Who's Afraid of China? Rethinking American Grand Strategy for a New Era
It may not surprise you to learn that the views of the American public on foreign policy differ substantially from those of the Washington national security establishment. But as a new survey from the Eurasia Group Foundation has shown, the gulf between elite and popular views presents a unique opportunity to rethink American grand strategy, particularly with respect to how to manage the U.S. rivalry with Russia and China.
Even as the United States remains embroiled in multiple conflicts in Africa and the greater Middle East in the name of combatting terrorism, official U.S. strategy is now focused on dealing with the challenges posed by Russia and China, as noted in the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) and related documents like the Congressionally-mandated National Defense Strategy Commission (NDSC). The NDS asserts that “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern of U.S. national security.” The NDSC takes a more alarmist tone, suggesting that the United States faces a national security crisis in which it might “struggle to win, or perhaps lose, a war against Russia or China.” This is an extraordinary claim given that U.S. allies in Europe alone spend three times as much on their militaries as Russia does, and that China lags far behind the United States in military spending, defense technology, and well-trained personnel, as noted in the analysis of great power rivalry contained in report of the Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force.
Rather than spinning out scenarios for fighting a war with a nuclear-armed power like China or Russia that could result in an unprecedented catastrophe, U.S. strategy should be focused on how to prevent such a conflict from occurring in the first place. Doing so will depend more on diplomatic and economic instruments of national power than it will on further increasing a Pentagon budget that is already at near record levels of spending. And it will require rebalancing U.S. security partnerships with its allies in Europe and Asia – not through insult and invective, as the Trump administration has attempted to do, but through a thoughtful give and take regarding the best way to provide security in a world in which traditional military challenges are not the primary threats to peace and security. It will also mean looking for areas of cooperation with China and Russia – from joining hands to address the risks posed by climate change to repairing and revitalizing the global regime for nuclear arms control, which has suffered severe blows during the Trump administration.
This more balanced approach to the issue of great power rivalry comports closely with American public opinion on the topic. The Eurasia Group Foundation survey indicates that China is far from the top security concern of most Americans. Democrats are more concerned with the rise of authoritarianism around the world, while Republicans are concerned about the impacts of immigration. And both groups are concerned about the potential negative economic consequences of a new trade war.
To the extent that Americans do think that Chinese policies pose a risk to U.S. and global security, they do not see a U.S. military buildup in the Pacific as a viable solution. The Eurasia Group Foundation summarizes its findings on this point as follows:
“While many have given into the ‘new red scare’ [fear of China], the majority of respondents still favor reducing America’s military footprint in Asia. They instead call on U.S. allies to help fight off Chinese influence and overreach . . . Like other policy priorities in Washington, American public opinion contrasts with the current national security strategy on how to respond to a rising China.”
The Eurasia Group Foundation survey also notes that a plurality of Americans think the United States should focus on “building a healthy democracy at home and avoiding foreign conflicts.” This is consistent with reducing the U.S. military footprint in Asia, and suggests the need for a thorough rethinking of U.S. strategy. The time to start that debate is now, in the run up to the 2020 elections. Foreign policy has mostly been a side issue in this year’s presidential debates, but that may change as the field narrows and the question of who is qualified to serve as commander-in-chief looms larger. The sooner we have a vigorous national conversation about the U.S. role in the world, the more likely it is that we will develop an effective strategy for addressing our most urgent security challenges.