Chas Freeman: A Prophet for Our Time



For speaking truth to power Jeremiah, known as the Weeping Prophet, endured time in the stocks and later a spell in a muddy cistern, into which he had been cast and left to starve. Endowed as he was with powers of foresight, he was from the first understandably reluctant to undertake the perilous mission of prophecy, but «Then the Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth; and said to me: Behold, I have put my words in your mouth…». And Jeremiah summoned up the fortitude to speak.

For Jeremiah the «house of Israel and Judah have been utterly faithless to me, says the Lord». He warns that having forsaken their founding fathers’ covenant with the Lord and thus forfeited divine protection, they should prepare to suffer conquest and devastation «from the north», meaning Babylon or Persia.

Ambassador Chas Freeman has not had to endure the persecutions of Jeremiah but his voice brings the comparison to mind as one senses the tears of sorrow and anger between the lines of his unsparing warnings about Washington’s foreign policies.

Now retired, the Ambassador served in many diplomatic posts for the US Government, including Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and also as Assistant Secretary of Defense, 1993-94. A high government official Freeman was never thrown into a cistern and left to starve, nor placed in stocks for his pains. His only «punishment» has been the exclusion of his voice in the mainstream media. No NYTimes or Wall Street Journal op eds, no interviews with talk show tv hosts or their congressional counterparts. Who would dare platform so authoritative and articulate a critic at a time of heavy-handed government managed news? But that loss of press freedom is a «punishment» inflicted on the American public, its right to know. Freeman does give talks to small interested audiences and has a significant if marginal following.

One can find his writings on This brief review and tribute focuses on three of his key points: One, the absurdity of treating international relations with the simplistic formula democracy versus autocracy; two, the costs of substituting militarism for diplomacy to assert national authority and interests; and three, Washington’s misguided effort to foment tensions between China and Taiwan.

One. The latest iteration of the colonial crusade is Democracy versus Autocracy or Authoritarianism, the successor propaganda marquee to anti-communism and anti-terrorism. Freeman regards this latest buzz-phrase as remote from reality and unconvincing.

«The world is rightly disbelieving of the sudden American argument that the dialectic driving history is the contradiction between democracy and autocracy. Those societies proudest of their democratic traditions are notably committed to the tolerance of political diversity both at home and abroad. None sees the overthrow of undemocratic regimes as an existential imperative or believes in the divine right of democracies to proclaim, impose, and enforce their preferred dispensations as a replacement for international law and consensus».

What is the driving dialectic?

«Non-Western – meaning non-Euro-Atlantic – societies constitute a very large global majority and are no longer prepared to be treated as vassals. As they rise from poverty, almost all are focused on escape from the trauma of past humiliation by Western imperialism and colonialism».

«Post-colonial stress disorder is today a major driver of foreign policy in every region touched by imperialism, including Eastern and Central Europe, where the humiliation was done by the Russian-dominated Soviet Union. It plays an outsized role in Hindu nationalism and Great Han chauvinism. Post-colonial hangover is a major explanation for phenomena like the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and the Arab uprisings of 2011».

«The operative division in global politics is manifestly not that between democracy and autocracy but that between former colonizers and the colonized. This is joined as a driving force by the differences between those mainly Western nations who long ago became wealthy through industrialization and those now striving to do the same».

Is America democratic? A colonizer?

Freeman explicitly charges that Washington has become more authoritarian than democratic itself. «The American constitution assigned authority for policymaking almost entirely to the people’s representatives in Congress, but the U.S. president and the electorate have largely given up on the legislative branch. The president increasingly rules by decree and has acquired greater power than any king to make war on other nations and slaughter presumed enemies abroad».

Since so few outside the self-proclaimed western democracies waste time lambasting China or Russia, it seems that the current governmental disorganization in the so-called western democracies makes a more authoritarian style efficiency attractive to many people who benefit from organizational efficiency. This casts doubt on the American regime-change specialists who argue that supposedly authoritarian governments are so dysfunctional that nothing short of a color revolution and regime-change will save them from perdition. «Few abroad see things at all this way».

Two. In addition to being disorganized, often borderline dysfunctional, the western governments have a persistent record of relying on military solutions to a variety of problems, with morbid enthusiasm.

«The greatest comparative advantage of the United States has come to be its professional and highly lethal military. This makes it politically convenient for Americans to portray the contest the United States has launched with China in military terms. China is showing that it can match and raise anything the United States does. But military posturing is an exercise in futility. Sino-American war over the much-misunderstood Taiwan issue – the most probable casus belli – would leave Taiwan in ruins and could leave both the Chinese and American homelands devastated… American competitiveness vis-à-vis China will not be enhanced by more American defense spending or the pivoting of U.S. armed forces to East Asia».

«It’s time to recognize that our country has a statecraft deficit sustained by a diplomacy-free foreign policy. We don’t know how to use measures short of war to solve problems, how to avoid starting wars… Now that we’ve convincingly demonstrated the ineptitude of military-based foreign policy, perhaps it’s time to try diplomacy».

Three. For Freeman to avoid war over Taiwan requires emergency diplomacy. Though the original agreements that Washington and Beijing reached between 1972 and 1979 were a success, subsequent American belligerence coupled with Chinese belligerence undid the agreements and have created a no win situation for all three, Beijing, Washington, and Taipei.

War with China over Taiwan?

«Taiwan is an established American foreign policy success story that appears to be nearing the end of its shelf life. Management of the Taiwan question has long been the key to peace or war – possibly nuclear war – between the United States and China. Now, the door may be closing to peace… [thanks to] the U.S. habit of substituting military deterrence for diplomacy, and the American attraction to strategy-free, values-based foreign policy. Given the stakes for Americans, the question of how best to balance relations with Taiwan and the China mainland demands informed judgments and adroit statecraft».

«For two decades, the United States backed Chiang Kai-shek, championed regime change on the mainland, and insisted that Taipei, not Beijing, was both the legal capital of China and entitled to represent China internationally».

«In late 1978, a reiterated U.S. commitment to “one China” – this time accompanied by recognition that China’s capital was in Beijing rather than Taipei – facilitated Chinese agreement to both US-China normalization and the continuation of American substantive relationships with Taiwan on an unofficial basis».

«The perceived American retreat from attempting to partition China made it possible for the Chinese Communist Party to turn it attention from opposing American interference in China’s internal affairs to exploring how it might negotiate an accommodation with its civil war opponent, Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (or Chinese Nationalist Party… The fact that the United States officially ruled out actions to “split China” lessened Beijing’s apprehensions that it might have to go to war to prevent such a split.  This, in turn, reduced the need for U.S. deterrence of a mainland attack on Taiwan.  Despite a blip or two, tensions in the Taiwan Strait subsided…».

«To normalize relations with Beijing, successive U.S. presidents gave specific commitments in three carefully negotiated joint communiqués. These documents – issued in 1972, 1979, and 1982 – are the foundation of Sino-American relations. In them, the U.S. government promised that it would no longer maintain official relations with Taipei, that it would have no troops and military installations on the island, and that it would sell only carefully selected defensive weapons to Taiwan on a restrained basis. In the third communiqué, the United States agreed to limit the quality and reduce the quantity of its arms sales to Taiwan».

«Over the succeeding decades, Washington has progressively eroded or set aside every one of these strictures. Members of the U.S. Cabinet now meet with Taiwan officials and travel to Taiwan. There they are supported by a newly constructed $250 million quasi-embassy guarded by U.S. marines. The United States has returned to Cold War-style championing of Taipei’s diplomatic relations with third countries, punishing those that switch relations to Beijing. There are reports that there are once again American military personnel in Taiwan teaching its armed forces how to conduct operations against the mainland. Taiwan has reemerged as a major purchaser of U.S. weaponry. On November 12, 2020 (nine days after the U.S. presidential election made his boss a lame duck), Secretary of State Mike Pompeo completed the trashing of the “one-China” stipulation by declaring (inaccurately) that “Taiwan has not been part of China».

«U.S. policy, enshrined in the TRA, has been to assure that “the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means”. But by deviating from the understandings that have been central to that objective, the United States has helped to ensure that virtually no one on the China mainland believes a purely peaceful resolution is still feasible».

«It’s been a long time since the danger of war over Taiwan has been as great as it is now».

«The irony is that the arrangements Washington and Beijing put in place in 1979 to preserve the peace, including the unilateral U.S. enactment of the TRA, worked far better than even their authors hoped they might. After the switch in diplomatic relations, tensions with the mainland diminished and Taiwan’s security improved. The island was able to do away with martial law and to democratize. Taiwan became one of the most prosperous societies on the planet. Its per capita GDP is lower than ours but its median wealth of $70,191 is now greater than our $65,904. The “one-China” framework that produced these admirable results wasn’t “broke”, but successive administrations in Taipei and Washington nonetheless “fixed” it. It is now out of order. By progressively going back on its word, Washington has established a reputation in China for faithlessness that precludes anyone there trusting further American commitments. Pro forma protests that the United States stands by the “three joint communiqués” fool no one but amnesiac Americans».

Freeman admires and wants to preserve the society that has been built up on Taiwan. He is well aware however that this process of mutually aggravating belligerence has caused sentiment for reunification with the mainland to dwindle and strengthened the people’s desire to preserve existing autonomy, with a significant minority entertaining the risk of declaring independence. It is widely recognized however that an overt declaration of independence (and / or the acquisition of nuclear weapons) will provoke a military reaction from Beijing. That is his great fear.

«The people of Taiwan built the rule of law and the democracy they now enjoy pretty much on their own, though with quiet, unacknowledged American support. They know what control by outsiders feels like and they have no desire to feel it again. On the other hand, they have had many decades to pursue a strategy toward the mainland that might preserve their autonomy without American military backing. They have not done so. Instead of facing the ineluctable realities of their dilemma, they have counted on a Hollywood-style rescue from it by the naval equivalent of the U.S. Cavalry».

China, Russia, and India aside, Washington has been adding to its enemies list – from North Korea, Iran, and Cuba to Venezuela, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, with more waiting to join. This has progressively isolated Washington in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and East Asia. Even friendly governments require growing incentive and coercion to maintain a false front of common concerns. One wonders if there is enough common sense and decency left in America’s feckless rulers and benighted politicians to heed and act on Chas Freeman’s priceless advice.

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