Matthew Pottinger: Architect of the Chinese Cold War?

By Michael B. Cerny.

After the abrupt exit of John Bolton as National Security Advisor in mid-September, the White House has been shuffling its team of national-security experts.  As I described in my previous article,[1] it is evident that the Trump administration sought a more conciliatory personality in Bolton’s replacement for the position, and, despite his relative inexperience, it appears that Robert C. O’Brien fit the bill.

A Los Angeles-based lawyer and former foreign policy advisor for the Mitt Romney Presidential campaign, O’Brien embraces a zero-sum perspective of international affairs, but lacks Bolton’s brazen hawkishness and extreme policy positions—previously a source of much distaste and disagreement in the White House.  Serving as a special representative to Hostage Affairs prior to his appointment to National Security Advisor, O’Brien has never before served in any official capacity regarding Asian affairs.

In light of O’Brien’s limited career experience in Asia policy or U.S.-China relations, what is most intriguing about the current national-security shuffle isn’t O’Brien, it is the appointment of Matthew Pottinger as his deputy.

Matthew Pottinger: A Journalist-turned-Marine

Prior to accepting the position of Deputy National Security Advisor, Pottinger served the Trump administration as Senior Director for Asian Affairs on the National Security Council.  A role with critical importance to United States’ policy in the Asian region, Pottinger’s predecessors include Daniel Russell, a seasoned diplomat and career member of the Foreign Service, and Daniel Krittenbrink, a long-time China hand and current U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam.  Despite his status as a protégé of the now-disgraced Michael Flynn, Pottinger is a well-respected intellectual, and has reportedly brought measured foreign policy conservatism to the administration.

After graduating from the University of Massachusetts with a degree in Chinese Studies, Pottinger embarked first on a career in journalism.[2]  Fluent in Mandarin, Pottinger spent seven years in China as a journalist for Reuters and the Wall Street Journal, reporting on topics ranging from Chinese government corruption to stereotypes surrounding people born in China’s Henan Province.[3]  Numerous articles note that, during this time, Pottinger was assaulted by a Chinese security agent during an investigation.[4]  It was this incident, along with his experience of living in China and reporting on the Chinese government, that supposedly drove Pottinger to a greater appreciation of American values and democratic freedom, ultimately leading him to a career in the United States Marine Corps.

In a 2005 article in the Wall Street Journal, Pottinger explained his decision to leave the newspaper for the Marines.  Pottinger wrote that, “living in China also shows you what a nondemocratic country can do to its citizens.” Pottinger detailed his personal experiences with the Chinese authorities, where he had been “arrested and forced to flush [his] notes down a toilet to keep the police from getting them” and “punched in the face… by a government goon.”[5]

However, Pottinger’s experience with China was not the only factor involved in his career change. He wrote that watching a gruesome video of an American’s execution by terrorists in Iraq also contributed to his decision to leave journalism for the military.[6]  Another article speculated that the 2002 execution of his colleague, Daniel Pearl, at the hands of Pakistani terrorists may have further played a role.[7]  In any case, Pottinger’s career change reflects not only his exceptional view of American freedom, but also the positive and global role he sees for the American military.  In his 2005 article for the Wall Street Journal, “Mightier than the Pen,” Pottinger noted the instrumental role of the Marines in disaster response efforts after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.[8]

Entering the Marine Officer Candidates School, Pottinger graduated at the age of 32, and was subsequently employed as a military intelligence officer, completing three deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan during which he earned a Bronze Star.[9]  After completing his active duty, Pottinger returned to civilian life, becoming the 2010–2011 Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and later starting work at an investment management firm.  In a positive appraisal of Pottinger’s perspective on the military and American exceptionalism, a high school classmate wrote that Pottinger “had never been a rah-rah patriotic kind of guy. He was a clear-eyed skeptic. He never had a poster of Rambo on his wall; more likely it was Miles Davis.”[10]

Next Stop: The White House

Prior to his appointment to Senior Director for Asian Affairs, Matthew Pottinger had never worked in a policymaking position.  In a 2017 article in the New York Times, Pottinger’s predecessor under the Bush administration noted that, “He’s a very effective bureaucratic player, which is saying something because he’s never had a policy job before.”[11] Pottinger’s meteoric rise from a military intelligence officer to the nation’s Asia-policy hotseat is notably unprecedented.  A closer look at his second tour to Afghanistan reveals that Pottinger’s relationship with Michael Flynn, a retired army lieutenant and Trump confidant convicted of lying to the F.B.I., was his ticket into the inner circle of government

Based upon a 2010 report[12] co-authored by Michael Flynn and Michael Pottinger, it appears that the two men met in Afghanistan during Pottinger’s deployment to the country in 2009.  At that time, Flynn was serving as the Deputy Chief of Staff in Intelligence for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and Pottinger served as his close advisor.  Flynn and Pottinger quickly discovered from conducting local interviews across Afghanistan that there were severe deficits in American intelligence, a conclusion likely thanks to Pottinger’s wit and expertise in journalism.  Their report, which publicized the failure of United States intelligence in this regard, reportedly angered the Pentagon and C.I.A., raising concerns that Flynn and Pottinger might be fired.[13]

Pottinger retired from military service in 2010, and limited information is available about Pottinger’s civilian activities.  In the run-up to the election, he hedged his bets by donating to both Republican and Democratic candidates.  Politico Magazine reports that, shortly after the election, Flynn invited Pottinger into the administration.  This invitation was something of a surprise, as some in Washington “found it remarkable that a man who had never worked a day in civilian government or played a role in U.S. Asia policy would now have such a consequential post.”[14]  Despite his relative inexperience, Steve Bannon, a former White House chief strategist, described Pottinger as “one of the most significant people in the entire US government.”[15]

The Breakdown: Pottinger on China

While Pottinger’s foreign policy résumé may be short, it would be imprudent to dismiss him as entirely inexperienced when it comes to the Chinese government.  Unlike Steve Bannon, who self-fashions himself as an expert on international affairs, Pottinger studied Chinese in university, speaks Mandarin fluently, and lived in China for the better part of a decade (and as a reporter on the Chinese government, no less).  Living in China was a formative experience for Pottinger, and it is evident his hardline policies towards the East Asian nation reflect his experience in China as a journalist.

Furthermore, while some have labelled Pottinger a China hawk, it appears he’s of a different brand than Bannon or Bolton.  Graham Allison, a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, described Pottinger as “smart, insightful, inquisitive and not dogmatic.”[16]  Others have described him as sane and capable.  In other words, Pottinger neither embodies nor echoes the rash statements made by President Trump at campaign rallies or on Twitter.  However, Pottinger’s relative moderation does not mean he is any friend of China.  He is quite the opposite.

Unlike National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien, Pottinger has published no writings on U.S.-China relations in the past decade.  As the Senior Director for Asian Affairs on the National Security Council, Pottinger was involved with the drafting of the National Security Strategy,[17] a document prepared by the Executive Branch that addresses major concerns to national security and the administration’s approaches to resolve them.[18]  Considering Pottinger’s involvement in drafting the document, the National Security Strategy best reflects Pottinger’s current perspectives on the U.S.-China relationship.  Prefaced by a letter from the President that articulates an America-first strategy (of which the National Security Strategy is a component), the document characterizes China as a “revisionist” power that seeks “to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests.”

Regarding the varied domains in which the United States and China are locked into competition, whether it be over trade or artificial intelligence, Pottinger believes that U.S.-China cooperation must take a backseat to United States military might as a form of deterrence, and to trade conflict as a form of economic leverage.[19] While it is apparent that Pottinger prefers the exercise of hard power over diplomacy, he played an important role in organizing diplomatic talks with North Korea regarding denuclearization.  It is worth note, however, that when Pottinger briefed former President Jimmy Carter, possibly the most prominent figure in the history of U.S.-North Korean diplomatic relations, about negotiations on the Korean peninsula in 2017, he asked that President Carter do or say nothing.

New Deputy, New Strategy?

Hopeful China watchers might dream that John Bolton’s exit from the administration could signal the potential for new warmth in U.S.-China relations, but Pottinger’s appointment should splash cold water on such optimism.

Each Administration and National Security Advisor determines the exact role of the Deputy National Security Advisor.  Considering that this role ought to entail greater authority and responsibility than Pottinger’s previous post as a Senior Director, Pottinger’s selection for the position indicates that he will continue to be a driving force behind the administration’s policy towards China.  O’Brien’s lack of experience in Asia policy is a further indication that Pottinger will likely hold the reins of the administration’s policy towards China during his tenure.

Although Pottinger is not the brazen hawk that Bolton was and prefers to work behind-the-scenes, he is a core architect of the Cold War-era competition that characterizes contemporary U.S.-China relations.  The nation and the world can ultimately expect a continuation of the current administration’s policies.

Cerny is an intern with The Carter Center China Program. The views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of The Carter Center or its associates.

[1] Cerny, Michael B. “O’Brien on China: Trump’s New National Security Advisor and the Future of U.S.-China Relations – US-China Perception Monitor.” US-China Perception Monitor. The Carter Center, September 27, 2019.

[2] Kim, Hyun-ki. “Trump Taps Matt Pottinger to Oversee Asian Affairs.” Korea JoongAng Daily, January 6, 2017.

[3] Pottinger, Matt. “Henan Fights Back Against Years of Slurs, Jokes.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, April 18, 2005.

[4] Landler, Mark, and Jane Perlez. “A Veteran and China Hand Advises Trump for Xi’s Visit.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 4, 2017.

[5] Pottinger, Matt. “Mightier Than the Pen.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, December 15, 2005.

[6] Morris, Dick. “A Young Man and His Ideals.” TheHill, February 4, 2016.

[7] Harris, Dan, Tom Giusto, and Lenny Bourin. “Reporter Moved to Become a U.S. Marine.” ABC News. ABC News Network, January 1, 2006.

[8] Pottinger, Matt. “Mightier Than the Pen.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, December 15, 2005.

[9] Landler, Mark, and Jane Perlez. “A Veteran and China Hand Advises Trump for Xi’s Visit.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 4, 2017.; Osnos, Peter. “Meet Captain Matt Pottinger, United States Marine Corps.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, April 5, 2011.

[10] Avlon, John P. “Gen Xer Joins the U.S.Marines.” The New York Sun, December 27, 2005.

[11] Landler, Mark, and Jane Perlez. “A Veteran and China Hand Advises Trump for Xi’s Visit.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 4, 2017.

[12] Flynn, Michael T., Matthew Pottinger, and Paul D. Batchelor. “Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan.” Center for New American Security, January 2010.

[13] Schmidle, Nicholas. “Michael Flynn, General Chaos.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, July 9, 2019.

[14] Crowley, Michael, Richard Warnica, Bill Scher, and Renato Mariotti. “The White House Official Trump Says Doesn’t Exist.” POLITICO Magazine, May 30, 2018.

[15] Hutt, David. “Trump’s China Hawks Circle and Swoop above G20: Article.” Asia Times. Asia Times, June 27, 2019.

[16] Crowley, Michael, Richard Warnica, Bill Scher, and Renato Mariotti. “The White House Official Trump Says Doesn’t Exist.” POLITICO Magazine, May 30, 2018.

[17] To read the full report, visit:

[18] Crowley, Michael, Richard Warnica, Bill Scher, and Renato Mariotti. “The White House Official Trump Says Doesn’t Exist.” POLITICO Magazine, May 30, 2018.

[19] To read the full report, visit: [NOTE: We were notified August 26, 2021 that this link was broken. Please find the document at the following address:].