Like many Republican Trump voters, I rue the loss from the president’s inner circle of such wise advisers as John Bolton and John Kelly, but I think that two extraordinary recent speeches by Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo amply refute my esteemed friend Peggy Noonan’s weekend charge that the president’s management style has left him surrounded by only “a second-string, ragtag, unled army” of lieutenants. You would have to look back years to find such plainspoken foreign policy wisdom as Pompeo showed in his Hudson Institute speech on China last week, and surely few government officials since Lincoln have given speeches of such profundity as Barr’s Notre Dame Law School address on religious liberty earlier last month.
Much as we like and admire the Chinese people, Pompeo warned, and much as we want to be friends with their nation, we’ve been wrong about the People’s Republic for two decades and more. Partly that’s because the massive investment in China by U.S. companies has spawned a permanent class of China lobbyists, who “sell access to Chinese leaders and connect business partners,” and who, reinforced by a swarm of China “scholars,” have energetically misrepresented the true nature of the regime. What’s more, the limits that China places on visiting American journalists, academics, and diplomats, unlike the free access we give their Chinese counterparts here, allow them to see only the Potemkin China that the regime wishes to show, not the actual China “that doesn’t respect fairness, the rule of law, and reciprocity.”
Partly, too, our misreading stems from a misplaced hope that by engaging with China and encouraging its rise, even to the point of admitting it to membership in the World Trade Organization, it would become “more free, more market driven, and . . . more democratic”—an oddly Marxoid notion (though Pompeo doesn’t make this point) that economic relations shape ideas and beliefs, that freer markets will make freer men. In the grip of this illusion that we could change the regime’s values, we’ve neglected some of our own most basic ones, downgrading our traditional support for our vibrant friend, Taiwan, and failing to condemn human rights outrages, from the Tiananmen Square Massacre three decades ago to today’s Xinjiang concentration camps and Hong Kong repression.
Now it’s time to “engage China as it is, not as we wish it were,” Pompeo announced. In reality, “the Chinese Communist Party is truly hostile to the United States and our values,” the secretary said. It’s “a Marxist-Leninist Party focused on struggle and international domination.” We were fooling ourselves in thinking that WTO membership would prompt the Chinese to play by international rules. Giving them such open access to our market allowed, as President Trump predicted early on, “the greatest theft job in history,” with Chinese companies, Pompeo explained, “weaken[ing] America’s manufacturing base by conducting massive intellectual property theft”—though it has to be added that U.S. companies, focused on quarterly profits rather than long-term viability, were only too ready to turn over their most valuable trade secrets to required Chinese joint-venture partners in exchange for Chinese market access.
Since so much of this proprietary technology has military application, the quick compliance of U.S. executives sadly confirms Lenin’s grim quip that the capitalists will sell you the rope to hang them with. And indeed, Pompeo noted, now “China threatens America’s national security by developing asymmetric weapons that threaten our strategic assets too.” Clearly, the military “capabilities that China has built up . . . far exceed what they would need for their own self-defense.” When you add in China’s appropriation and militarization of the South China Sea, its planting of seedling Chinese naval bases westward across the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea to Djibouti, you have to recognize, as Pompeo put it mildly, that Beijing is a “strategic competitor.”
He’ll be elaborating further on these points in the months ahead, the secretary promised. Good. It’s a relief to learn how fully the administration understands that our China problem goes far beyond the balance of trade and can by no means be solved by a Chinese promise to buy millions of bushels of soybeans from our farmers.
Attorney General Barr’s defense of the free exercise of religion rises above politics into the realm of political philosophy, an unusual departure for a public official—and a welcome return to first principles. Let’s remember, Barr begins, that the Founding Fathers well understood the fundamental proposition of political philosophy: that men need government because they have “powerful passions and appetites” that, “unrestrained, are capable of ruthlessly riding roughshod over their neighbors and the community at large.” But in whose hands should a people place that necessary power of restraint? Barr quotes Edmund Burke’s answer: “Society cannot exist unless a controlling power be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. . . . [M]en of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions must forge their fetters.” So the Founders’ experiment in self-government meant not only that the people would live under laws they had made themselves, through their elected representatives, but also, in the limited government the Founders envisioned, each citizen would govern him or herself, in the sense of restraining his own passions and appetites.
According to what principles, though? They would follow, Barr says, “the dictates of inwardly-possessed and commonly-shared moral values,” which are not random or arbitrary but instead rest on natural law, “standards of right and wrong that exist independent of human will” and flow from “God’s eternal law.” These standards are utilitarian, Barr says, not otherworldly; they are a time-tested formula for a meaningful and fulfilled life. “They reflect the rules that are best for man, not in the by and by, but in the here and now. They are like God’s instruction manual for the best running of man and human society.” Religion, Barr says, “helps frame moral culture within society that instills and reinforces moral discipline.” It reinforces the “customs and traditions which reflect the wisdom and experience of the ages.”
George Washington similarly stressed religion’s utility in upholding morality through fear of divine retribution. Not being religious myself, though deeply respectful of believers, I take Washington’s point, which reinforces Barr’s, though my own trust is in the traditions that reflect the wisdom and experience of the ages. But whatever upholds traditional morality, Barr is demonstrably right in saying that its dissolution has yielded dismal social consequences, in the wreckage of the family; the soaring rates of illegitimacy, depression, and suicide; the ever-multiplying drug-overdose deaths; and the explosion of anger and alienation among the young.
He is also right in saying that religion and traditional morality didn’t just decay on their own. Instead, “progressives,” the media, the entertainment industry, and academia mounted “an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.” Gone is the Founders’ belief in “the centrality of religious liberty in the United States.” Gone, too, is its successor, the “live and let live spirit” that “leave[s] religious people alone to practice their faith.” In fact, Barr argued, the crusade against religion and traditional morality has itself become a religion, a militant and fanatical one, complete with inquisitions, excommunication, and “ostracism and exclusion waged through lawsuits and savage social media campaigns.”
As attorney general, Barr is particularly sensitive to the use of the law as one of the key weapons in this crusade, as in the Obama administration’s push to force religious employers “to violate their sincerely held religious views by funding contraceptive and abortifacient coverage in their health plans,” for example, or in several state laws mandating an LGBT curriculum in the public schools that some school boards won’t allow parents to excuse their children from, and that other districts forbid schools from telling parents is even being taught. Another state shut down its voucher program rather than accede to a court order to allow religious schools to participate. Meantime, an Indianapolis teacher is suing the Catholic archbishop for banning teachers in same-sex marriages from working in his diocesan schools because such marriages violate Catholic doctrine. Lawyers, Barr told his law school listeners, need to resist these efforts “to drive religious viewpoints from the public square and to impinge upon the free exercise of our faith.” And as long as he’s attorney general, he promised, the Justice Department will lead the defense.
Amid so much bloviation about Green New Deals and transgender bathrooms, these two speeches cut to the heart of the most important issues in our foreign and domestic policy. They are the first-rate utterances of emphatically first-rate public servants.
Photos by Ed Zurga (left) and Mark Wilson (right), Getty Images