A couple of weeks ago, I was in Seoul for the World Knowledge Forum, an annual event that brings speakers from all over the world to the Korean capital. This year’s theme was Tierra Incognita: Redesigning the Global Architecture and involved different tracks, one of which was called “Global Power Dynamics”.
I will write a separate post about another called “Beyond Gravity” which was about a new age of space exploration.
On the first day Mike Pompeo, the former U.S. Secretary of State, gave a keynote speech which reminded me of another keynote speech at the same conference by Niall Ferguson the historian. In 2019, Ferguson surprised the conference by launching into a strongly worded condemnation of China and announcing that he believed that the U.S. and China were already engaged in Cold War 2.0.
Pompeo doubled down on this idea after bashing the Biden administration for losing Afghanistan to the Taliban. According to Pompeo, he had secured promises by the Taliban not to overtake the country after the American withdrawal. His idea was to keep the American airbase at Bagram operational and then to secure the continuation of the Afgan government by “inflicting unacceptable losses” on the Taliban if they were to break the agreement.
Even though the airbase was closed in July, my guess is that the Biden administration looked at this option and felt that killing tens of thousands of fighters and civilians from the air was not in American interests in the long run. Pompeo clearly would have argued for such a course.
Pompeo, of course, is a person of interest in Korea because of the meetings he has had with the Dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong-Un. Pompeo first went to North Korea in April 2018 when he was still head of the CIA, on a secret mission to open up a dialog between Kim and Donald Trump. That contact and subsequent meetings eventually lead to the high-profile summit meetings which failed to deliver the deal that Mr. Trump thought he could make.
About Kim, Pompeo told the audience in Seoul that he was a “young man” who could not be trusted but with whom he still thought a deal could be worked out.
What concerned me more, however, was Pompeo’s attitude about China.
For Pompeo, Covid 19 clearly originated in a lab in Wuhan and has spread around the world due to China’s actions at the beginning of the outbreak. China, in his view, has built its economy by stealing intellectual capital from the west, was a threat to regional peace and security, and must be contained. His language was reminiscent of the architects of the containment policy that characterized the first cold war with the former Soviet Union.
In another session at the same conference, Graham Allison spoke about his book Destined for War, which looks at the US-China relationship in historical terms and about which I have written before. Although he participated remotely, Prof. Allison told the conference attendees that he saw a real danger of misunderstandings and miscalculations leading to war between the two countries although he also saw two ideas that could keep the peace. One is the presence of nuclear weapons which both sides have and could lead to total annihilation. This idea of Mutually Assured Destruction did actually keep the peace between the US and the Soviet Union and might do so in this case.
The other is the mutual need for both countries to take further action on climate change. Clearly, the Biden administration will be pushing hard in this direction.
To go back to Mike Pompeo, however, he has spoken openly about protecting U.S. energy interests and opposes the Paris Climate framework. When asked by the moderator of his speech if he was running for President of the United States, he said this was not the time for an announcement but he would be spending the next months doing his best to elect a Republican majority to the house in 2022.
While I disagree with Pompeo on most points, I must admit to being impressed by his speech. Pompeo comes across as a polished and intelligent public figure with a clear view of the issues and a commitment to defending the United States’ position in the world. He has also lost a lot of weight.
If he were to run and win in 2024, war with China will become a little more likely.