On Monday evening, a State Department official claimed that the United States can’t focus on human rights if it wants to combat China — and that China presents the first time the United States has faced a great power competitor that isn’t “Caucasian.”
The comments from Kiron Skinner, the State Department’s director of policy planning, came during the New America Future Security Forum in Washington.
Questioned by New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter about the Trump administration’s China policy, Skinner attempted to draw a clear line between American policy regarding the Soviet Union and the United States’ developing policy regarding China.
However, instead of focusing solely on economic competition or Chinese territorial aggression in places like the South China Sea, Skinner discussed how China presents a different “civilization” than previous adversaries like the USSR. According to Skinner, U.S. efforts to highlight Soviet human rights abuses — including the United States’ push for the landmark Helsinki Final Act in 1975, which pledged support for human rights — helped topple the USSR in 1991. However, focusing on highlighting China’s human rights abuses is apparently a futile task.
Not to make light of the Cold War, and the reality of nuclear war that could have happened — and the fact that we came close in some instances — but when we think about the Soviet Union and that competition, in a way it was a fight within the Western family. Karl Marx was a German Jew who developed a philosophy that was really within the larger body of political thought … that has some tenets even within classical liberalism. And so, in that way, I think it was a huge fight within the Western family.
And you could look at the Soviet Union — part West, part East — but it had some openings there that got us the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, which was a really important Western concept that opened the door really to undermine the Soviet Union, a totalitarian state, on human rights principles.
That’s not really possible with China. This is a fight with a really different civilization, and a different ideology, and the United States hasn’t had that before.
It’s unclear why focusing on China’s human rights abuses — which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has actually done, especially as it pertains to China’s internment camps for Muslims — is futile.
A State Department spokesperson did not respond to questions on Skinner’s comments.
Disturbing. Leaders at the @StateDep seem to think that “human rights” is a “Western” idea. There’s nothing “Chinese” about China’s Leninist one-party system. Chinese who are not directly under the CCP’s rule are among the most rights-respecting people. https://t.co/oFNiG9ZsBN
— Yaqiu Wang 王亚秋 (@Yaqiu) May 1, 2019
Slaughter, who was the director of policy planning under the Obama administration, followed up by asking if Skinner’s discussion of China’s “different civilization” relied on political scientist Samuel Huntington’s maligned theory of a “Clash of Civilizations.”
“Some of those tenets, but a little bit different,” Skinner replied.
Memorialized in a 1996 book by a similar name, Huntington’s theory posits a number of different “civilizations” across the world, ranging from “Western” to “Buddhist.” Few geopolitical theories have fallen from favor more swiftly than Huntington’s, not least because of the countries Huntington tried to lump together — or break apart, depending on the country’s supposed “civilization.” For instance, Huntington claimed Papua New Guinea was part of a “Western” civilization, while Kazakhstan remained “Orthodox.” Huntington even claimed that countries as distant as Mauritania and Indonesia were, in reality, part of the same “civilization,” but that countries like Guyana or Bosnia and Herzegovina comprised multiple “civilizations” within them.
5. Either Tibet should be Sinic or Xinjiang Muslim.6. If Kenya’s Muslim minority should be green, so should Ethiopia’s.7. Papua New Guinea is not Western.8. Sierra Leone is mostly Muslim.9. Guinea-Bissau is half Muslim.
All this even if we accept Huntington on his own terms.
— Gennady Rudkevich (@grudkev) April 11, 2019
Skinner also claimed that China presented the first time that the United States faced a great power competitor who isn’t white.
“I think it’s also striking that it’s the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian,” Skinner said.
If accurate, this is a rather appalling, racist-based assessment of the nature of the Chinese threat. And coming from the State Dept. makes it even worse. Apparently the problem is not CN’s system; it’s Chinese culture? We sink to new lows every day. https://t.co/g9vpu80Web
— Michael D. Swaine (@Dalzell60) May 1, 2019
Skinner is incorrect: In addition to the multi-ethnic nature of the Soviet Union — one-third of the post-Soviet countries are in Central Asia, after all — the United States‘ predominant rivalry during the first few decades of the 20th century centered on countering Japan in the Pacific theater. Even prior to the events that led to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, which remained an American colony through the Second World War, American administrations were so concerned about Japanese threats in the Pacific that they actively lobbied for domestic legislation to assuage Japanese concerns — with President Teddy Roosevelt even advocating for racial equality on the West Coast in order not to anger the Japanese government.
But Skinner, one of the United States‘ most prominent State Department officials, has apparently forgotten that history. Skinner’s comments not only severely misread American history, but they are also based one of the most flawed theories on international relations of the past few decades — all at the expense of diminishing the push for human rights in the world’s most populous country.
Read more: thinkprogress.org