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Presbyterian pastor turned Foreign Service Officer outlines current trends in foreign policy during Synod School mini-course


The Rev. Bill Davnie says to expect bipartisan criticism of China in the coming months

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Robert Nyman via Unsplash

STORM LAKE, Iowa — The Rev. Bill Davnie was a Presbyterian pastor for five years before hearing a different call: he then served 27 years as a career Foreign Service Officer.

Davnie brought his experience and his analytical chops to Synod School last week, offering a mini-course he called “A Foreign Policy for the Middle Class: Bottom Up and Middle Out.”

The Biden administration has issued “a number of clear foreign policy statements,” Davnie said, with many of them tied to the state of the economy:

  • Wages have been stagnant since 1980.
  • The rise of China and the end of its “Bide Your Time” policy.
  • The decline of the number of democratic countries.
  • The pandemic revealed the severity of supply chain problems.

Davnie also listed a few of the administration’s policy emphases:

  • Democracies vs. autocracies. Is there a Western distinction? President Biden rejects that, according to Davnie.
  • Show that democracy works better, and restrict non-democratic nations with sanctions and criticisms.
  • Provide economic growth by de-risking supply chains and subsidizing companies so they will manufacture products in the United States, including batteries and microchips.
  • Strengthen national security by blocking Chinese technological progress.

“It is the new prominence of economics in American foreign policy. When I was in the Foreign Service, we didn’t think that economics was something we had to worry about. In a free market, we figured it was a company’s job to sell itself,” Davnie said. “When [the United States] signed trade agreements, we were concerned about tax rules and labor rights, but not about the companies … Now, we don’t feel quite so in charge.”

The Rev. Bill Davnie

“We want democracies,” Davnie said, “but we need some of the autocracies on our side.”

The International Monetary Fund reports that Asia will contribute about 70% of global economic growth this year, with China alone responsible for about one-third of that growth. The Western Hemisphere will contribute just one-eighth.

“But we remain a relatively healthy economy,” he said of the U.S. economy. “Why get so worried?”

It’s easier “to attack China and blame them rather than say, ‘What are we going to do about our educational system?’” Davnie said. “For years, we did this with our [nation’s] drug problem. We haven’t done enough research on addiction and on the propensity for addiction and why it happens.” Instead, “we make it a moral problem and blame it on Mexico and others.”

The nation’s polarization has made it difficult even to function as a government, Davnie said, adding that Foreign Service Officers tell him morale is “miserable,” as it is in other areas of government. “How would you like to work for the Internal Revenue Service right now? They’re not gunslingers,” Davnie said. “They’re accountants who are just trying to do their jobs.”

With presidential and congressional elections slated for next year, “2024 will be a series of attacks on China, and it will be bipartisan,” Davnie predicted. “That’s a great distraction for dealing with what we need to deal with.”

Traditionally, the goal was to be one tech generation ahead of China. “It meant we let them buy the second-best stuff … Now our position is to be as far ahead of China as we can be.”

President Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, has said the goal of export controls is to “have a small garden with a tall fence, which sounds sensible,” except that Chinese businesses “cooperate with the government in ways we do not,” Davnie said. “It’s a cultural belief. They see themselves as competitors cooperating together.”

On Thursday, look for a Presbyterian News Service report on another mini-course offered during Synod School on Restorative Actions, an economic equity initiative by the Synod of Lakes and Prairies “born from the intersection of theology, justice and economics.”

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