A former U.S. career diplomat has come out to openly denounce the Trump administration’s tendency to ignore the advice of experts on foreign policy.
Susan Thornton was acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs when she resigned in July in the face of pressure from the Trump administration, which considered her too accommodating on China.
“People in the current administration would say that the problem with China policy has been that China experts have been making it,” Thornton said in her first interview with The Asahi Shimbun since she stepped down.
Thornton, 54, joined the State Department in 1991 to help develop U.S. policy toward China.
She became acting assistant secretary of state for East Asia under then U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in March 2017, after her predecessor, Daniel Russell, stepped down.
But hard-liners in the Trump administration considered Thornton to be “soft” on China.
Steve Bannon, who once served as chief strategist in the Trump White House, pledged publicly to drive Thornton from the State Department. Although she was nominated last December for the post of assistant secretary of state, Thornton met with strong resistance from Republican senators such as Marco Rubio of Florida during her confirmation hearing.
She resigned after Tillerson, who had advocated dialogue with China, was effectively pushed out by President Donald Trump in March.
Referring to pressure from the Trump administration, Thornton said: “They have a political reason for bashing China. I’m not a politician.”
She added that if the United States “can’t figure out a way to work with China and deal with them, we’re in for a very difficult future.”
Those within the Trump administration arguing for a hard-line stance toward Beijing blamed the previous Obama administration for allowing China to expand its military presence in the South China Sea and infringe on U.S. intellectual property.
The Trump administration has implemented a number of harsh measures against China, including punitive trade tariffs, since it compiled its National Security Strategy in December 2017.
In a speech in early October, Vice President Mike Pence gave China such a tongue-lashing that many thought Washington was entering into a Cold War with Beijing.
Thornton is not the first career diplomat to leave the U.S. State Department after Trump took office.
Joseph Yun, another career diplomat who was in charge of negotiations with North Korea when he retired in March, told The Asahi Shimbun in an earlier interview that diplomats “had no voice in the State Department” that could counter the hard-line stance taken by key members of the Trump administration.
Thornton raised concerns about the mass exodus of policy experts from the State Department, saying, “I certainly think that our foreign policy is going to be much worse for the diminution of experts that have been leaving.”
Excerpts of the interview follow:
Question: Vice President Pence made a speech which emphasized the threat of China early last month.
Thornton: Unfortunately I think it had a much bigger effect on the international community than it did on the domestic audience that it was aimed at. I looked at that speech as a purely domestic, pre-midterms, speech.
Q: Pence said, “China is meddling in America’s democracy.”
A: I think China is trying to influence people in the United States. I don’t think that we should have a problem with other countries overtly trying to influence opinion, in our open society. That is the society that we have, that we’ve built. It’s a strength, not a weakness, and we shouldn’t be afraid of it. I haven’t seen any evidence for the Chinese covertly interfering in domestic politics in the United States. I don’t think that buying a newspaper insert in the Washington Post or the Des Moines Register stating your policy beliefs and your objections to the current tariff proposals is necessarily interference.
Q: Do you believe that China is “revisionist” against the existing international order?
A: I don’t agree with that. I think China has a goal to build up its national power. It’s a long-term goal. Will that eventually turn into a situation in which they are moving to eclipse the United States on the world stage? It is possible. Of course China has always been a competitor. But the Chinese are very much interested in the perpetuation of the current international order. I don’t think they want to create a parallel system.
Q: Some people think the Trump administration shifted the U.S. policy on China from “engagement” to “containment.”
A: I don’t understand, really, why the word “engagement” is so objectionable to people. When I think about engagement, what I think of is just the two sides talking to each other. Engagement is what we do with countries around the world. It’s to our benefit. China is different from the former Soviet Union. We don’t have that international coalition that’s going to be willing to economically isolate China. Our economies are too intertwined, and it would be a disaster for the U.S. economy to cut itself off from China, frankly.
Q: While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Beijing, he agreed with President Xi Jinping on the principle that two countries will move from competition to coordination.
A: Japan has already seen it’s impossible to isolate China, and I think it is moving in the direction of realistically assessing and realizing its own interest, and I hope that the United States will move similarly, soon.
Q: Do you believe that the current administration’s policy on China is moving in the wrong direction?
A: That’s my belief, yes. In order to get progress on areas where you have differences, you have to sit down and talk through and figure out what bottom lines are and who can come this direction, who can come that direction. But, I do feel that, in the current U.S. society, with our divided and fractured politics, that it’s far too easy for people to demonize the notion that you would give in an inch to your opponent and that somehow everything is a zero sum game. I don’t believe that. I think almost every problem has a mutually beneficial solution, whether it be between people, between countries.