Does the CIA Director Understand China?
The guy in charge of the world’s most fantastical spy organization has a new essay repeating bargain-basement conventional wisdoms that misdiagnose the China problem.
I don’t want to drag Bill Burns, an august career civil servant who can always be counted on to do whatever his job happens to be. And I don’t need to drag the CIA, whose torturous, anti-democratic history is beyond dispute.
But Burns, now Biden’s CIA director, has taken the unusual step of publishing an essay in Foreign Affairs. When spymasters go public like this—with administration approval—it’s obviously and purely because they’re selling an outside audience on a particular point of view.
So while you can never take what a CIA director writes at face value, there’s a lot you can glean from what they have to say if you retain a critical eye.
Burns wrote about retooling the CIA’s share of the national security state for an “era of great-power competition.” Knowing only that he relies on this politically expedient, intellectually hollow frame as his operating paradigm, you could deduce that he’s going to regurgitate a mix of pablum, caricature, and fear-mongering in defense of American primacy. He did not disappoint.
Burns, and likely the CIA, is incapable of viewing international relations in a relational way. The best analysis in the world is going to be for shit if it assumes both that 1) the global hegemon is the cause of the good things in the world but not the bad things, and that, consequently, 2) bad actors doing bad things are doing so for bad-guy reasons rather than because of choices the HEGEMON has made and continues to make.
The CIA is a tool of Manichean, managerial, Cold War liberalism. You can get nothing more than crisis management out of their way of seeing, and history has proven that, over time, you’re liable to get much worse than even that.
Here’s what Burns—and apparently the CIA—gets (mostly) wrong about China (and Russia).