Will America Shape Its Grand Strategy Around China or Russia?
The debate doesn’t just have consequences for U.S. foreign policy—it will define the next decades of domestic affairs as well.
Late last week, as most of America’s political class was transfixed by the denouement of the Kavanaugh confirmation battle, Vice President Mike Pence gave a wide-ranging address on the U.S. relationship with China, and why the Trump administration is committed to opposing its expansionist designs. For the most part, it was a familiar litany of complaints about China’s efforts to coerce its neighbors in the western Pacific, its trade abuses, its hostility to religious freedom, and its support of unsavory regimes around the world. Yet halfway through his remarks, the vice president shifted his emphasis, turning from all the various ways the Chinese party-state was acting in the world outside America’s borders to how it was seeking to influence political and cultural life inside them.
Specifically, Pence warned that “China wants a different American president,” and that Beijing was mobilizing “covert actors, front groups, and propaganda outlets to shift Americans’ perception of Chinese policies” to that end. By now, it has become routine for the heads of U.S. multinationals to condemn the Trump administration’s trade policies, and the fact that they’d do so is perfectly understandable. China’s violent labor repression and its policy of subsidizing industrialists at the expense of households have proved highly advantageous to those seeking a disciplined and relatively low-cost workforce, regardless of their citizenship. According to Pence, however, there is another layer to the politics of trade, namely that senior Chinese officials are threatening to punish business leaders who fail to denounce U.S. tariffs. He pointed to the rising sophistication with which Beijing exploits America’s domestic political cleavages, as evidenced by its targeting of retaliatory tariffs to regions and industries believed crucial to the outcome of the 2018 midterm elections, and its shrewd efforts to silence criticism of Chinese policies on university campuses desperate for Chinese money.
All of this was in keeping with President Trump’s blunt insistence that “we’ve found that China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election coming up in November against my administration,” and, more pointedly, that “they do not want me—or us—to win because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade.”
The implicit question raised by both Pence and Trump is this: Should we be more worried about Chinese meddling than Russian meddling? Some observers have dismissed the idea, warning that it represents a distraction from ongoing Russian meddling. Others acknowledge that while China’s efforts to influence democratic outcomes are different in character from Russia’s approach, which Beijing seems to see as “ineffective and counterproductive,” there is no question that, as Rush Doshi and Robert D. Williams of the Brookings Institution have cautiously observed, “China has long pursued a wide-ranging and very real campaign to influence the political and informational environment of other countries, including the United States.”
Needless to say, one could see both Russia and China as dangerous rivals, and I certainly do. But in an age of intensifying partisan enmity, when large numbers of Americans question the legitimacy of the Trump presidency while similarly large numbers see Donald Trump as their champion, it is fitting that Democrats and Republicans can’t bring themselves to agree on which of the world’s revanchist powers ought to serve as what you might call our orienting enemy or, as the Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington once put it, the “other” that gives our grand strategy its ideological shape.
In 1997, not long after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Huntington warned that American grand strategy was losing its coherence in part because America’s creedal identity had long been defined in opposition to just such an “other.” In the early days of the republic, he observed, it was Britain that offered this necessary contrast: While the British lived under tyranny and hierarchy, Americans told themselves, we enjoyed freedom and equality. So, too, in later years did Wilhelmine Germany provide an orienting rivalry, and then the Nazi and Soviet totalitarianisms that ravaged the world for much of the 20th century. The Soviet Union’s demise therefore prompted a kind of identity crisis. “While wars at times may have a divisive effect on society,” wrote Huntington, “a common enemy can often help to promote identity and cohesion among people. The weakening or absence of a common enemy can do just the reverse.”
What Huntington did not quite anticipate is that America would find itself divided between two creedal identities—one right, one left—each of which defines itself against a different enemy. This is a pattern that has obtained in earlier eras. Consider that the founding generation was bitterly divided over whether Revolutionary France or the British Empire represented the greater threat to American liberty. The early 1900s saw debates between Germanophiles, many of whom were progressives and socialists of German extraction, and Anglophiles who embraced the idea of a world order jointly administered by a British-American condominium. The difference now is that even in the supposed twilight of American global leadership, our creedal clashes reverberate around the world.
And so the United States finds itself in the midst of not one but two cold wars. To cosmopolitan liberals, it is Russia that serves as America’s chief geopolitical adversary. Even in Russia’s weakened and impoverished state, they fear the deftness with which its operatives act in connivance with illiberal elements in the world’s diverse market democracies to undermine them from within. Nationalist conservatives see rising Chinese power as the far graver threat to American interests, and they are increasingly open to wielding the power of the state to resist and counter Beijing’s depredations, despite the cost to economic freedom that may well result.
It is not difficult to understand why Russia has such a hold on the liberal imagination. There is at this point little doubt that the Russian state has sought to sow chaos and division in the U.S. and democratic Europe, in part out of a conviction that Western liberals have done much the same throughout post-Soviet Eurasia. Though the extent to which Russian information operations influenced the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election is contested, the notion that it played a decisive role is an article of faith among Trump’s liberal critics, for whom Vladimir Putin is the perfect foil.
The Putin ascendancy has been defined by, in the first place, rank kleptocracy, but also by an explicit and often deranged antiliberalism, in which the chief enemies of the Russian nation are the forces of gay rights and feminism. As the American author Timothy Snyder has argued, Putinism’s crusade against gay rights was designed “to transform demands for democracy into a nebulous threat to Russian innocence: voting = west = sodomy.” While defining liberalism as the politics of sexual perversion, Putin defines his own regime as the defender of masculinity and traditionalism, and as the natural ally of all those who defend state sovereignty against the supposed cosmopolitan conspiracy to dissolve the natural family. In short, Putin invites cosmopolitan liberals to see Russia under his rule as their enemy, just as he invites right-wing populists in the Western democracies to see him as a friend.
An America that defines itself against Putin’s Russia is an America that would redouble its commitment to cosmopolitan liberalism, including a commitment to free and open trade on a multilateral, nondiscriminatory basis, while marginalizing nationalist conservatism as retrograde. nato would be shored up, which is all to the good, but the U.S. would adopt a warier attitude toward populist parties in Central and Eastern Europe, a stance that could see these democracies drift further out of the American orbit.
And as for the Chinese party-state, it wouldn’t exactly be a friend, especially in light of its hostility to civil liberties, but the Chinese Communist Party’s stated commitment to combating climate change and antitrade nationalist politicians would lend it a certain prestige and legitimacy. Shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Xi Jinping presented himself as a defender of a rules-based international order, the Paris agreement, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, and in doing so he won himself admirers in elite circles, especially among those unaware of the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims for political crimes. Over time, a U.S. grand strategy rooted in cosmopolitan liberalism might grow warier of Chinese power, especially if the Chinese party-state were to become more explicitly nationalist as it sees less of a need to cater to cosmopolitan-liberal sensibilities, as seems likely. But by then the economic integration of the Western democracies with China might be irreversible, and Beijing would have the upper hand.
What would it mean for the U.S. to instead choose China as its “other,” as nationalist conservatives would have it? One early indication comes from a recent report from the Department of Defense, which details America’s growing dependence on China’s manufacturing base, and the threat this poses to the country’s war-fighting capabilities. In the 1990s and 2000s, market conservatives could point to the Soviet collapse as an indictment of statism, and to global economic integration as an unambiguous good. Many of these market conservatives now find themselves making common cause with cosmopolitan liberals while nationalist conservatives rethink their commitment to laissez-faire, with an eye toward meeting the challenge posed by a Chinese party-state that sees industrial progress as central to its strategic ambitions. If Beijing, not Moscow, is public enemy No. 1, it is vital that the U.S. boost public investment in infrastructure and human capital, and that it steer U.S. firms to build resilient supply chains based in the Americas, not in China’s industrial heartland. Russia would still be a rival, I suspect, but it would be seen through a different lens: as a potential ally in the protracted conflict with China, as would become much clearer once Putin himself exits the scene.
Culturally, choosing China as an orienting enemy would have more ambiguous effects. One can imagine a xenophobic turn against Chinese immigrants, visitors, and students, which would have ugly consequences. Yet one can also imagine an embrace of the Chinese people on the grounds that Beijing’s authoritarianism serves a narrow elite more than it serves ordinary workers. The argument, in essence, would be that the U.S. stands against the party-state, not China as a whole, and that America would welcome a more just and inclusive Chinese government. Indeed, Pence made exactly this argument in his recent address. More broadly, an America waging a cold war on China might place a somewhat greater emphasis on cohesion and solidarity over cosmopolitanism, not least because disentangling the American and Chinese economies would entail considerable sacrifice on the part of the U.S. business elite—a sacrifice that would have to be justified in solidaristic terms.
Which enemy will we choose in the years to come? Which cold war will we wage most assiduously? The answer will depend in no small part on the outcome of the elections to come. If history is any guide, the stakes are high, and the consequences will be enduring.
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