The African-American director of policy planning at the State Department has come under fire from liberal anti-Trump critics for comments at a security forum.
Kiron Skinner, a prominent scholar who runs the small policy think tank supporting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said at a security forum March 29 that China poses the most serious strategic threat to the United States and a new strategy is needed similar to that used in confronting the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
"We're now looking more deeply and broadly at China and I think State is in the lead in that broader attempt to get something like a Letter X for China that Kennan wrote. You can't have a policy without an argument underneath it," Skinner told a security forum hosted by the think tank New America.
Skinner was referring to landmark journal article published in July 1947 titled "Sources of Soviet Conduct" written by George F. Kennan, an American diplomat writing under the pseudonym "Mr. X." Kennan warned the U.S. government that Soviet Communism was "undoubtedly [the] greatest task our diplomacy has ever faced and probably greatest it will ever have to face."
The ideological fight with the Soviet Union was a new type of conflict but was "within the Western family," which allowed for some dialogue and eventually Moscow's agreement to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. Those accords included human rights provisions that Skinner said "opened the door really to undermine the Soviet Union, the totalitarian state, on human rights principles."
What set off pro-China academics and pundits were Skinner's comment that similar dialogue and openings are not possible with China.
"This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology—and the United States hasn't had that before, nor has it had an economic competitor the way that we have," she said.
"So in China we have an economic competitor, we have an ideological competitor, one that really does seek a kind of global reach that many of us didn't expect a couple of decades ago, and I think it's also striking that it's the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian."
Despite being African American, Skinner's mention of the word Caucasian, a trigger word for many liberals, drew fire from critics who claimed her characterization of the China threat was racist.
Typical of the critics was Michael D. Swaine, a China specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who said if Skinner's comments were accurate "this is a rather appalling, racist-based assessment of the nature of the Chinese threat."
"And coming from the State Dept. makes it even worse," Swaine stated. "Apparently the problem is not CN's system; it's Chinese culture? We sink to new lows every day."
Swaine is widely viewed as among the more pro-appeasement academics in the China field. He did not respond to an email request for comment.
Chen Weihua, the European bureau chief of the Chinese Communist Party newspaper China Daily, was even more blunt, tweeting that Skinner's comment was a "Nazi type racist comment."
"It is telling of the troubling current U.S. policy on China," Chen wrote.
Friends of Skinner acknowledged she was not accurate in stating America's battle with China is the first against a non-Caucasian power. World War II pitted the United States against Asian Japan.
However, the comments, in context, sought to highlight the difference between the ideological war against Soviet Communism in the Cold War and now the war of ideas against China's version of communism, called Marxism-Leninism with Chinese characteristics.
An Australian Broadcasting Corp. report said several unidentified Australian government officials were uneasy about Skinner's remarks.
"This is exactly the sort of framing which plays into the hands of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party). We would not use language like this in any circumstance," said one source.
Paul Musgrave, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, took to Foreign Policy to criticize Skinner.
"This was not a gaffe but a profound disclosure about how the Trump administration sees the world," Musgrave wrote. "To the extent that there is a Trump Doctrine, Skinner nailed it: It's the belief that culture and identity are fundamental to whether great-power relations will be cooperative or conflictual."
Questioned about the Caucasian comment by New America moderator Anne-Marie Slaughter, herself a former director of policy planning during the Obama administration, Skinner was asked if she was describing Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations notion that suggests cultures and not nations will wage future conflicts.
Reaction on Twitter included numerous false claims that Skinner had asserted the confrontation with China was a clash of civilizations.
Skinner said the confrontation with China is different. "Some of those tenets, but a little bit different, and all of those things together are a bit perplexing for the American foreign policy establishment and I think we have to take the rose-colored glasses off and get real about the nature of the threat and I think we also have to give a kind of respect for, I think, what the Chinese seek to accomplish," she said.
The Trump administration for the first time in decades has set aside the failed policy of seeking the evolution of China into a non-threatening power through trade and economic engagement.
Slaughter then challenged Skinner on the Caucasian comment, noting that the United States will soon no longer be a Caucasian majority nation as minorities expand. "So is that even a relevant," she asked.
"I think it's extremely relevant because I think the foreign policy establishment is so narrowly defined," Skinner said.
"It's more homogenous than probably it should be given our own demographics, and that's why I think programs like the one at [Arizona State University] that you've partnered with are extremely valuable in terms of developing a new cadre of foreign policy elites," Skinner said. "But when I look back at who went to graduate school, who populates [international relations] departments at the elite universities, it hasn't changed very much."
"So I think, you know having diversity in all dimensions really does help you get ready for the future and when you don't have it, it hurts you and the foreign policy elite community is pretty locked up right now and I hope that that is changing."
Another pro-China analyst, Hal Brands, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, also falsely stated in Bloomberg Opinion that Skinner had brought up the clash of civilizations.
"The Trump administration is undoubtedly right that competition with China will be a decades-long affair," Brands wrote. "Yet the Clash of Civilizations model won't help the U.S. win that competition, because it actually supports Beijing's strategy better than America's."
Brand declined to comment.
Former White House strategist Steve Bannon praised Skinner. "Dr. Skinner is among the most important voices in the conservative movement on national security and holds one of the most powerful positions in the United States government," he said. "Thank God we have a patriot in this position at this vital moment in our nation's history."
Skinner is on leave from Carnegie Mellon University, where she is a professor. Her academic work involves international relations, international security, U.S. foreign policy, and political strategy.
Skinner in earlier remarks outlined the Trump Doctrine and the Pompeo foreign policy and diplomacy that seeks to support it.
Skinner said she joined the Trump campaign and post-election transition team because she wanted to see changes both domestically and internationally, and that out-of-the-box thinking was needed.
"I felt we were stuck in some of the precepts, and ideas, and doctrines, and theories that spoke to our strength and hegemony at the height of the Cold War," she said.
"But to survive the future, we were going to have to talk to people in the middle of the country, we're going to have to talk about different issues, and for me that's what got me to the Trump campaign and ultimately the State Department, which I think is an amazing government department."
Skinner said she regards part of her job as providing "the intellectual architecture for the Trump Doctrine."
"If it doesn't happen in Policy Planning, which is the only foreign policy think tank at State, and hence the only foreign policy think tank in the federal government, it will not happen," she said.
Skinner said the policy planning shop is working under a set of pillars to address 21st century realities, including the key pillar of national sovereignty.
"It's [Trump's] view when he talks about America First that national sovereignty, for whatever its problems, and the nation state for whatever problems it may have, is the best way to protect people and to allow for prosperity and for human rights and civil rights in the world," she said.
Other pillars are reciprocity in international agreement and trade negotiations, building regional partnerships, and burden sharing, such as seeking NATO partners' greater investment in national defense.
"We have to have greater burden sharing simply because the U.S. cannot take on the whole globe even though we provide extended nuclear deterrents for all of our allies, many of our near allies, and we provide conventional deterrents as well," Skinner said.