The morality of U.S.-China policy

Politics & Current Affairs

This week on the Sinica Podcast: a lecture by Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute, delivered last year to D.C.-based Faith & Law at its Friday Forum. The lecture, titled “Is Our Foreign Policy Good? American Moral Absolutism and the China Challenge,” is a powerful and thought-provoking talk.

Illustration for The China Project by Derek Zheng

Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast with Robert Daly of the Kissinger Institute.

Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China, brought to you by The China Project. Subscribe to The China Project to get the early-release ad-free version of this podcast every week and, of course, you also get our daily newsletter — the Daily Dispatch — simply the best way there is really to stay informed about China. On top of all that, you’ll have access to all the original writing on our website at We’ve got reported stories, essays and editorials, great explainers, regular columns, and, of course, a growing library of podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples in China’s Xinjiang region to Beijing’s ambitious plans to shift the Chinese economy onto a post-carbon footing. It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor.

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I’m going to change things up a bit and start this week’s show off with one of the absolute best talks I have heard — a talk by Robert Daly, the director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States — that had me actually shouting in emphatic agreement, marveling at the skill with which the talk was delivered and the elegant turn of phrase, but most of all, thinking very deeply about the really profound fundamental issues that it raised. Perhaps some of you have heard me give my own talk before about the qualities that I look for, that I enjoin everyone to look for in anyone who’s offering analysis or policy prescriptions about China. I talk about five precepts, which boil down to humility, sensitivity to sources of bias, holism, historical acuity, and cognitive empathy probably most importantly.

When I first set out to describe these qualities, one of the people that I had firmly in mind was Robert Daly.

Listen to his talk, and you will see every one of these qualities in ample evidence. Now, this talk was delivered over a year ago on June 24, 2022, at the Friday Forum, put on by the organization Faith & Law in Washington, D.C. It’s unedited, except a bit of a cleanup of the original sound, and it’s quite brief at just over 30 minutes. After you’ve listened to it, for the remainder of this episode, I’ll be chatting with Robert about the substance of his talk and other related things. So, please enjoy, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Robert Daly: Thank you. Thanks, Lauren. Thanks, Bill. Thanks everybody for coming out. The title of my talk today, afterwards I look forward to a conversation with all of you, is “Is Our Foreign Policy Good? American Moral Absolutism and the China Challenge.” I was invited a few months ago by Lauren to give a talk about U.S.-China relations from an explicitly Christian point of view. I got to say my heart leaped at that. I welcomed it. I’ve been working on U.S.-China relations for 36 years, first as a diplomat from many, many angles. And I work at it now from a think tank from the Wilson Center, but I rarely have the chance in describing U.S.-China relations to use the full vocabulary and the kinds of references with which I truly think about the issue and have thought about since I first went to China in 1987.

My expertise is in U.S.-China relations and diplomacy, not in theology. So, this is not going to be a sermon. But just so that you know, I am a lifelong Roman Catholic, big C. S. Lewis guy, big Bonhoeffer guy. So not, you know, leave the Catholic Reservation whenever there’s a good reason to, and there often is. But that’s been my background. That’s sort of what I took to China. My family was broadly out of the Catholic worker movement, very much influenced by Dorothy Day; Thomas Merton. That was how I began and what I took to China. I’d like to begin not with a verse of scripture, but with a verse of the Federalist papers. James Madison, Federalist 51, a line I hope you all know — “What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature. If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

This is really fundamental, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” We are not angels. And that means that when we, all of us, involve ourselves in politics, we are involving ourselves in the social structure of our fallenness. I don’t think that that can be avoided, right? That’s what we’re doing here because men are not angels. We are involved in the reality of our common imperfection, and therefore, as people involved in policy, we are involved in compromise, in incremental progress, in the pursuit of partial, relative, and temporary, as opposed, in most cases, to absolute goods. But as people of faith, we are presumably involved in policy making, not only as a career but also, and primarily as a vocation. It’s something that we are called to as a way of doing God’s work.

It’s very understandable that people like those in this room also want America’s work, its foreign policies, all of its policies, its China policy to be Good policy with a capital G. Not just in the sense of being effective, but also in the moral sense, right? That’s a constant drive, constant struggle. But Madison cautions us that it won’t always be possible. You just talked about a very long struggle in your own case. This is true of most policies. Of course, as Christians, we know this, we know when we think about foreign policy, especially when we think about something as contentious as China that God does not love individual Americans more than he loves individual Chinese or Greeks or Bolivians. This is one of the fundamental problems that we have. God does not value American souls over foreign souls, and yet we insist that our leaders value American lives over foreign lives — At a ratio of what?

One to two, one to five, 10, a hundred, a thousand. I don’t know what that ratio is. I do know that that ratio, that equation is not a moral equation in the religious sense, right? There’s simply no way to claim that it is. That this kind of calculus, asking leaders to value our lives at a ratio of one to whatever over foreign lives, belongs to this world, to part of our fallenness. This is where some of the complexity comes in when we think about foreign policy. And of course, not only war, but most foreign policy involves this sort of decidedly worldly self-interested judgment. We pursue our interests primarily because they are ours, not because they are good. That is the way that our government is structured — Our jobs, not their jobs; our prosperity first; our food supply; our energy; our profits.

This is, again, a worldly Madisonian pursuit. This is what nearly all countries do. Maybe Bhutan, a little Buddhist kingdom, is an exception to this. I don’t know. It’s very hard to get into Bhutan. I hope to someday. And within certain bounds, we all accept this difficulty, right? We must accept it if we are to persist as nations. And nations are still essential organizing principles for the pursuit of human well-being. I know I’m belaboring the point, but it’s to begin this by pointing out that we’re caught in numerous contradictions when we get involved in policy and foreign policy. I think that as Americans, the most powerful nation on earth, we have to constantly remind ourselves of the limited moral capability of nations, including our own, otherwise, we make the mistake of thinking that America’s power is an instrument of God’s will.

We make the mistake of assuming that America’s goals and judgments are necessarily God’s. This is one of the things that makes us quite obnoxious to the rest of the world. Of course, at the same time, and I’ve been struggling with this in China, most of us do believe that the United States, while not consistently or wholly good or uniquely good, I think most of us believe strongly that the United States, at the very least, is relatively good some of the time in extremely important ways and in ways that should be preserved and advanced and emulated. I assume that most of us are committed to some version of that. And I am too. I believe this. And I believe it these days, especially with reference to China and our looming competition in some respects. And so, again, we believe that, but as Christians in the most powerful country on earth, we have to approach this belief in American virtue, I would say, with humility.

Remember what John Adams said — “Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak, and that it is doing God service when it is violating all of his laws.” This is tricky. We can’t wish that away. But awareness of these American tendencies that seem prideful and hypocritical, awareness of that can’t prevent us from entering into all international conflicts. In the Irony of American History, if you haven’t read it, I recommend you read Reinhold Niebuhr’s great book. Niebuhr put it this way, “We take,” he’s writing here as an American and as a theologian, and as an expert in foreign policy, he said, “We take and must continue to take morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization. We must exercise our power, but we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent about a particular degree of interest and passion, which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimized.”

So, a warning from Reinhold Niebuhr. What does this have to do with China? We are now, in my view, in the view of a growing number of Americans, in a cold war with China. This is a new Cold War. Brings me no pleasure to say that. I’m not prescribing it. I’m not happy about it. This is a description, not a prescription. This new Cold War will likely last most of the rest of most of our lives, long-term, high stakes, depressing, distracting, dangerous, and sinfully wasteful if we succeed. If we fail, it’s all those things plus highly deadly. But it is, in fact, a Cold War in which we are competing with China to be the single most influential nation. In a highly multilateralized world, no nation can enjoy the kind of influence that America had or imagined it had in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War.

But we are competing to have the single biggest share in shaping global security architectures; trading and financial regimes; very importantly, the development marketization and regulation of technologies, new and emerging technologies worldwide. But also very importantly, global systems, global norms and practices, and therefore the values that underlie them. There’s an ideological component to this competition with China as well. As I say, high stakes characterized by very deep distrust. And of course, both sides are armed to the teeth. So, my question for the rest of the talk is, as Americans, and especially as Christians, how do we frame and pursue a new Cold War? And a few notes that are preliminary thoughts. This is a relatively new situation. First, of course, we are commanded to approach the other, in this case, China, not only with strategy, but with love, with empathy, and an honest attempt at understanding the other and what China wants and how it sees itself.

We have to begin here. We tend to begin in American foreign policy in the wrong place — what do we want this country to do? That’s the wrong first question. The first question is, why does this country desire what it desires, believe what it does, and value what it does based on its own experience? We have to begin with that. Otherwise, we end up in the situation we’re in now with China. And sometimes we get in this situation with other individuals. It’s absurd. It’s sort of the implicit claim that you are permitted to judge me only by my intentions as described by me, while I am permitted to judge you by the effects of your actions as felt by me, right? This is a classic human move, national move. It’s absurd. It’s indefensible. You have to begin in an attempt to understand. Coming to China’s point of view, and dealing very quickly in broad strokes, China tends to say, “All we’re doing is pursuing what is best for China,” which is what all nations do.

From China’s point of view, this is largely correct, right? China, desperately poor until very recently, they have gone… My mother-in-law lives in Beijing. She turns 90 this year. She was born into truly medieval poverty. The daughter of a rural northern Chinese blacksmith who was born running away from the Japanese invaders. Illiterate. In a single lifetime, they’ve gone from that to having the biggest middle class in the world, larger than ours. They’ve come into a fully technocratically, internationally integrated society in the course of one generation, okay? Astounding. And like any country, especially a large ancient proud continental country that has a history of being victimized, its propaganda gins that up, but it’s a genuine history, they’re doing what we do. They want to translate their wealth into greater influence. They want to shape the global environment in which they operate.

This in itself is not malign. They want to make sure their borders are secured by themselves, and then they want to push their defensive perimeter ever outward, ever outward, until it comprises the whole sphere. Where do you think they learned that trick? These are folks who have fell subject to and have been students of American power for a long time, what they call comprehensive national power, including not just military and economic, but discourse power, cultural power, normative power, the power to make rules. They’ve studied this, and China’s view is, “It seems about right. We’d kind of like to try that on for size.” So, on what grounds, given this is what China wants, and what any country with its capability would want, how do we answer the Chinese question, which is, where is it written that you can enjoy these prerogatives and we can’t?

It’s a perfectly natural, obvious question. How do we go about answering that? What are we going to say to the world about why it should prefer American influence to China’s? The answer here is the obvious answer. It has to do with the values on which the Chinese government is founded, and whether we want those to be spread and legitimized around the world. China is using its wealth to try to legitimize illiberal practices, and we don’t want to live in that world. So, it really is the fact that freedom is the classic answer and the obvious answer. That doesn’t mean it’s the wrong answer. It’s essential to the formation of conscience and the full development of our humanity, and it’s not the business China is in. China has a different proposition to people, but notice that it’s also a proposition based on a virtue narrative.

It’s based on a virtue narrative. Their proposition, it’s a lot like Russia’s, it’s a lot like Iran’s, a lot of countries have this proposition that human beings are essentially homo economicus that we can and should be satisfied when our merely material needs are met. And doing that in an anarchic world requires a strong central power or an authoritarian country to provide for your basic needs. So, China essentially lops off the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs if you’re familiar with that. It provides the deficiency needs, the survivalist essential material needs, not so much interested in the self-actualization or the transcendence peak of human desires. It’s a survivalist mentality that China puts forward as a justification for tyranny, but benevolent tyranny that allows for a limited kind of human flourishing. China has, in fact, achieved that on a scale, at a speed never done in human history before — 850 million out of absolute poverty, right?

So, this claim is not based on nothing. That’s the Chinese value proposition that we have to deal with. And one of the questions that we need to ask ourselves is, should the preference for American influence and American values, need that be absolute, need it be universal, how much additional Chinese influence worldwide can we live with? Because you can’t wish them away. There are lots more of them. And this is the law of large numbers. Lester Brown once said, “1.4 billion times anything equals a whole hell of a lot.” This is what large numbers do. They’ve got the biggest middle class. Them, not us. That makes them, not us, the taste makers to the world at the supply and the demand sides. A new reality for us. And that would be true even if it wasn’t a Communist Party dictatorship.

How much Chinese power can we live with? We have to, I think, be reflective and open to change ourselves. And we have to see one final thing from a Chinese point of view, and this is the great irony of American foreign policy. We preach a certain gospel to the world that has to do with free markets and liberal democracy, small l, small d, transparency, representative government. And we preach this gospel for essentialist reasons, we say this is the best form of governance because it most fully and accurately reflects our humanity and human needs. Then we add, as a bonus, it also makes you a lot of money, right? On the sides. The irony of American foreign policy is if our prescription for human flourishing is correct, and if China adopts its whole hog, they surpass us in every index of power and influence even faster.

How do we feel about that? This is where the Chinese ask reasonably, “You say you’re about your principles, but you’re really about your power. You don’t want to be surpassed by anybody. You grasp on the fact that we’re led by a Communist Party, but you just want to be number one.” I wish I could look more of my Chinese friends in the eye and tell them with complete conviction that, “No, no, no, you’re wrong about that. It’s our principles, not our power.” I’m not so sure that’s true. They’re very aware of the question. So, how do we wage this Cold War? Just a few quick things. One, we need to be clear about the moral component, about the essential difference between a freer, more liberal and a vastly less free, less liberal world order. China is moving from authoritarianism to techno-totalitarianism, and it’s finding various ways to spread that.

And yeah, that’s a fight. We know it’s something that we don’t want. So, we need to be clear about the moral component, but we don’t want to over-moralize it, which we almost always do. We use too much normative language about who is good and who is bad. We have to be very careful about this normative language, especially in the international sphere. I think we use it too much domestically as well because it’s easily hijacked by demagogues and absolutists. It tends to blind us to the kind of self-awareness that we should have to the plank in our own eye when we’re lecturing to China. And there are lots of planks in our eyes. It tends to blind us to cultural complexity, to the fact that China, again, has its own virtue narrative, to the fact that it’s home of one of the world’s greatest and most ancient ethical traditions.

It’s not a religious tradition. China is alone among the ancient great civilizations in that it never had a native doctrine of personal salvation. China never had it, the idea that our job on this earth is to live in such a way that we achieve some kind of transcendence. This idea came into China only with Buddhism about 200 AD. China never natively had the idea of a personal creator God, some all-powerful being that wills us into existence. That was foreign to China. It’s very, this worldly, always has been. It begins with the facts of the everyday, but it does have an ethical tradition that it’s articulated upon that. There’s no notion of original sin in China. This was a real stumbling block for the missionaries. Because the gospel doesn’t make sense without the prior aspects of the Mosaic tradition. You have a fall.

The notion of original sin for the gospel to make sense, when a lot of the early missionaries went to China and said, “You’re forgiven for your sins,” the answer’s, “You’re a rather grim character. What are these sins you speak of? What are you talking about?” Chinese education begins with 人之初芯本善 [Rén zhī chū xìn běn shàn], “Mankind from his inception is, by nature, basically good.” Confucius and Mencius teach that education, which is primarily moral education, is needed to get people to admire and pursue the good. But it experiences itself as an entirely complete sufficient ethical tradition. We need to understand that if we’re going to have an effective China policy. And then there’s the problem Bill and I were talking about beforehand, the problem of consistency. When George Kennan wrote about morality and foreign policy, he said, “If there is such a thing as morality in foreign policy, ‘if,’ then one of its hallmarks must be consistency.” We get somewhere between a D minus and an F on consistency.

We have to be careful of this very strong normative language. Preaching internationally rarely works. America, with all of its power, adopts the position that we are the good, you are the unenlightened, and therefore you need to listen. Preaching doesn’t work. Even Desmond Tutu of South Africa criticized it. His great line, when the missionaries first came to South Africa, they had the Bibles and we had the land. They said, “Let us pray,” and we closed our eyes. And when we opened our eyes, we had the Bibles and they had the land. This has been the experience of quite a bit of the rest of the world, and we have to be cognizant of that. Lastly, this normative language, ‘bad China,’ is extremely dangerous for our Chinese American and Asian American brothers and sisters.

It has been a spur to an increase in anti-Chinese and anti-Asian American racial violence over the past several years, and it’s likely to remain so. So, our diplomacy, realizing this during the Cold War, that we need to be strong about what we stand up for, needs to be presented as an invitation to other nations to work together to more fully realize our common human potential. We need to be talking about human problems, not just American virtues. Preaching about American virtues immediately invites an examination of American vices, American failings. How could it possibly be otherwise? That’s a long list, and it tends to be counterproductive. So, don’t over-moralize. Two, don’t over militarize. It’s a Cold War with China. We’ve done AUKUS, we’ve strengthened the Quad, we’ve got the biggest defense budget ever, and now we’ve also convinced NATO that it has a China aspect to its mission.

What does it say about us that the military aspect of this competition is the easiest for us to do, despite the fact that it’s the most expensive and the most escalatory? “Oh, no, no, no, we couldn’t possibly do a free trade agreement. We couldn’t do CPTPP, that’s beyond our means. But we can fund a new generation of bombers,” right? “We couldn’t possibly fund more diplomats at the State Department. That doesn’t make sense. But we can expand the military budget.” I think that as Christians in the policymaking community, we’ve got a special obligation to ask these questions. I’m not saying that AUKUS or the Quad or any of these are wrong in themselves, it’s a question of balance and proportionality. They’re not matched by efforts on the economic side, on the provision of public goods, and on the diplomacy side.

The military-industrial complex is alive and well. Remember Dwight Eisenhower, his Cross of Iron speech, Eisenhower himself said that every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. We’re heading for a resurrection of mutually assured destruction, which some of us grew up in. I remember first grade duck-and-cover drills, if others of you may, mutual assured destruction is coming. We have to ask, is it moral to build machines designed to destroy humanity and all the world and threaten people with the use of them, never intending to, hoping not to, while not taking care of a lot of the problems we face domestically and internationally? Who is going to ask that question?

I’m not saying there’s a clear answer. It’s a complicated discussion. This is not a slam dunk, but the question isn’t being asked. We are galloping toward a return to doctrines like mutually assured destruction without asking these difficult questions. Our prosecution of this Cold War must also be humanistic. What I mean by that is there’s a key question. We don’t want China to be the primary shaper of global order. China bases its claim to be able to do that on its own development. So you have to ask the question, do we kneecap China’s development? Can we kneecap China’s development? The Communist Party probably comes down if you have high unemployment, concurrent with high inflation and a collapse in the housing market.

Okay, that’s interesting. People in Washington are asking whether maybe we do something about that. But there’s a question that we, in this room, have to ask, is it permissible in a Cold War struggle, short of armed conflict, to deliberately harm the well-being of one fifth of humankind? That’s what those policies mean. Policies to slow China’s growth, to spur domestic unrest, to perhaps erode or collapse the Communist Party involve deliberately harming the welfare of one fifth of humankind. Are we down for that? Again, I don’t mean to ask that as though the answer is immediately obvious, but I hope the question is obvious. I hope it will be asked. We need that. There’s a Catholic doctrine of Just War that was developed by Augustine and Aquinas. It’s a contested doctrine.

Francis rejects it. But there is no doctrine yet about what a just Cold War would look like. And maybe we should work on building one. That’s not a bad thing to have a working group or a discussion group look at. There’s no just Cold War doctrine. I think we might need one. A Just War in the standing doctrine has to satisfy six conditions. It must be for a just cause, no subjectivity. It must be lawfully declared by a lawful authority. The intention behind the war must be good, not just that our goal is good, but the heart with which it is pursued must also be a moral or a good one. Again, note creeping subjectivity. All other means of resolving the problem should be tried first. Have we done that with China? There must be a reasonable chance of success. And the means used must be in proportion to the end sought.

This question, proportionality, has another aspect. To go back to Eisenhower’s warning about basically guns and butter, if we pour too many of our resources into competition with China, what priorities are we going to neglect domestically that money could go? What priorities are we going to neglect internationally? One of the things that characterizes this era is that we face a number of concurrent epochal changes that really fundamentally change the way we think — China’s one of them. I believe that China is our greatest geostrategic challenge, but in this era, is our greatest geostrategic challenge the greatest challenge that we face overall? Global warming, loss of biodiversity, globalization of supply chains, of pathogens, of information and ideas, of refugees, globalizations of the negative impacts of the rich, poor disparity, right? The emergence of new technologies that we don’t understand. All of these things require our attention, both as a policy and as a moral matter.

If we put this all into mutual assured destruction with China, what are the opportunity costs? Lastly, I think, as Christians involved in these very complicated questions, we have to act in fellowship with other nations. We should attend to their judgments, including their moral judgments and including their judgments of us. I’ll close with one, Federalist 63, Madison, again, on this very important question of other countries. He wrote, “An attention to the judgment of other nations is important to every government for two reasons — The one is that independently of the merits of any particular plan or measure, it is desirable on various accounts that it should appear to other nations,” meaning our policy, “as the offspring of a wise and honorable policy. The second is that in doubtful cases, particularly where the national councils may be warped,” meaning our politics, “where our politics may be warped by some strong passion or momentary interest, the presumed or known opinion of the impartial world may be the best guide that can be followed.”

What has not America lost by her want of character with foreign nations? And how many errors and follies would she not have avoided if the justice and propriety of her measures had in every instance been previously tried by the light in which they would probably appear to the unbiased part of mankind? A growing number of countries in the world share our concerns about China. Not because of our diplomacy, but because of China’s actions and what China does, and the supreme self-regard with which it acts. But other nations that are willing to work with us in some ways about China, don’t share our moral absolutism or our strong binary framing of U.S.-China relations. I think that it would behoove us to be sensitive to that, and also to be sensitive to the fact that China is still changing. The story of modern China is a story of change on scale and at a speed unprecedented in human history. It’s not written, it’s not a monolith moving in one direction. And of course, we are changing as well. We, likewise, are fragile. We, likewise, are challenged. I don’t think that we can help China correct its steps unless we find our own stride. I’ll stop there. Thanks.

Kaiser: Robert Daly, thank you so much for taking the time to join me at last on Sinica. I have waited a long time to finally get you on the show.

Robert: Well, it’s good to be with you, Kaiser. I have been listening, and I know we’ve talked about doing this, and I’m very glad that we finally found the time.

Kaiser: Indeed, indeed. I’m really glad that I was able to do this around this talk of yours, which just really floored me. Robert, you are one of the OG members of what we call the League of the Feimerse — people who are much better known in China than in the States, along with folks like Mark Rowswell or David Moser, or Elise Anderson and Elyse Ribbons. Here in the States, within the field, you are well known and well regarded for your years of service in the State Department, for your skills as an interpreter, and, of course, for your leadership of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute. But in China, everyone knows you for your role in one of the great classic Chinese TV shows of the 1990s, A Beijinger in New York, which along with《编辑部的故事》[Bian ji bu de gu shi] and the sitcom, 《我爱我家》[Wo ai wo jia], definitely ranks among the most beloved Chinese television shows from that golden era.

I suppose there are some similarities to my own stint in China as a rock musician in a well-known band. Since I get asked all the time about how that relates to what I’ve done since, I thought I’d seize a chance to ask you that question about your TV career and about what exposure to China’s world of the arts, of entertainment and the humanities has done for you.

Robert: Well, there’s a big difference between your fame and heavy metal and my fame on soap operas, which is that you actually are a musician and got up on the stage with some skill and preparation, whereas anyone who has seen《北京人在纽约》 Beijingren zai Niuyue, will know I am in nowise an actor. I wasn’t even the original cast member for that part. It was actually supposed to be played by a very famous Shanghai actor named Chen Daoming. He had put two or three weeks of intense filming in the can. And he got into a big argument with Feng Xiaogang and Zheng Xiaolong, two directors who were big then, and subsequently became superstars. Chen Daoming wanted changes in the script, and they said no. So he left. He just picked up and left the whole project, leaving them with useless footage.

It was actually Jiang Wen, who’s a very good friend of mine, the actor-director who said, “Well, we’re in America. I know an American guy up at Ithaca who can speak Chinese. Why don’t we just bring him in?” And so this all happened very suddenly, sans preparation, sans any skill on my part. As you say, Beijingren zai Niuyue became big, but no thanks to me. It was Jiang Wen’s acting, it was Wang Ji, it was Liu Huan’s music, which was a huge part of this thing, and a huge part of its popularity. I felt very much along for the ride.

Kaiser: You’ve just named some of my very favorite people. I mean, Jiang Wen is also my favorite actor. And Chen Daoming, who would’ve had your part, I love that guy. I mean, he played Cao Cao in one of the reproductions.

Robert: Yes.

Kaiser: Chen Daoming was actually my father-in-law’s roommate for a while. They were both actors.

Robert: He’s a marvelous actor. Actually, the issue was that his wife, who was a famous news presenter, was supposed to play the number two female lead. And he said that the script really wasn’t fair to her. I think he was correct. He asked them to change it, and they wouldn’t do it. So, both of them left.

Kaiser: Oh, wow.

Robert: So they grabbed Yan Xiaopin and me, we were both brought in on the spur of the moment to play those roles. I don’t think Chen Daoming’s analysis was wrong, but this was also the first time that the Bank of China had made a U.S. dollar loan to a Chinese filming crew to go overseas. It was a big deal in that way. And they had what in today’s terms is no budget. So, Chen Daoming actually wasted a lot of their time as well as money. It worked out well for Yan Xiaopin, and, in a way, it worked out well for me. But it wasn’t their idea to have me in the first place.

Kaiser: That backstory aside, though, I did ask you about what this is actually done for your future career because, I think, I suspect there probably is some linkage.

Robert: Well, there are some. It’s been a very, very good icebreaker in that almost all of the Chinese leaders, and most of the people in China who are aged, at this point, 45 and above, watched it. They’ve seen it. So, when I come in the room, they feel like they know me and they feel like they’re over a hump and there’s something to talk about, and I can speak Chinese. It’s been a very good icebreaker that way. In the long term, I think that the biggest benefit for me was actually working in a Chinese danwei, subject to Chinese authority every day. This is very different from the way I started in China, which was working in the American embassy, looking at China, sort of, as a studied object rather than as a living subject.

But when your boss is Chinese, and you’ve had this experience too, when you’re subject daily to Chinese authority and you’re working in a Chinese work culture, it sort of rocks your world and it gives you, I think, insights into China that you wouldn’t otherwise have.

Kaiser: Absolutely. One of the other bosses that you’ve had was also born in China, but is not himself Chinese, J. Stapleton Roy, Stape, who left you to fill very, very big shoes at the Wilson Center at the Kissinger Institute. Can you talk about what it’s been like to work with him over the years? What role has he played in shaping your own views about the United States and China and their fraught relationship?

Robert: Sure. I should acknowledge that I had another Chinese-born boss, Jim Lilly, when I was at the embassy before Stape. Stape founded the Kissinger Institute. And then through a process that was opaque to me and lasted a year, I came in as his successor. Fortunately, he then stayed on as a distinguished fellow for another eight years. What this meant for me was that, unlooked for and undeserved, I suddenly had a daily masterclass from Stape. The subject of that masterclass was not only China and the U.S.-China relations, but it was also diplomacy as such, what diplomacy meant, what it could and should be, and Stape often lamenting that it no longer seems to play a big role in our approach to China. What Stape taught me was something that in part I knew, but I hadn’t articulated it, I hadn’t quite known how important it was. And it was that when you look at China, you don’t begin by asking, “What’s wrong with them or what do we want them to do?”

Which is where we usually start with American foreign policy. You begin by asking who they are, what they’ve been through, why they believe what they believe, whether you agree with them or not, where this comes from. You study their history, you study the language, and then you start to think about how to speak with them and how to find common ground if you can. This was his constant text. And his illustrative examples came from the entire history of the modern relationship. They actually went back to the pre-modern side. His birth in Nanjing, his fleeing Nanjing ahead of the Rape of Nanking in 1937.

Kaiser: 1937, Right.

Robert: Then having a lot of elementary schooling in Chengdu. He met John Leighton Stuart. Later on he went to the Shanghai American School. So, as I say, it was a masterclass in middle age which most people don’t get. Yeah, I’d had a number of very influential mentors, I hate that word, but a number of scholars who were important to me when I was in college, especially Raymond Carver and Toby Wolff. I wrote short stories under their guidance, and they had been major figures in my development. And then suddenly, boom, say at age 51, Stape Roy. I think that it helped deepen my own commitment to approaching China from a historical, cultural point of view, and from always trying to include, insofar as we can, the Chinese point of view. Sometimes it still remains a little bit opaque and muddled to me, but you at least begin there.

Kaiser: Right. I think he’s a paragon of the exercise of cognitive empathy. Just a marvelous man.

Robert: Well, I would say more nice things about him, but I’m afraid that somebody might actually share this recording with him, and he would be appalled if we were too lavish in our praise.

Kaiser: Well, then I’ll ask you maybe to channel him before we move on. How was he feeling about the state of the bilateral relationship? How has he been feeling about that for the last couple of years? And how did he apportion, this is a crude way of putting it, but apportioned blame? I mean, I’ve always found him to be one of the American diplomats who can really turn the lens on ourselves and our behavior and speak very candidly about what we might have done to cause some of the behavior that we now object to so strenuously.

Robert: Right. And it’s that ability of Stape’s that sometimes makes it hard to know how he apportions blame. I think that blame is a word that he probably wouldn’t want to use. And I wouldn’t either want to speak for Stape, who can speak for himself, but you’re right that he has certainly been, I think it’s fair to say, appalled by an American rhetorical approach to China that was devoid of any introspection or knowledge of our own history and the history of the relationship. The fact that we often proceed in a very moralistic preaching way, despite both our past and our ongoing sins, I think is an embarrassment to him. I think it’s also fairly safe to say that he has been very concerned by a loss of his historical knowledge about the foundations of, and the rationale for the relationship.

In particular, we began to see with the Trump administration, this narrative that engagement was always a sucker’s game and a massive mistake. That we got played. Within this narrative, you have this assumption that our goals under engagement had always been to make China more like us. One, we didn’t call it engagement at the time. We only called it U.S.-China relations. We only started to use engagement to describe that period after that period had ended. And two, as is very clear from the historical record back during the Carter administration when the relationship was founded, nobody was saying, “This is going to make China more like us.” It is true that later on, Bill Clinton and others sometimes said that they thought that was likely to happen, but it was never a driver of policy.

And so that narrative, that really twisting of the historical record with engagement by the emergent hawkish group that now has the megaphone in the U.S.-China relations, I don’t think that the Biden administration itself buys into this a historical version of engagement. I can’t tell that they have much interest in that argument, one way or the other. But certainly, on the hawkish side, engagement is seen as this hopeful kind of airy-fairy, limp-wristed, hippie optimism, which has now been trampled into the dust by Xi Jinping’s China.

Kaiser: Right.

Robert: That’s just false. And certainly, Stape was one of the people who was continually making that case over the past several years.

Kaiser: Several of the themes that you brought up in talking about Stape’s thinking in recent years, really lead us directly into the talk that we’re going to focus on for the rest of our hour here. Our listeners have just taken that in. Before we get to the actual substance of it, though, tell me why it is that these days, these ideas of yours, which have clearly been gestating for a very, very long time, could only find expression, at least where you are in D.C., in a forum like Faith & Law. Why did you need to give that talk there?

Robert: Well, that’s actually a very good question. And just to be clear, nothing that I said in that talk, from my point of view, is either new or surprising. It just isn’t very often said in the mainstream dialogue about our policies on China. My view on this is maybe a little bit idiosyncratic, but one, as is often remarked, concerns about what we call our security now dominate all discussion about China. And also that discussion about China is carried out by people who are, I think for the most part, well meaning, patriotic, doing what they think is best for the country, but whose educational background, and I’m getting into tricky territory here, but it’s primarily in political science or IR theory.

Or they come out of some version of the military-industrial complex and have lenses of that kind. But it’s largely that you have this only poly sci and IR lens on the relationship. Those lenses, those disciplines have a limited aperture and a limited vocabulary. You and I have spoken about this before. The proposition in Washington now is that China is a security threat to the United States. Full stop.

Kaiser: Right.

Robert: The approach I try to take is that China is a complicated human proposition under any circumstances, an increasingly worrisome aspect of which is a security threat. But it’s the broad lens, it’s the humanistic lens that needs to be the frame for this relationship. But that is largely a foreign idea to the Realist School of Foreign Policy, which says that the basic actors are power maximizing nation states.

Kaiser: That’s right.

Robert: That’s where everything is reducible to. And I don’t understand that. It’s not just that I reject it, I don’t understand how that view came about. To me, international affairs can only be understood, they’re only coherent as a subset of human affairs. A cultural lens, a moral lens, a historical lens, a humanistic lens have to be employed. We do employ them in universities, in disciplines and departments all over America. But within Washington, that vocabulary, those tools, those ways of understanding are not very often employed. And I don’t mean to be criticizing my many colleagues in the China field, whatever that’s supposed to mean. I’m very lucky to work with the many very dedicated, thoughtful people that I work with in other think tanks. I learned a lot from them. They have my highest respect. But I have found in Washington that there’s just a limited inadequate aperture. And that was true even before everything became dominated by concerns about security.

Kaiser: Right. Yeah, I suspect you could have done a secular version of this talk. In fact, many of the people who you quote, and you pepper this with fantastic quotes, are from that kind of secular pantheon of America’s founding heroes. There are quotes from Madison in the Federalist Papers, as you’ve all just heard from Dwight D. Eisenhower later on. But the one that I think really anchors the talk is from this letter that John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson in February of 1816, where he says, “Power always sincerely, conscientiously and de très bon foi” — in good faith — “believes itself right. Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak, and that it is doing God service, when it’s violating all his laws.” That’s the crux of it. That’s the fundamental issue that you’re wrestling with in this talk. When it comes to China, what has happened in our relationship to cause you to really question whether our policy, which we inevitably think is good, capital G good, is actually good? What triggers this in you?

Robert: Well, primarily it is a willingness to put preparation for war, first and foremost. I think that’s what really shocks me about this. As you said, there’s a secular version of that talk that could easily be given. I wasn’t quoting scripture. I was upfront about some of my influences from Catholic and Christian thinkers, but there could be a secular version of that. We have moved very quickly to arming up and to consideration of war immediately as a question of our security. I think back on all the things I’ve done in China in 33 years, and the people I’ve met, and you’ve been part of all of this, right? Anybody who’s traveled there, most of the Americans that I know who’ve traveled there, even including some more hawkish people who’ve actually been able to walk around the streets and meet Chinese, they come away impressed in the main, right?

It doesn’t mean they’re not concerned about the South China Sea or Taiwan. You retain those. I’m worried that we hear, “China is our pacing threat. Do we need to reconsider our nuclear doctrines now that we have a triangular arms race with Russia and China?” We’re rushing to update mutual assured destruction and the other nuclear doctrines that we developed together with the Soviets after the Cuban Missile Crisis in the first Cold War. And I think that we may need to do that. There’s an argument for doing all of those things, but it hasn’t been matched by what we had during the first Cold War, which was a lot of people saying, “Wait, just a cotton picking minute. Do we want to be designing these and building these weapons and having them on a hair trigger ready to be deployed, which can control the world several times over? Do we really want to kill all these people? Does this make sense?”

Now, I’m alluding in a very shallow way to a very, very complicated dialogue, historical dialogue. And what I’m worried about is that in Washington now, to even raise these questions is seen, as far as I can tell, as a sort of a passe, hippie-ish irrelevant. Almost irrelevant set of concerns. That’s what bothers me.

Kaiser: Well, one of the most powerful moments, I think, in the talk was, just along these lines, when you asked, what does it say about us that the military aspect of this competition is the easiest for us, despite the fact that it’s the most expensive and the most escalatory? What does it say about us? When you have said this, as I hope you have, as I’m sure you have to our more hawkish friends there in D.C., what is the response? I mean, do they not see that there’s this guns and butter trade off that we’re not training up a new core of diplomats, that our first move is always the military one, why?

Robert: Well, first, this often isn’t questioned because the situation is presented as urgent. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we have a pacing threat.” And then I also hear from people, and I think this is true, and I think they’re well intentioned, is that, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know all about that. We’ve thought about that, but we’re now at a point where knowing that, we’ve gained it out and we have to make certain moves.” My response to that is, “Well, if you think about it so always, why do you mention it so never?” Right? Why is it not in the public discourse? Even in mainstream papers, we read about rearmament or the reemergence of mad. It’s presented to us merely as a series of facts and statistics.

We don’t have the voices that we had during the first Cold War, which say, “Is it moral to create weapons, to threaten to use them?” You can give a strategic reason for that, but we’re in a position, perhaps, let’s say that it’s correct that we have to have nuclear weapons, and all of us, you and I, most of the people listening to this were born into a world in which they already existed. The question of whether to develop them is gone. We still need a dialogue in which we say, “Having these things may be a strategic necessity, but it’s a moral tragedy.” We need to frame it that way. And the tendency in the United States, because of our own moral absolutism and self-regard and self-certainty, which I talked about in that speech as well, we tend to say, “Okay, well, if these are a strategic necessity; therefore they’re also a moral good because we’re doing it.”

I think that what we need is a discourse that says they may be a strategic necessity, we need to continually revisit that. But there’s still a moral tragedy, and we need to keep that first and foremost as well or we’re simply going to have the wrong guides to the development and use of these. So, part of what I was trying to do was simply introduce, reintroduce that element into the discussion. So far, I haven’t really seen any echoes of that.

Kaiser: Well, we will come back to the embryonic form of Robert Daly’s doctrine of a Just Cold War and talk about things like kneecapping China and its technology, which you do talk about. But let’s go back. I want to better understand your own foreign policy doctrine as you’ve come to develop it because it sits somewhere. Obviously, as you point out, we can’t allow our ability to exercise empathy to completely paralyze us. I actually do find myself being able to turn the chessboard around and see things from the other side, and I can play myself kind of to a stalemate where I sometimes feel like, am I actually in danger of losing a moral compass here? Am I so reluctant to judge and to act now because of this commitment to exercising empathy that I’m ineffective?

You wrestle with this as well. Yours is a very different calculus, obviously, from the so-called IR realists. We’ve just talked about them, these people who would silence our conscience entirely and act only according to our national self-interest. But it’s also very different from the so-called liberal interventionists who are very eager to use American power, even lethal American power in the service of what they see as good. I know it’s a huge question, but how do you come to your policy preferences? Do you have some kind of a rule of thumb and kind of test, or do you just trust intuition? Is this when you have to turn to the Almighty?

Robert: Well, yeah, it’s more the latter. I don’t think I have a doctrine, but I have certain dispositions. To answer these huge questions, you do need, whether it’s a personal philosophy or an ethics or religion, different people come at it equally effectively from different angles. But one of the things that we have to keep track of, and it’s odd to me that a lot of the most hawkish rhetoric that we hear from American, mostly people on the Hill, but you hear it from other places, also comes from people who are very, very publicly and emphatically committed Christians. That’s actually, this is a little bit of a sidebar. This isn’t at the mainstream of American diplomacy, but I think it’s worth noting.

Obviously, if you really are coming at this as a committed Christian or a committed Jew or Muslim, or even an ethical atheist for that matter, as you said, there’s a secular version of this talk, the Chinese are first and foremost our neighbors. Right? The Christian doctrine here couldn’t be clearer, you know, that you are to love your neighbor. And that doesn’t mean that if your neighbor is beating his children, you don’t call the cops. You do. And if your neighbor is building his garage on your property, you may take him to court or knock down his garage with a sledgehammer. Right?

Kaiser: Two transparent metaphors just now.

Robert: Right. That is the piece that seems to be missing from this. But again, it’s not that I’m guided. I don’t have a doctrine for this. I’m just constantly aware of what is missing in our rhetoric. I guess part of it too is because all this time in China, while there are very real problems in China, there are challenges, and I think what can legitimately be called threats coming out of China, there is also a tremendous amount to admire and love there. And that’s a daily lived reality for many Americans, certainly Chinese-Americans, but not only Chinese-Americans. That needs to be continually brought into the discussion somehow. And the difficulty I’ve had in Washington is finding that bridge. How do you make that kind of vocabulary relevant to the security vocabulary?

I frankly haven’t found a very good way to do that. I’ve failed in that. As soon as you make these points, you’re taking yourself out of the ballgame. It’s an ongoing frustration. I don’t know how to quite know how to come at it.

Kaiser: Yeah. So, the whole interplay between religion and foreign policy is a huge topic. We could explore that for hours, but it’s probably too much to tackle in the time that we have. But I do want to ask you a couple of things about U.S. policy, about Christianity, and China. How much does Christianity affect the conduct of American policy when it comes to China? How much does it shape American public attitudes toward China? Because I think back to coming up and reading John King Fairbank, for example, he has this book called China Watch, where he wrote about cowboy and missionary attitudes and the special relationship with China. I know there was a long tradition of missionary activity, as we mentioned, Stape Roy was born-

Robert: Education missionary parents. Yeah.

Kaiser: That’s right. John Pomfret, with whom I have many, many, many disagreements, but he did write something very wise in this book, The Beautiful Country in the Middle Kingdom, where he talked about this special relationship, the same one that Fairbank wrote about. He talked about how there’s this dynamic that constantly plays out whereby we saddle China with these unrealistically high expectations that, being unrealistically high, are invariably dashed. They’re never met. Right? And this causes us, Americans, to react like jilted lovers, I think was exactly the phrase that he used. We’re irrationally angry at China because we care so much. I think the whole engagement has failed, that whole thing, that smacks of the same kind of psychology. There does seem to be a kind of missionary attitude at the heart of this. I’m curious what your thoughts are about this, and is it explicitly, or is it directly Christian, or is it something more…?

Robert: We’ve changed our gospels. They’ve been Christian, they’ve been capitalist, they’ve been neoliberal.

Kaiser: But there’s always a gospel.

Robert: But there’s always a gospel, right? We’re always preaching it. If we ask what Christianity means, the first question is, who’s Christianity?

Kaiser: Sure.

Robert: And that becomes an impossibly complicated conversation. Certainly, a lot of mainstream Christianity now is influenced by what’s called the Prosperity Gospel, which is the

Kaiser: Christ.

Robert: Well, you mentioned Christ. Christ does not mention the prosperity gospel. Wealth, it’s quite clear, is not a sign of God’s favor. My reading of the New Testament is that the more closely your behavior and beliefs accords with that of Christ, the higher the likelihood that they nail you to a tree. That’s the way that those stories go. But the prosperity gospel-

Kaiser: You haven’t quoted scriptures so far, but I think I will — “Isn’t it more difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle?”

Robert: Well, there’s actually a huge debate about the actual meaning of-

Kaiser: The eye of the needle being actually a gate in Jerusalem or something like that.

Robert: Yeah. But that’s now recently been possibly discredited. We don’t know. But this is why it’s, whose Christianity?

Kaiser: We’ll leave theology for now.

Robert: I think that what we need to do in our public diplomacy and our outreach to China is use China’s own ancient vast, and I would say perfectly adequate ethical traditions. We should be arguing from the point of view of what is best and most valued in the Chinese ancient tradition, not in the name of our tradition. And there we’ve got, I think, a tremendous amount to work with. We have to educate ourselves a little better. That should be a part of our approach to China, rather than proceeding from the many, many moral traditions in the West, Christianity being one of them. Coming back to Stape Roy, we need to know their literature, their ideas, where their ideas of the good and human flourishing come from. I’m not talking here about the Chinese Communist Party. I’m talking about older traditions. And there’s plenty to work with within that framework.

Kaiser: Yeah, absolutely. I want to come back to that in just a bit. Somebody once compared American and Chinese forms of exceptionalism to me. He suggested both countries obviously have it, they both suffer from it, and in no small measure. They both feel very much singled out by history for some special destiny. But the way that they manifest exceptionalism is very different. I completely agree here. American exceptionalism supposes that our values, our institutions are true for all peoples in all times, and this leads us inevitably to proselytize. You said we always have a gospel, right?

Chinese exceptionalism, though, is very particularist rather than universal. Here, I’m oversimplifying, but Chinese exceptionalism says that China’s values and institutions are the unique product of a very specific historical experience. It’s special, the same way that language is special, it’s hard to acquire. You might as well not even bother. While Chinese virtue and beneficence can radiate outward, no Chinese people really think that the rest of the world either can or ought to be reshaped in China’s image, right?

Robert: Right.

Kaiser: Now, again, oversimplified, but I think there’s some truth to it. And I think part of this American exceptionalism has to be located in the distinctly religious roots of this country, especially in the dissenting sects of Protestantism that came over after 1620, right? And founded New England.

Robert: Absolutely. The Chinese version of exceptionalism, which you just described very accurately, of course, this becomes a very real problem, conceptually and in a utilitarian sense, now that China wants to be an order builder outside of China. And it is doing that in a way that is also highly moralistic if you look at communities of common destiny and the global development security, and especially the civilization initiatives. They’re tying themselves in knots to say, “We reject universal values,” but there are common values. And that they’re struggling with precisely this idea of exceptionalism now that they’re interested in being something like a global leader or order builder. Our version of, as you say, largely, Protestant evangelization, whatever its problems may be, there’s no conceptual difficulty when you try to then order the world or tell the world what the right way to human flourishing is.

We don’t deal with that. We sometimes don’t have enough introspection, but it lends itself to order building. Whereas China, as you say, it’s because of the particularism, the very Chineseness of it, the religion of China is China itself. Certain beliefs about China, its culture, its history, its experience. And that just doesn’t translate. So, it’s interesting to watch them try to deal with this puzzle that they’ve laid out for themselves now.

Kaiser: That is a very interesting way to look at it. I think that’s fodder for a conversation that I’m going to have at the NEXTChina Conference. You’ve just seeded a terrific question in my head for that. Thank you. That’s fantastic. Look, it’s not just the U.S. that is guilty of the overuse of moral language, which you warn against, of normative language. This is something that China also very much does. Though, the tone is different. It’s certainly more defensive. It’s more aggrieved. Can you talk about this, the pernicious nature of over-moralizing by both countries?

Robert: Well, I think it’s a little bit different in both cases. It’s not so much that we moralize. I think that’s inevitable. Human beings are moralizing critters. Right?

Kaiser: Sure.

Robert: When we talk about things that matter, there’s always going to be a moral component. You can’t just rip it away and go for something that’s purely mechanistic. I think you’re even more prone to make major mistakes under those circumstances. It’s our moral absolutism. It’s really that tendency. And I don’t mean moral absolutism as opposed to what is often criticized as moral relativism. It’s our tendency to say that China can’t be merely problematic or we can’t think that this, that, or the other behavior is bad or concerning. They have to be devils from hell.

Kaiser: Right.

Robert: Right? Every pickpocket has to be a serial killer. And they’re not. Not every pickpocket is a serial killer. We lose track of all perspectives. Then we have a tendency, because I think of a certain evangelical strain in American, mostly Protestant Christianity, although you find it in Catholicism as well, that all problems are framed in terms of Armageddon. And we do this domestically. Your political opponents have to be evil. They have to be un-American. We wish ill upon them. We don’t just do this to China. We do this to ourselves, to our very great detriment. I see it as that apocalyptic strain of primarily Protestant Christianity and the way that it now has seeped into a lot of our culture. And it actually gets boosted. I’ll go out on a limb here, I can’t prove it, but it’s also been boosted up by a kind of aggressively vulgar strain in U.S. culture, sort of the South Parkization of everything.

All things are sayable and doable and in your face. I actually think that an aggressively missionary view gets a cultural boost from that side of things as well. I hear that straight when I listen to it. I hear it in our former president who I think is in part enabled by a mass culture, which is nihilistic, which reveres nothing in which everything is permitted, and the permitting of everything is heavily rewarded. I think that that is also a major engine of this style. It’s not just apocalyptic Christianity that enters into this. On the Chinese side, it’s very different. And I think it’s different in part because they’re developing this language in part as a response to what we have said and done.

Kaiser: Hmm. Yeah.

Robert: Part of this is in the DNA and part of it is counter-punching in a way that they’re not necessarily accustomed to counterpunching, which is why so much of their rhetoric and their arguments, such as they’re along these lines, are so easy to deconstruct in some ways because the Chinese self-certainty and profound cultural self-regard that predates the Communist Party is not aggressive or missionary in its original style. I see China now trying to adapt that and figure out how to use that in a way that’s coherent to a domestic audience as well as to an international audience. And they’re so far mostly failing.

Kaiser: Yeah, It’s clumsy.

Robert: It’s clumsy. Yeah. The one thing I think that is less clumsy, and that is working now that I think they stumbled on after a lot of false attempts, is China has put forward this proposition that the very goal of global order, what is called order, is development. And that has a lot of bias. When we describe the international rules-based order, and we’d have to do another show on the issues with that proposition and that phrase, we don’t describe it as being about development in the first instance. Right? We say that it’s the most conducive framework to human flourishing. That sort of comes as a side effect. But as we presented, the rationale for it is more legalistic than it is development itself. I think that China has sort of bumbled its way into something that is actually going to work for it, at least in parts of the global south.

I see China in a long period of transition in which they’re trying to figure out how to be a great power in many ways, how to translate wealth into influence. They’re not doing very well, but the effort is lavishly resourced and it’s 24/7, and they’re beginning to develop arguments that work a little bit better in some parts of the world.

Kaiser: Yeah, that’s actually something that I would push back a little bit on how you described it in your talk. You talk about how China’s leadership sees humans as homo economicus, as a couple of the Russians did. They lop off the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, of that pyramid. Right? No self-actualization.

Robert: Right. So far.

Kaiser: I would say, that’s true to a point. But just as you said, this is intended to appeal to the Global South, which, by definition, is at an earlier stage of development.

Robert: Correct.

Kaiser: My understanding of how the Chinese talk about it is, look, they do want all that, the spiritual, stuff like that, but they just feel like they are further down the hierarchy right now, that their priority right now are the subsistence things — the food, clothing, shelter. They are now reaching for a 小康社会 [xiǎokāng shèhuì], a modestly well off society. But I think down the road, the Chinese virtue narrative isn’t devoid of a kind of spiritual component.

Robert: Well, except that, of course, what is meant by spirituality is extremely unclear as it is in the case of when holy secular Westerners use spirituality. I don’t really know what they’re talking about either. So, there’s a problem with the use of that term, but the Chinese, the way they speak about this has changed. In the ’80s and the ’90s, the Communist Party discourse said that we’re moving towards something like democracy. But the time is not yet now, right? We’re developing, we still have to have what’s essentially a survivalist ethic.

Kaiser: Right.

Robert: But even the notion that democracy was a goal, that dropped out of Communist Party discourse a while ago. Then the other difficulty is, of course, that China is not just a survivalist place anymore. It’s not true. We don’t have a good word for what it is because you’ve got the world’s biggest consumer class, but you’ve also got 600 million people living below the poverty line. What do we call this? How do we frame that is a very good question. But the notion that China can still get away with a purely survivalist ethic simply doesn’t cut it. Especially now when they are reaching for some form of global leadership, some form of order building — claiming to offer advice or answers, not only to the global south, but to the world as a whole. They play both sides of this issue. Most of the listeners to Sinica Podcast know that China is not just Beijing and Shanghai and Shenzhen. They’ve been all over the country and they’ve met the poor. But some of the poor become rich fairly fast. And the question of this being merely a survivalist state in which there is no higher moral good than the people not starving, that passed the sell by date several decades ago.

Kaiser: Yeah. This is where China is right now. It’s in that state right now where the kind of great Levinson question of modern Chinese history, how do we create wealth and power in a way that’s consonant with our identity as Chinese, has to an extent been answered. They’re moving on to this next more advanced question, what kind of a nation will China be among other nation states? It’s a difficult time.

Robert: And it’s going to last a while.

Kaiser: It’s going to last a very long time.

Robert: Yeah. We’ve got a Cold War, which I think is going to last a while, but we’ve also got profound transitions and fragilities in both countries, which quite, apart from the Cold War, are also going to last a while, and which may both exacerbate the Cold War and be exacerbated by it. I don’t really know how that plays out.

Kaiser: You just used the word Cold War a couple times. I want to drill down on that a little bit. When you gave this talk, you were already, unequivocally, calling this, as a year ago, calling this situation we’re in now with China, a Cold War. As you said, you take no pleasure in that it’s descriptive and not prescriptive. In the last couple of years, I have quoted you, Robert, I’ve quoted you often, though, not by my name because I think officially, when we had this conversation, we were on Chatham House rules or something, but I’ve always called you a seasoned China hand or a wise China watcher that I greatly respect. I’m going to out you here, though, I think it’s fine.

You said something on this Zoom call we were on back, I think it was in 2020, where you said we would be in a state of Cold War when, short of actual war, the primary organizing principle in each of the two countries, in China and the United States, was hostility toward the other. Back then, when I heard you say that, I thought, “Oh, that makes a lot of sense.” And whew, we’re not there yet. It’s not the organizing principle. So, what’s changed? What has made it so that now you would declare… I think you would’ve said the same back in 2020, we’re not yet in the Cold War. What’s changed for you?

Robert: I would’ve changed the subject if you’d asked me. Well, I actually would’ve said, and I did say at the time what most people say when they reject the term Cold War, which is that because we are both highly integrated with China, as we weren’t with the Soviet Union, and because China is a peer competitor, which the Soviet Union isn’t, therefore, it’s not a good analogy. Those are both very valid points. And the people who make them are concerned that if we simply call it a Cold War, that we will default to Cold War strategies, which we tell ourselves worked the first time around, which won’t work the second time around because it’s much more difficult. I certainly take those cautions. But what the people who make those points are really arguing is that there can’t be any such thing as a Cold War. There can only have been the historical Cold War.

And that I don’t buy because I think it does create a sense of urgency and focus, which is both accurate and helpful if it’s properly framed. How did we get here? I mean, step by step, part of it was probably structural and historical and something not too far off, for the Graham Allison framing. I don’t wholly accept the facticity’s trap, but nor do I wholly reject it. And then specific missteps. The advent of Xi Jinping, which I don’t believe was in the cards right along, and his very specific decisions to go back toward Maoist redness domestically, and to be more aggressive internationally and to extend his own rule, and to basically move away from reform and opening, I think is one factor. Then obviously on our side, the Trump acceleration of all of this with the trade war and then the coming of COVID, obviously, the Chinese accusation that the United States fears losing its preeminence. That’s true.

That emotion and that fear, in part drives us, but it’s very, very far from the sum total of our concerns. And so, there were numerous accelerants. I’d say Xi was an accelerant. I think Trump and COVID were accelerants that brought us to this pass.

Kaiser: It’s really been in the Biden administration that we’ve seen every piece of legislation pushed, basically, framed in terms of competing with China. So, when you started talking about organizing principles of American life, that’s where my mind went.

Robert: And we’ve got the China House at State, the China Mission at CIA. We’ve got the committee on-

Kaiser: The Select Committee, yeah.

Robert: Yeah, the Select Committee. And there are other versions of this. We’ve got committees in universities all over the country that are on the lookout for aspects of this in various ways. Same thing with corporations. I spend a lot of time with corporations and universities. And it’s also now not just in Washington. We see this, in some ways, most worrisomely in Michigan now, with concerns about the CATL. Probably the most concerning, the worst manifestation of this is this proliferation of laws saying that Chinese warrant American citizens can’t buy real estate.

Kaiser: Right, Florida, Texas.

Robert: There should be much, much louder outcry about this than there has been. There’s been an outcry, but only if you pay attention to these issues 24/7 would you hear it, about just how dangerous this is and what lies behind it. So, it is an organizing principle. Equally true on the Chinese side. One of the things I worry about, Kaiser, is that when we speak introspectively and self-critically as we are, and as we must, that most of the people who take great care to do that don’t turn it around and talk about what is in fact deeply concerning in China. The implication is that it’s precisely what Beijing says, which is that it’s all on us, which I don’t believe at all.

It is equally on China and equally with their rewriting of counter-espionage laws, which ask Chinese, not only through the writing of the law, but through propaganda, to see every foreigner in China as a potential spy until proven otherwise. And to also view the Chinese who deal with them in that way. It’s equally an organizing principle on the Chinese side. I don’t want to give listeners the sense that I take the position that this is all the United States fault. I don’t. Most of the major concerns that even the hawks express about China, I think are major concerns. My worry is that they are not properly contextualized, they’re not properly balanced vis-à-vis China, vis-à-vis the United States, vis-à-vis the other changes in the world. That’s my worry. It’s not that, “Oh, no, there’s nothing to see here, folks. China is simply a developing peace-loving nation.” No.

Kaiser: Your willingness, though, to be critical of the United States and its policy is fairly uncommon. There’s a word that was coined during the last Cold War that’s often used, I think often unfairly used, to shut down conversation whenever the accused wants to point out hypocrisy on the part of the accuser. That is whataboutism. You’ve heard this, right?

Robert: Oh, yeah, yeah.

Kaiser: Obviously, it can be used in bad faith. Nowadays, that is a move and an argument that I see often from these ardent defenders of China. I understand why it becomes so blithely discredited because it’s often used in such bad faith, and the analogy is ridiculous, like temporally or spatially, or in terms of its scale, it’s silly. And to bring this back to Christianity, does that Matthew 7:1 say, kind of legitimizes whataboutism of, “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” How do you feel about that move? Is there such a thing as moral standing, and can it be eroded by glaring hypocritical behavior? I honestly think it can.

Robert: Sure it can. But actually, there’s an operational problem with that quote. And remember, the quote ends by, first, get the beam out of thine own eye, and then get the mote out of your brother’s, right? There is a call to action for operationalism. The problem with that quote, even within the Christian context, is that, as unrelenting sinners, there’s a whole lumberyard of beams in our own eyes, and we’re constantly adding new ones, and we’ll never get them out. So, we never get around to the moat in our brother’s eye. How do you do that in the real world?

But you’re right, whataboutism needs to be criticized. But introspection is absolutely essential. There are different forms that this takes, so that when China says, for example, that the United States imprisons higher percentage of its population than anybody else, and that most of them are poor people of color, one, they’re plagiarizing American critics, but still, absolutely, this is a major, major human rights problem. The issue with that form of whataboutism is not that they’re wrong or that we shouldn’t reflect on and change these behaviors, it’s that they’re actually using it to staunch all criticism and end all discussion. That’s the problem with that.

Kaiser: That’s the bad faith use of it.

Robert: That’s the bad faith use. Most of China’s criticisms of the United States along these lines, they take from American newspapers. They get the data from Americans, they just use it in their American human rights report. But yes, it’s in bad faith. It’s not a serious discussion about why these things happen and what we can do about them. In a humanistic context, all countries face certain problems. How do we come at them? That’s not what they’re going for. They’re saying, “Shut up you American imperialist pig dog bastards, and here’s why.” Right? That’s not a good faith argument.

Kaiser: Absolutely. One thing that you do raise in the talk related to this and had me shouting amen is about how in conversations between Americans and Chinese or among Americans about China, the comparison is so often between American intentions and Chinese realities. You actually put it more elegantly than that, but between American intentions and Chinese realities rather than vice versa, or rather than apples to apples, intentions and intentions. Another version of this, and I think there’s some validity to this to be sure, is this, the American says, “Malfeasance X happens in China,” to which the Chinese person says, “Well, malfeasance X also happens in your country.” And then, of course, the American replies, “Well, we can talk about malfeasance X happening in our country, and our newspapers can report about it, and they’re not going to be shut down or people clapped in irons over it,” which leaves the Chinese person thinking, but that doesn’t change the fact that malfeasance X continues unabated, right?

You can talk about gun violence all you want, but gun violence rates are rising. Yeah, I mean, I think it’s great that you point that out, but again, it’s like one of these things that’s just, it’s maddening to me to see this constant comparison between intentions, on the one hand, and realities, or the felt effects, as you put it on the-

Robert: Well, this is where the problem of moral absolutism comes up because it is better to have all of these problems and be able to talk about them.

Kaiser: Yes.

Robert: What that means is that yes, this is a case of slightly better than in this instance, right? It’s not angels and devils. The problem is that we tend to leap to angels and devils. The Chinese, of course, are sensitive to parts per million of this, for reasons that you and that your listeners will understand, and so it’s that sense of absolute moral authority to criticize instead of saying something like, “Yes, this is a major human rights problem. We’re not where we want to be and we’re not where we’re going to be, but thank God, Almighty, we’re not where we were. And here’s why we think that talking about these things and publishing the statistics that you used, to point this out to me, actually helps over the long run, even though it’s not an immediate cure.” Now, that’s a reasonable conversation to have.

Kaiser: And one I hear, altogether, too infrequently. Robert, we’re on the subject of moral absolutism, and I want to talk about that and its opposite number in the minds of many people anyway, moral or cultural relativism. I know these two things are distinct, or at least they’re in part distinct — moral and cultural relativism. But for purposes of this conversation, I am really talking about the idea that a society with very different economic geographic demographic circumstances, different foundational, ethnoreligious traditions or pantheons of heroes and villains or wholly different historical experiences that they might evolve different priorities, different values, different, ultimately, morals or political systems. I say this to distinguish it from the more kind of simple nihilistic proposition that all normative claims have exactly the same weight. I am not talking about that. I’m talking about the idea that there are culturally conditioned historically shaped views.

And that at the very least, we should be able to cut slack to countries that have valley systems that are different from ours. Now, for a while, my distinct sense was that the American intelligentsia, maybe even the western intelligentsia, was really willing to cut that kind of slack to see that cultural relativism was an essentially sound idea, and that it had achieved a kind of a broad consensus across the American, at least academe and intellectual life. How about today? I think this has been the case now for three decades or more, the consensus, even among really secular intellectuals who would bristle or completely just reject out of hand any kind of moral absolutist system that was rooted in theology, they are still embracing this set of universal values. There’s no longer a willingness to cut slack to countries like China or to Iran or Russia, or what-have-you, that have failed to embrace those same values. So, is what I’ve just described, is this something that you’ve seen happening? And if so, when would you put the start date on that? Or how did it happen and why?

Robert: Well, certainly, we reconsider some of our values when we are concerned about the power of other countries or when we feel threatened, and that’s universal. It’s very hard to speak of these matters without getting down to cases. So that you have, in the United States, a lot of, mostly more or less liberal, moral relativists who embrace multiculturalism and diversity for very good reasons, and who reject, especially theologically based moral absolutism as they see it. But then they always run into cases that bring them back to universals. I’m thinking here of things like genital mutilation in Africa. Treatment of women in societies that are wholly sexist, which pose huge challenges to the left. I’ve lived in China for many years. I don’t have deep knowledge or long experience of any other countries besides the United States and China.

And I’ve never seen anything in China that made me think that there are no universal values. I think that they have an evolutionary character, that they’re partially conditioned by wealth and leisure. But I’ve never run into anything that is essentially different. I’ve run into differences of, for example, emphasis. I’m thinking here of the best in China, the best versions of 孝顺 [xiàoshùn].

Kaiser: Filial piety.

Robert: Yeah, filial piety. Aspects of that can be tyrannical. But in my own case, coming to understand what that meant, it didn’t make me love my parents anymore. That notion that you sometimes hear in China and other places, “Well, we really love our families. We really care.” I mean, this is nonsense. It’s defensive. It didn’t make me love my parents more, but it did help me to perform my love for my parents more effectively in a way that I think made a profound difference for them and for me. That’s a point of relative emphasis that was, in my own case, very, very helpful. But it wasn’t a case of different values. It was somewhat differently conditioned. It was a case of relative emphasis, but it didn’t challenge anything fundamental in me.

It just made me recognize certain inadequacies, things that I’d taken for granted. So, I’ve never seen anything in China that made me disbelieve in universal values. It’s just that some people claim to create a space for universal values in areas that are really matters of taste or the evolution of priorities.

Kaiser: Yeah. I mean, obviously, China reprioritizes, it differently prioritizes. You were talking earlier about how it lops the top hop of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This whole idea of humans being essentially homo economicus. To some extent, I buy that, but I see that as, like you said, prioritization. I don’t think the United States would outright categorically deny that economic rights are important. Certainly our left doesn’t deny that in the least.

Robert: It’s really a question of whether China can still get away with professing a purely survivalist ethic and say that because surely the right to eat and the right to security is fundamental, which is true, to claim that therefore, the rights of women or the rights of political participation can be dismissed. I don’t think that holds up even in Chinese terms. And this is different from saying that I see no evidence that there are not universal values and ample evidence that there are. This isn’t to say that America is the inventor or the conveyor of them by any means. It’s not to excuse that kind of cultural arrogance or preachiness. It’s only to say, to use language that even the Communist Party is comfortable with, that there is such a thing as our common humanity, right?

Xi Jinping rejects universal values, but espouses what he calls common values. “Well, excuse me, teacher, I have a question.” I think that this is used just as universal values are sometimes weaponized in the United States. Rejection of them is also weaponized on the part of China. Unfortunately, we began with a sort of, who’s better than whom, who’s teaching whom dynamic rather than a discussion of the evolutionary and, to some degree, culturally constructed character of these issues. We just sort of blew right by that accusation.

Kaiser: How did we come to blow right by that? I don’t think that most of the American public sat and thought, “Well, look, I bought that argument about the need for food, clothing, and shelter and prioritizing economic rights for a while, but once your per capita GDP passed a particular threshold, I’ve lost my patience, and now I want you to adhere.” No, they obviously didn’t do that. There was something else driving it. When I’ve asked this question to other people, often they have gone to that period in our lives when you were memorizing lines for a Beijinger in New York, and I was wood shedding on guitar to try to be decent enough to play in this band in China.

During that time, Francis Fukuyama and others were proclaiming the end of history and the last man. I felt like our country kind of, unembarrasingly, embraced this idea of historical teleology as something that’s always been latent in us. But suddenly, it was like, “Yeah, we are all converging in liberal and liberal democratic capitalism. And if you’re not with the program, we’re no longer going to cut you any slack.” But do you think that this tendency, I mean, if that indeed is an inflection point, I would also look at Jimmy Carter’s presidency when human rights became an important plank in our foreign policy. It’s something that I, even very young me, wholeheartedly endorsed. But I’m looking at it now and thinking, well, when did this start happening? And to bring it back to our conversation about religion, are the roots of this tendency, are they to be found in our Judeo-Christian tradition?

Robert: Well, I think that part of it is what is the secular move that you just described, the end of the Cold War, the proclaimed end of history. But we had, at the same time, in the United States, a reemergence of the political power of evangelical Christianity. We saw even an increase in the evangelical sort of zealotry, within the Catholic church, other churches, and the spreading of that kind of moral absolutist Christian values, which is really a separate stream from the Fukuyama end of history. But it was more or less concurrent. It also comes with the end of the Cold War. It probably begins or reemerges in that sense of triumphalism with the end of the Cold War. But certainly, in Judaism, Christianity, all the Abrahamic religions in Islam, they are morally absolute.

Kaiser: Yeah, absolutely.

Robert: Be perfect. Be perfect as your father is perfect. But then, again, in China, you have to become a 君子 [jūnzǐ]. You begin with 修其身[xiū qǐ shēn, cultivate one’s self] 一直到 [all the way to] 治其国 [zhì qǐ guó, govern one’s country].]

Kaiser: Yeah.

Robert: First, you begin with introspection. And when you become a perfect person, then you can actually rule the country. So, ideas of perfection and even moral absolutism are far from foreign.

Kaiser: Oh, yeah. I know. Absolutely.

Robert: The Communist Party is very moralistic

Kaiser: And very teleological in its thinking. What is Marxism if not sort of a roadmap for how history marches, right?

Robert: I’ve had this discussion with a lot of Chinese friends, and I spoke about this a little bit in the talk at Faith & Law, because of the doctrine of the fall of imperfection, we, in theory, in the Judeo-Christian traditions, we don’t expect perfection on earth, whereas China has, at least in theory, a notion that you can be perfected on Earth, and that gets people there tied in all kinds of knots. You’ve mentioned that you were very influenced by Levenson. The first thing that I read in this vein was The Spirit of Chinese Politics. Lucian Pye, who gets very involved in it, because perfection is demanded and it has to be performed, therefore it becomes a sort of charade that everybody has to go along with. So, I think that we’re both moralistic, morally arrogant, exceptional countries, and we’re grinding up against each other in ways that are increasingly pissing us off.

For many decades, they were exciting and enriching. You and I, and many, many of our friends back in the day, were at the interfaces of that. And that was a very enriching, wonderful thing. That piece has gone away, and we seem now to be just pointing fingers. I’ve drifted from your original question, but I’ve been asking these kinds of questions in my interactions with the Chinese for a very, very long time, not asking them directly, but it’s always been a reel that’s playing in the background, right?

Kaiser: Yeah.

Robert: It’s been hard to answer because China has evolved so fast, and so China’s answers keep changing. Just one quick example, I don’t want to go on too long, but I was struck, when I first got to China, and you would hear a lot that “我们爱热闹” [Wǒmen ài rènào], we sort of love the hubbub, and you would hear a lot of that we love our families and our neighbors, and we love human closeness more than you do. In some ways I saw what they meant, but I was also aware that a lot of traditional societies make similar claims, right? And what we’ve seen, as China gets rich, is that like us, they use their money to get as far as they can from their beloved fellow human beings. First you buy a house way out in Xunyi, way out in the country to get as far away from 热闹 [rènào] as fast as you possibly can. Then you make that house as large as you can, so that even with your nearest and dearest, you each have your own private hiding hole. Like us, the Chinese are using their wealth to isolate themselves from most other human beings. It’s a common point. It’s not a criticism of them. That’s why I say there’s an evolution. There’s an evolution to what we value, which is reflected in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We’re seeing this in real time in China, which makes it very hard to answer these questions with any certainty.

Kaiser: Yeah. I think that one universal truth is that humanity always makes a virtue of necessity. And, yeah, while we had no choice but to live cheek by jowl, of course, we’re going to proclaim our great love for 热闹 [rènào].

Robert: Right. And that’s enough for 热闹 [rènào].

Kaiser: Yeah. God, I mean, that’s why I live in Chapel Hill now. I’m kind of done with living in ridiculous mega-cities.

Robert, you talk about the need for a doctrine of a just-Cold War. You raised this question — is it permissible in a Cold War to deliberately harm the well-being of one fifth of humankind? Are we down for that? What are some of the planks that you would consider in creating a doctrine of a just-Cold War? You talk about, in your talk, and anyone who’s listening to this who’s just listened to your talk, about the need for a just cause; that it be lawfully declared that the intention must be good; that all other means must have first been tried, and so forth. But what have you been thinking about what a just Cold War would involve?

Robert: Well, I think it does come down to this question of actively harming welfare. And this is very tough. It’s hard to discern what is offense, what is defense. If we look at our current export controls that we announced last October, what is this about? Lenin said the capitalists will sell us the rope we use to hang them. And we’re essentially saying, “No, we’re not that stupid. Not going to happen. We’re not going to sell you technology that you can use to target us.” I think that for most Americans that strategic logic is clear and that they would approve of that. The issue is that that logic is inherently absolute, again, and expansive. The way that I think of it, we’ve been seeing a lot with Generative AI, and we’re all reading about and trying to anticipate AI.

I think one way to think of it is that anytime you read an article about all of the promises of an AI, right? Agriculture, you can do very specific weeding, you can put precisely the amount of water that you need for each plant and save water in irrigation, transportation, education, medicine, especially, cures for cancer, synthetic medicine. We have said to the Chinese people, not you, Bob, not for you if we can help it. Right? Now, you could make an argument that there is a difference at these very high levels if we’re harming their welfare or more… We’re not so much harming their welfare as preventing them going from 50 nanometers to two nanometers. That is different than harming their welfare in terms of keeping them from having penicillin or poisoning their wells. We have to have a discussion about this active harming of welfare or this passive non-provision of the further most advanced form of whatever it is and what are we comfortable with there.

But before we have that discussion, there’s the prior discussion of, how great is the threat. And that gets mentioned, and people like Jessica Chen Weiss, for example, are still carrying this banner and trying to stand into the wind and say, “Just a cotton picking a minute, let’s think about this.”

Kaiser: Yeah, and God bless her because…

Robert: Yeah. I think this is really about getting clear about what the threat is. Here, again, we tend to have the wrong kinds of conversations. I think of this sort of as the Cheney move, as the post 9/11 move, which says, “Okay, what is the worst thing we can plausibly imagine happening?” Okay, well, it’s this, that, and the other thing. It’s pretty bad, right? If that thing happens, wouldn’t you wish in retrospect that you’d done everything possible beforehand to prevent it? Well, yes, we will wish that, but can we live that way? Can we govern that way? Can that become a guide to policy? And so, I think we have now, we know that if China were, and here, I mean, the Communist Party, as Xi Jinping conceives it, if they were fully, fully resourced and unobstructed, what would they do? And is that bad?

Well, here’s what they would do, and yes, it’s bad. So we’ve gotten into this bad Cheney-esque habit of planning policy and judging the other by the most extreme, the worst results of their desires for us. In foreign policy, the real question is never what does the other guy want, it’s what will they settle for. Right? And how can we, through diplomacy and alliances, as well as interaction and cooperation, temper their views such that it’s something that we may not like, but that we can accept short of war? And we’ve sort of blown right by that to letting the masters of war run things such that the question I ask about a just Cold War almost doesn’t occur, which is why I ask that. First, we have to have a better conversation about China’s goals and China’s means, and our goals and our means. I think that we would find that while we have to change because of China’s power and because of a whole lot of other things, this is potentially a manageable situation, short of war.

Kaiser: And just as we should be thinking, what will China settle for?

Robert: What will we settle for as they change? It’s a Cold War, and the goal of the Cold Wars is to keep them cold, which means that it’s a play for time. And that time, you know, time for what? Time for change, including change for us, and this is another part that our political discourse is allergic to. There’s no politician who talks about the need for change. I don’t agree with everything that Xi Jinping means when he says the world is changing fast and there are opportunities and threats, and we need to study it to grasp the opportunities and reduce the threats. He means something that is also dangerous. He means what he says to Putin when he says that we’re driving the change. But he’s essentially correct. You never hear that in our political discourse. God forbid, that we should suggest that the United States change other than, of course, to become wealthier and more powerful.

And then if we say China really does pose not an existential threat but a major concerning threat, then we do have to have this conversation about a just cold war. I think I would probably come down if we were truly convinced that the threat was dire enough. I can imagine a doctrine in which you do no direct harm to the welfare of another people, but that you are not morally obligated to aid in their subsequent development if there’s a good reason to think that doing so could be immortal harm to oneself. That’s maybe the beginning of what could be a coherent doctrine. The question is whether we’re really there yet.

Kaiser: I’m looking forward to the book.

You’ve anticipated somewhere where I was going with this conversation when I was suggesting that we are trying to sort of suss out the limits of what China would tolerate. They’re doing the same. The historian Adam Tooze, who’s somebody I really enjoy reading, he’s been thinking a lot about China of late. A couple of years ago, I had him on the show after reading this line that he wrote in a piece. He said, “It is not clear that American politics can digest plurality other than from a position of dominance.” And then he quotes Larry Summers, who said something like, “Can the U.S. imagine a viable global economic system in which the U.S. is no longer the dominant player? Could an American political leader acknowledge that reality in a way that permits negotiation over what such a world would look like?” I mean, this is exactly what you’ve just said, is that, well, no, we can’t imagine it. We’ve not heard an American political leader talk about a world where America is no longer, well, let’s use the ugly word, hegemonic. Tooze answers the question by saying, “well, right now from Joe Biden at least, the answer is ‘not on my watch.’”

Robert: Right. Yeah.

Kaiser: I feel like we have a lot to talk about here domestically. I mean, China’s a fantastic catalyst for a conversation that we are very unwilling to have. But you live in D.C., you’re there all the time. What are you hearing?

Robert: Well, I think that Tooze is correct, and that’s the right way to put it. It’s beyond what can be imagined by most people who are doing the imagining. And of course, that is a statement about the limits of their imagination, not the facts of the world. It’s a statement about the limits of our political discourse. It’s one of the places that I hit a little bit of a brick wall because I would, theoretically, love to be spending far less on guns and a lot more on butter. I can imagine, vaguely, a world in which the United States is just one country, a bigger one, for the most part better pop music, and still better desserts than China, but they would be ahead of us in other ways.

I can imagine a China that is based on strands that are very real within China itself, being a most welcome, and enriching international country. Under Xi, that image of China is getting somewhat more imaginary, but it’s not completely out of reach. I can imagine, because I’ve been working on it for several decades, a United States that is not necessarily preeminent. And that can certainly be okay. The difficulty, and this is the way Washington asks the question, is “Yes, but what if there are bad guys?” Right? What if there are bad guys? And that’s a fair question. If we abandon the field to say China and Russia, is that okay? Does that take us in a direction that we want to go in? The difficulty because, on the one hand, it’s easy to say no, on the other hand, we have to acknowledge that we’re inclined to say no. Right? We’re inclined to see the bad guys because they justify continued expenditures, continued pursuit of power. Now, in the case of current Xi Jinping and Putin, I think there are real problems that we need to be extremely vigilant about, and that we need to counter, not in every single instance, but in terms of the global norms and rules that I think we can limit the field to a degree.

You’re asking, and Tooze is asking exactly the right question. My answer, in theory, Washington can’t imagine it now. There are people there who certainly can, but they always say that there are bad guys. There are evil people who will do bad things. And then that becomes self-justifying, and there we remain stuck. I don’t see any real way out of it. If China, now, if this really is the historic slowdown such that China retracts its clause internationally, these are rather ugly metaphors that’s fairly common, and focused domestically, that could change it. I suppose in another way, a Trump victory in 2024 that was entirely uninterested in global order or in competition, and it also had us retracting our clause and moving inward, could be a different way that this happens.

Kaiser: That’s not how I want that outcome to come about.

Robert: No, but it’s an imaginable way that this goes on our side. Only if we seed the field in a way that Trump seems willing to do. It is the question, Kaiser. I got to say it’s one that I get stuck on.

Kaiser: Yeah. Robert Daly, what an absolute pleasure to speak with you. I am really eager to have you back on before too long. I feel like we’re still just touching on a small fraction of the topics that I would like to explore with you in future conversations. Thank you for taking so much time, and thank you for letting me run that fantastic speech.

Robert: Pleasure. Pleasure to be with you, and I look forward to listening to the podcast, not just this one, to continue to listen to your work.

Kaiser: Well, thank you. Thank you. For now, let’s move on to recommendations. Just a quick reminder first that our NEXTChina conference is just about the way. Again, this is one of the big questions that underlies that. This is themed around, what does China want? I think it’s going to be fantastic. We’ve got Yashen Huang giving a keynote address. A lot of my other favorite thinkers like Evan Feigenbaum, who I’m going to be involved with, I’m going to be doing a fireside chat with right after the keynote. We’ve got Demetri Sevastopulo and Lingling Wei. We’ve got Amy Celico. One of the ones that I’m most excited about is a talk that I’m going to be giving or I’m going to be moderating a conversation with Iza Ding and Taisu Zhang, and it’s going to be about the mind of modern China.

It’s about where that Levinson question is today, right? Now, in a world where China, to a pretty substantial measure, has achieved wealth and power in a way that is sort of consonant with Chinese identity. What next? Where is the mind of modern China today? On the evening of November 1st for a sort of VIP event, Jeremy and I will be talking to Eric Olander, who runs the fantastic China Global South Project, and Maria Repnikova of Georgia Tech, who’s been doing fascinating work on Chinese communications to the global south on soft power more generally. She’s been focusing especially on Ethiopia, and more broadly on East Africa. I’m really looking forward to that conversation as well. Please join us, get a VIP ticket so you can come to that night before the dinner. Go to for more information. I hope to see many of you there. All right, let’s move on to recommendations. Robert, what do you have for us?

Robert: I’ve got an unusual one. You’re asking about books, and I’m going to go way back and recommend a children’s book from 1956 because I know that there are a lot of young and youngish listeners to this podcast, and they have kids. This is a book by a Dutch writer, Meindert DeJong. It’s called The House of 60 Fathers. It’s based on a real historical event. A little Chinese boy at Hunan, who during what is not named in the novel as the Ichi-Go offensive, but it clearly is the Ichi-Go Offensive, gets separated from his parents in Huangyan. He drifts down the river with his pet pig, Glory of the Republic and a bunch of little ducks, and he ends up going cross country trying to stay alive during that period, running into some, what are clearly communist guerillas. They’re not named that. It’s not a political book. It’s a children’s novel. And it’s one of the first things that was illustrated by Maurice Sendak of Where the Wild Things Are.

Kaiser: Oh, my God.

Robert: Beautiful little black and white drawings. The boy ends up running into the American Air Corps, and that’s the House of 60 Fathers. And this actually happened. Then he gets reunited with his parents at the end. But it was the first book I ever read about China. I was probably 10 or 11. The first novel I read about China. It would be dishonest to say that it sparked my interest in China. It didn’t, but it did spark my interest in novels and in reading. I’ve come back to it many times since. I actually wrote a treatment for a film for it a few years ago. If you have young kids who like to read, it’s a striking book. And there’s a description in there of starvation when the little boy is starving that sort of haunted me my whole life.

Kaiser: Wow.

Robert: Meindert DeJong, The House of 60 Fathers, it’s available very cheaply in paperback, illustrated by Maurice Sendak. And you’ll like it yourselves but your kids will love it.

Kaiser: Maurice Sendak, who just died a few years ago.

Robert: Who just died a few years back. Yep.

Kaiser: Yeah. Fantastic recommendation. My God. I’m going to buy that. Actually, even though my kids are grown, I’ve been buying some of my favorite childhood books just to have them.

Robert: I have a first edition of Where the Wild Things Are.

Kaiser: Wow. Oh my God.

Robert: That is still on my bookshelf.

Kaiser: One that I bought recently was The King with Six Friends. I don’t know if you’ve come across that one.

Robert: I do not know that.

Kaiser: I just remembered that from when I was a kid, but check it out. I mean, it no longer cuts the mustard in today’s world. The politics are not quite right, the gender politics especially, but it’s good.

Robert: There are a lot of these books. The Story About Ping shows up in Louis C. K., and The Five Chinese Brothers made it to Seinfeld. A lot of these books we grew up with, they stuck with a lot of people.

Kaiser: Yeah. They sure did. Ping the Duckling. Yeah, I remember this. All right. I’m going fast forward to very adult reading, but one of my recommendations for the week, I added a couple just since I started thinking about this. But my initial was that I recently reread Wolf Hall by the late Hilary Mantel. Actually, I re-listened to it. There are two narrations on Audible. They’re both very good, or at least the Ben Miles one, I’ve only listened to the sample, and he seems to do a very good job. But the Simon Slater narration from 2009 is just masterful. He just does every voice in such an interesting way. They’re so distinct. He’s just a phenomenal actor, a voice actor. But the writing, of course, is what propels it.

I think Ben Miles does the other ones in the series — Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light, which I both very much enjoyed. But just going back to Wolf Hall, just her prose style, her grasp of human psychology, the humor, it’s really shot through with a lot of really sly humor. Most of all, her choice of Cromwell as a character. He’s just so fascinating. She kind of puts him in this book as the first modern in a medieval world, in the end of medieval England. He is a modern human. His grasp of the world is so much more sophisticated than those around him. It’s just fantastic. But if you love Hillary Mantel and you haven’t read A Place of Greater Safety, which is her novel of the French Revolution, that’s another one I just could not recommend more highly.

Both of them are simply my favorite novels of all time. But that one is, like I said, it’s the French Revolution. It really focuses on Desmoulins and Danton and Robespierre. Robespierre is another character who she complicates, makes it very kind of interesting. And then one music recommendation. The show, what is it called? Rock Band Summer, 乐队夏天 [Yuèduì xiàtiān], it’s a very popular music show in China these days. This season, they’re featuring this Inner Mongolian band. They’ve been around for a long time. They’re called Anda Union. Anda is the Mongolian word for blood brother. It’s like Temujin and Jamukha were Andas, right. But the Anda Union, they’re an Inner Mongolian band.

They’re from Hohhot, and they’re mind-blowingly great. They’re just amazing. So watch their performances on Rock Band Summer, the Chinese television show, but also check out their music. There’s a lot of stuff on YouTube. I haven’t looked at Spotify yet, but visually, they’re also just arresting and great. They’re not a metal band. I mean, they play almost all traditional instruments. There’s guitar in it, but it’s all horsehead fiddles and all sorts of instruments that you’re probably not even familiar with. So, check it out, Anda Union.

Robert: It’s funny you mentioned Blood Brothers. It was striking because as you were talking about Wolf Hall, I was thinking of a line that I love from Simon Lace. He said, “Lovers of literature who are somewhat smitten by things Chinese, this happy few, my like, my brothers.” Oh, it’s good to be part of the brotherhood.

Kaiser: This is part of what I dig about you is that you bring a sensibility about the humanities to understanding China. This is something that’s so sorely lacking in so many of the people who are just so focused on national security. I think that if you don’t have a humanities grasp, I mean, God, I can’t even imagine trying to learn the language without having been pretty well read in the history.

Robert: Well, unfortunately, a lot of it has to do with professionalization in the United States. The six years I was at the Hopkins Nanjing Center, a lot of absolutely brilliant young Americans were learning Chinese, learning it well from a humanities point of view. But they end up going to business school or law school like most of us. I mean, you and I have just barely found ways to make it to near retirement as generalists. But I think that for people younger than us, Kaiser, I’m not sure that there are any channels like that left to mean to remain a lifelong generalist in relation to China. I don’t think we can do it. And a lot of them, the younger folks coming up now may end up being lifelong cold warriors if things go as badly as they might. So, I’m with you all the way, but I also think that we were lucky to make it this long, and it was really a function of when we came up and what the possibilities were, and the accessibility of China itself.

We were able to get in a way that young people, if they go to China today, they’re not going to meet Jiang Wen or Cui Jian. These guys were in the stratosphere. So, we were awfully lucky.

Kaiser: But even given that grim likelihood that they won’t be able to have careers as generalists, they can still take their discipline and leaven it. They can still just add to it. Nobody’s preventing them from reading a lot of literature on the side, from reading more history on the side. I mean, you sort of bring that into your understanding of China that comes out of that whatever discipline, IR or political science. I mean, Christ. Robert, thank you. Thank you once again. What a wonderful stimulating conversation, and I’m sure that many of our listeners are going to enjoy it enormously.

Robert: Thank you.

Kaiser: So great to have you on. I look forward to our next chat.

Robert: Bici bici, it’s good.

Kaiser: The Sinica Podcast is powered by The China Project and is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email at or just give us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts as this really does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Xitter or on Facebook at @thechinaproj, and be sure to check out all of the shows on the Sinica Network. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week. Take care.