I attended an interesting discussion on U.S. relationship with Russia and China that was held by the National Interest magazine on Thursday, during which Harry Harding raised an important point (and this is not a direct quote): American officials, lawmakers and pundits tend to portary U.S. policy moves towards China (and other powers) as responses to Chinese (and other powers’) policies. Hence, the focus of foreign policy debates in Washington is on why China is doing this or that, say, why are the Chinese saving too much and not spending enough, as opposed to why America is doing this or that, say, why are Americans spending too much and not saving enough. We supposedly react to their actions. Harding insisted that at the end of the day, U.S. foreign policy is determined by the way that we define it. That definition explains why we feel the need to respond (or not to respond) to what the Chinese (and other powers) are doing.

Indeed, since the topic that Harding and Nikolas Gvosdev were discussing was “Avoiding Catstrophe: The Future of U.S. Relations with China and Russia,” it’s important that Americans understand that the way the elites in Washington define U.S. policy explains why we could end up with a “catsrophe” on our hands here. While Russia is trying to preserve its status as a regional superpower in its “near abroad” and China is attempting to establish its position as a regional superpower in East Asia (in a way, the application of their own forms of the Monroe Dcotrine, in their respective spheres of influence), Washington, reflecting a bipartisan consensus or definition, is continuing to secure its position as a global superpower which supposedly has the right and the obligation to promote its interests and values around the world, including in Russia’s “near abroad” and in East Asia.

This is not an academic issue. The reason we ascribe to Russia and China “aggressive” tendencies and are willing to confront them, is because we define as “aggression” any move to challenge our global supremacy. That should be the starting point for any serious debate in Washington and around the country over our foreign policy.