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The Foe We Need Is the Foe We Have

(Xinhua/Mao Pengfei via Getty Images)

At a time when we are losing a grip on the fundamentals of the American Experiment, a powerful foe has arisen that stands in direct opposition to those fundamentals.”

For the foreseeable future, the fundamental fact of American domestic politics will be division—deep-seated divisions running along incredibly fraught lines of partisanship, race, religion, geography, worldview, and culture. Meanwhile, the fundamental fact of American foreign policy going forward will be geopolitical competition with other great powers, such as the People’s Republic of China, in particular. These geopolitical competitions have the potential to challenge the current liberal international order.

Both our domestic divisions and China’s threat to the American-led postwar order present immense challenges to the sustained peace and prosperity of the United States of America. American statesmen and policymakers working to cope successfully with these twin challenges would do well to understand them—and present them to the public—as interconnected. By explicitly framing the People’s Republic of China as a geopolitical and ideological foe deserving of sustained competition, we can remind ourselves of the first principles undergirding our experiment in democratic republican self-governance and build support for those principles to transcend our current, seemingly insuperable divisions. At a time when we are losing a grip on the fundamentals of the American Experiment, a powerful foe has arisen that stands in direct opposition to those fundamentals. This is a blessing. Through explicit competition with China and statesmanlike articulation of the ideological stakes of that competition, we can regain a grip on what we stand for, our democratic and constitutional sources of unity, and who we are as Americans. 

Ceding any further share of world leadership to China will place greater control of the global economy in the hands of a ruling communist party that is premised on ethnic nationalism, is dismissive and abusive of human rights, and is committed to a pseudo-mercantilist and international rules-breaking economic model. We must wake up and compete with China rather than falling back into 1990s-style wishful thinking that the Chinese Communist Party will magically become a “responsible stakeholder” in the liberal international order. As former National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster writes in his illuminating book, Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, the Chinese Communist Party “has no intention of playing by the rules associated with international law, trade, or commerce. China is a threat to free and open societies because its policies actively promote a closed, authoritarian model as an alternative to the rules-based order.” 

As we compete with the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian governance model and counteract its challenge to the liberal international order by attaching costs to its attempts to expand its territory and ideological influence across the world stage, we must link that competition with our attempts to strengthen liberal democracy, the rule of law, constitutionalism, and respect for these core political principles here at home. The competition with China and the work of domestic political reform and reconciliation should be linked because the fate of democratic republicanism hinges on the success of both projects.

Succumbing to anti-democratic and anti-constitutional forces at home—whether they be on the political right or the political left—will leave the strength of our ideological counter to China in tatters. Just as the United States’ standing in the world has been diminished by the shameful insurrectionary attack on the Capitol of January 6th, further weakening of our constitutional order will hamper our ability to counter China’s challenge to liberal internationalism. We will lack the standing to mount an ideological defense of liberal democratic principles. Just as slavery “deprive[d] our republican example of its just influence in the world,” in the words of Abraham Lincoln, our worrisome levels of political polarization and partisan contempt threaten to do so as well. Moreover, without stable democratic and constitutionally constrained politics at home, we will lack the domestic strength and cohesion necessary to resuscitate a military whose funding and strategic capabilities and advantages have been stagnating

As such, succumbing to our divisions at home and failing to effectively compete with China abroad both portend the same dismal outcome: The weakening of liberal democracy and all that is wrapped up within it, including the primacy of the individual before the group, the stabilizing effects of constitutionalism, and the human flourishing unleashed by the market economy. Therefore, it is best that we present both the rise of an ambitious and authoritarian China and our domestic descent into political contempt, violence, and division as twin threats to the liberal democratic order—at home and abroad—that had laid the groundwork for our nation’s flourishing. 

Thus, there is a silver lining to the difficult road ahead: Our two greatest foreign policy and domestic political challenges are two sides of the same coin—the fight for a free and open society with democratic institutions, respect for individual rights, constitutional constraints, a market economy, and a strong rule of law. Recognizing this linkage can help focus our collective attention and energy on the tasks at hand. In doing so, we must remember that Americans have stood up for liberal democracy many times before, and we can do so successfully again.

Thomas Koenig is a recent graduate of Princeton University and will be attending Harvard Law School in the fall of 2021. He can be found on Twitter @TomsTakes98

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