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What US National (Dis)Unity Means for China Policy

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Trans-Pacific View | Politics | East Asia

What US National (Dis)Unity Means for China Policy

Historically, the U.S. approach to China has had a unique relationship to the ebb and flow of national cohesion at home.

What US National (Dis)Unity Means for China Policy
Credit: Depositphotos

Calls about the peril of domestic political infighting in undermining U.S. foreign and security policy in relation to China are growing in the American political discourse. On the one hand, the prosecutions of former President Donald Trump and the investigations into current President Joe Biden’s son have the potential to destabilize U.S. resilience; on the other hand the upcoming presidential campaign risk further deteriorating China-U.S. relations. With more than 80 percent of the public holding unfavorable views of China, both parties are expected to toughen their anti-China rhetoric to win over public support.

As the showdown over the debt ceiling in May revealed, tensions in U.S. political life have the potential to spill over into the economy and foreign affairs. In that case, a default would have heavily impaired Washington’s ability to compete with China. There were direct consequences as well: In mid-May Biden was forced to pull out of a Quad summit and a historic trip to Papua New Guinea because of political negotiations in Washington. The cancellation of these key summits demonstrated the powerful impact domestic crises can have on China-U.S. competition and foreign policy more broadly. 

Domestic Cohesion and U.S. Foreign Policy

Back in 2019, Cold War historian Arne Westad warned that the foremost challenge for the United States in competing effectively with China was in the “American mind.” This warning was similar to the one expressed by George Kennan, who in his “X” article urged the U.S. to “create among the peoples of the world the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problems of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a world power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time.” 

A pandemic and four years later, this objective still seems dangerously unmet.

Low domestic cohesion is not a new phenomenon in the United States. Robert D. Putnam’s recently published book examined how the U.S. “came together” after a previous period of social divisions. Putnam argued that it was the emergence of the Progressive movement that healed  the excesses of the Gilded Age, namely inequality, political polarization, social dislocation, and cultural narcissism. Progressives such as Theodore Roosevelt pushed for greater economic equality, social cooperation and solidarity, with their ideas inspiring policy and shaping American life until the early 1960s. 

However, Putnam’s focus is on domestic society, and his analysis thus omits the foreign policy dimension and approach that developed during that crucial time in American history. U.S. foreign policy during the Progressive era was characterized by imperialism, economic nationalism, and war. The kind of nationalism and exceptionalism informing the Progressives’ thinking, at home and abroad, provided the ideological underpinning for the Bush doctrine, the neoconservative movement, and the rationale for democracy promotion abroad. 

These forces got the United States ensnared in Afghanistan for more than 20 years – the longest war in American history. U.S. involvement in the Middle East and Africa have directly cost almost $5.4 trillion and around 15,000 American lives, and indirectly led to intensifying the militarization of the police, undermining American society’s domestic fabric. 

In other words, the same dynamics that resulted in increased social cohesion in the early 20th century had a destabilizing effect on U.S. foreign policy. 

The United States’ Preoccupation with China

National security fears about China represent a foremost concern for today’s policymakers. Given the scope of this challenge, it is essential to think about domestic cohesion in relation to the mentalities that have historically informed and reflected Americans’ public perceptions about China. 

As Gordon Chang argued in his 2015 book “Fateful Ties,” China has been a “central ingredient in America’s self-identity from its very beginning and in the American preoccupation with national fate.” The U.S. preoccupation with competing with China must be put in perspective and analyzed alongside the ebb and flow of national cohesion to understand patterns of engagement in the history of China-U.S. relations, and to figure out which historical analogies are most appropriate.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a time of rising national cohesion, U.S. policymakers were sure that, in the words of former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, “the democratic individualism of China will reassert themselves and she will throw off the foreign yoke.” The belief that China’s destiny was in the hands of the United States was so entrenched that, shortly before the Korean War, Acheson remarked that “the American people will remain in the future, as we have been in the past, the friends of the Chinese people.” He then warned China’s people that they “should understand that, whatever happens within their own country, they can only bring grave trouble on themselves and their friends if they are led by their new rulers into aggressive or subversive adventures beyond their borders.” 

Following the Communist takeover and the outbreak of the Korean War, these beliefs fueled McCarthyism, while the emergence of the Red Scare set in motion a downhill trajectory in U.S. national cohesion.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when national cohesion further declined as the United States tried to disentangle itself from Vietnam, President Richard Nixon came up with the idea to “open” to China and to use rapprochement against the Soviets. Prior to the secret talks between Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai, Nixon instructed the former that the negotiations should build on three fears: (1) fears of what the President might do in the event of continued stalemate in the South Vietnam war; (2) the fear of a resurgent and militaristic Japan; and (3) the fear of the Soviet threat on their flank.” 

Instead of communicating a reassuring yet patronizing message, as Acheson had, this time U.S. policymakers and Nixon in particular felt the need to manipulate China’s fears over a number of issues in order to obtain strategic advantages from the Chinese Communist Party leadership. It is highly plausible that the strategy of fear Nixon suggested might have stemmed from the president’s own fears about a double whammy of deep division at home and the crumbling military and political situation in Vietnam.

Understanding the Past to Shape the Future of China-U.S. Relations

What do these two significant episodes from the history of China-U.S. relations tell us about contemporary challenges? In an era of domestic cohesion, U.S. policymakers were overconfident in dealing with China, while their approach revealed a sense of uneasiness, concern and overall underconfidence when domestic cohesion was on the decline. This latter dynamic can be observed today, too: It’s impossible to deny how, in the past few years, lowering levels of domestic cohesion in U.S. society have been accompanied by rising anxiety about the “China reckoning” and alarm at Beijing’s plans to displace the U.S.-led international order

On the other hand, it should be noted that contemporary China is not the same country that it was in the 1960s and 1970s. Back then, China was internationally isolated, involved in a conflict with the Soviet Union, with its economy and society further impoverished by the Cultural Revolution. Today, China is a completely different actor. This is why strategies motivated by fear or aimed at exploiting situations of perceived weakness will never be as effective as they were in the past (and even 50-plus years ago, the success of these strategies is highly suspect).

Policymakers should acknowledge that tensions and divisions in American society have a powerful impact on U.S. foreign policy, compounding the inability of the United States to contain and compete with China. At the same time, the way the United States has dealt with China in the past has also affected such cohesion. Being fully aware of how this mutually reinforcing mechanism works is just the first step toward the adoption of a more balanced approach to U.S. China policy.

A sustainable approach to China should eschew both overconfidence and anxiety, elements that have contributed to making relations dysfunctional and filled with mistrust. In the context of an emerging anti-China consensus in Washington, diplomats must build domestic support around a mode of engagement that takes as its core a deeper understanding of how domestic constraints and cognitive biases have influenced past relations between the two countries.