China, Chao and Career Advice: An Interview with Semaj McDowell

Semaj McDowell is a busy man. A program analyst at Bennett Aerospace, Semaj also writes for the Geopolitical Monitor and hosts his own national security podcast. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from George Mason University and a Master of Arts from the Institute of World Politics. 

The Realist Review sat down with this rising star in national security to discuss his views and advice for the new generation of policymakers. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s the top geopolitical issue we are not talking enough about right now?

The evolution and dynamics of modern warfare, especially when we are trying to reconfigure the essence of national security. The dawn of technology in everyday life also means the susceptibility of Americans and their everyday lives to the intentions of our adversaries. 

Our conflict with China will not be conventional in the way we think of World War II. It will come in ones and zeros and dollar signs. We are not ready for economic and cyber tactics because we are not having the conversations and making the policies that ensure everyday Americans are more secure.

What’s the first step in that direction? 

The number one thing that has to happen is to figure out a way to effectively educate the average American about these threats. When Americans rally together, it’s usually because the United States can pinpoint an external enemy. External threats like Imperial Japan or al Qaeda loomed large enough that the average American took an interest in national security. 

Today, China owns their own narrative with the American people, and there isn’t that same level of awareness or education. 

Help us understand how you would make the case to an average American that China is worth their attention. What is the specific threat China poses to, say, an American in the midwest?

Maybe they are not directly impacted, but trade and tariffs are good examples. Who was impacted most? Over time, a midwestern agricultural community would be threatened by rising prices that China can influence as an exporter. 

China also produces lots of the faulty equipment that is utilized in the American military. 

The real threats from Beijing are not conventional and will not portray themselves that way. China will not seek to replace America in the world order through direct confrontation, but rather through more subtle methods.

How would you respond to the accusation that you are inflating the danger posed by China?

Look at the case of Elaine Chao. She is the wife of Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and her father has extensive documented ties to the Chinese Communist Party. Her family’s shipping company outcompeted American firms while she served as Secretary of Transportation. 

China is a long-term strategic hazard to the economic status of the United States and the competition will continue. For example, 90% of the Congolese mines that produce the rare earth minerals for Iphones have Chinese ties. 

I am not saying go to war with China, as that would be the apocalypse. The one thing the United States needs to do is redefine national security.  We need a new understanding of our national security in this new era.

You’ve written that “for the USA, the rivalry with China began between 2014-2017, but for China, the rivalry with the United States dates back to 1923.” This suggests that the conventional wisdom on China has been missing something. 

What do the mainstream media and policy elites get right about China, and what do they get wrong?

They certainly get right the mystique and ancient origins of China that inform a fundamentally civilizational mindset.

What they don’t get right is the open secret of China’s intentions. China has made it clear since late 1890s, including the first and second Opium Wars, that the “century of humiliation” can’t be rectified until China surpasses the US. These are not my words, but words of admired Chinese thinkers and leaders.

The seriousness of the threat is not comprehended in Washington because we are dealing with an entirely different civilizational mindest. We don’t know how to deal with the Chinese because they are masters of deception in a way that the British, Germans, etc. were not. Our western institutions and culture vilifies deception, but Sun Tzu taught deception and intelligence are key.  

If you were put in charge, what would you do to meet this great challenge you described?

Step one would be to recognize it’s not going to be a short term fix. This is a long goal, a generational reevaluation of how we look at the conduct of warfare and the scope of national security. 

America’s problem right now is one the founders would recognize: growing diversity. If our institutions do not grow with our constantly changing nation, we will fall prey to our own institutions. Abraham Lincoln was right to point out in 1838 that the only true threat to America’s existence is suicide. China understands this and is masterful at exploiting our internal struggles and isolating us in a way similar to how we treated the Soviets.. 

Giving an education and platform to young people who want to address this is key.  Implementing a new strategy and logic that understands the nuances of our adversary will require changing American bureaucracies from within. 

You were able to break into the national security domain as a young person. What are some hard-earned lessons about that journey you can share with future policymakers?

It’s not easy, and it never will be. 

It will feel like an uphill battle when you are trying to bring new, fresh ideas to national security. It seems nobody wants to listen because it goes against an established bureaucracy’s culture. Never let that deter you from being a trailblazer.

I started my podcast to break through unnecessary glass ceilings and bring others with me for better statecraft. I’ve been interested in geopolitics since I was a little kid, and I’ll never do this for fame or money. It’s about service. If that describes you too, never stop chasing this dream. 

Read more of Semaj McDowell’s articles at the Geopolitical Monitor and check out his podcast, The Geopolitical Pivot.

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