019 was imprisoned for nine years for “inciting to subvert state power,” a catch-all offence very much in vogue these days. Despite its still secret accord with the Chinese government, the Vatican has demonstrated that it has zero leverage in improving the situation of Catholics in China where 40 dioceses remain without a bishop and bishops critical of the CCP have been arrested and subject to re-education, including Bishop Augustine Cui Tai of Xuanhua and Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of Wenzhao. The Holy See has sold Chinese Catholics down the Yangtze.

Such is the state of religious freedom in the “basic dictatorship” of China. What is our response?

It is axiomatic to speak about the conflict between a country’s interests and its values in conducting its foreign policy. The lack of coherency in the government of Canada’s approach to China reflects a confusion of its interests and a hypocrisy in its values.

René Lévesque once said that a nation is judged by how it treats its minorities. How then do we judge China on its treatment of religious believers? Harshly.