When the National Security Debate Becomes a Culture War
The left is hysterical about Russia and the right is worried about China, with our foreign policy caught in between.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 sent shockwaves beyond America’s borders, part of a perceived nationalist-populist trend from Brexit to Eastern Europe to Asia. One thing that made Trump’s win unique was his intense criticism of China, a contrast with the more accommodationist attitudes that previous administrations had held. Trump also called for improving American relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Critical of the president’s attitudes towards China, prominent Democrats have urged a more aggressive approach towards Russia over the past four years.
Post-1945, the foreign policy establishments in both parties generally agreed on the national security challenges the United States faced after World War II: namely, the threat posed by the nuclear-armed Soviet Union that supported socialist anti-American proxies around the world. From Truman to Reagan, both parties’ presidents backed policies designed to contain and erode Soviet influence. Post-9/11, the increasing polarization and identity-driven nature of American politics has spilled over into the national security arena. Now neither conservatives nor liberals can agree on where the threats to U.S. security originate. Instead, how Washington views power competition is becoming an extension of the long-running culture war.
This national security polarization has been building for several years. During the 2016 election, for example, Trump emphasized China and “radical Islamic terrorism” when discussing foreign policy problems, while downplaying threats from Russia. In comparison, the 2016 Democratic candidates steered relatively clear of any discussion involving terrorism and the Muslim world.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic, with its origins in the People’s Republic of China, has only served to inflame the strategic communications divide between Republicans and Democrats. During his reelection campaign, Trump sought to make the challenging political environment caused by the interlinked social, health, and economic problems the pandemic wrought about China above all else. White House briefings have repeatedly referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” and the “Wuhan Virus. At his first post-pandemic rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Trump even referred to it as the “Kung Flu.”
Ideological changes within the Republican Party caused by Trump’s style of conservatism have made a more aggressive stance towards Beijing possible. Aside from focusing on American nationalism and identity, Trump ran as a critic of corporate America. During his presidential campaign, he specifically called out the close relationships American companies enjoyed with China. In particular, Trump’s close allies have maintained their criticism of business interests for benefiting Beijing. The anti-China sentiment is a symptom of the party’s shift away from the limited government, laissez-faire form of conservatism that tolerated China as a destination for American investment and cheap labor.
A Republican president’s fixation on China has caused a change in how the Republican activist base views national security. From the Bush presidency through the Obama administration, Republican base voters viewed Islamist terrorism as a significant threat to the United States. Increasingly, the Republican base and the conservative movement’s infrastructure view China as the biggest challenge to American power. China’s new concern also plays to the traditional fear of statism, socialism, and atheism, under which today’s GOP views Beijing as a threat due to its varied embrace of all three traits.
Naturally, Trump’s rhetoric on U.S.-China relations, combined with the GOP’s support for a more provocative stance towards China, has provoked a hostile response from Democrats. The party has cemented its position that Trump is stoking racial hostility towards Asian Americans in general and the Chinese in particular, while also being critical of Trump’s handling of Beijing.
The liberal criticisms of Trump’s China policy conceal their own schizophrenic position on China. The party finds itself caught between confronting China over its authoritarianism, human rights, and trade abuses versus condemning Trump for his nationalist-populist response to Beijing. Progressive internationalists see Trump’s policies as weakening Washington’s hand by retrenching away from international organizations and alliances. Left-leaning foreign affairs watchers also see Trump driving Washington and Beijing towards a new cold war.
The Democratic Party is experiencing ideological schisms. Its neoliberal, center-left wing, is still very much in control, as was evident with Biden’s victory in the Democratic presidential primaries. Like moderate Republicans, neoliberal Democrats view China as part of the international order and a significant economic player. Still, the establishment within the party finds its position challenged. Accelerated by Trump’s shock 2016 win, the Democratic Party’s left wing has seen its political viability increase with calls for a focus on social justice issues.
The liberal internationalist wings and the new progressive-socialist fusion find common ground on Trump’s foreign policy. Both see Trump embracing a racist, unilateralist stance that risks war with China. However, Democratic foreign policy hands advocate for the same hardline approach when it comes to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which they see as bearing responsibility for Trump’s shock 2016 victory through election interference.
Progressives are disturbed by Moscow’s Orthodox Christianity, conservative authoritarianism, and deference to an oligarchical class. Democratic activists also view Russia as a primary threat because Moscow supports European right-wing parties like the French Front National, Hungarian Fidesz, and the Austrian Freedom Party, all of which run counter to the modern American left’s values. The Chinese government also disdains values like tolerance, free speech, and minorities’ inclusion in national conversations.
The left views both Trump and Putin as leaders representing an autocratic tendency, linked together by a joint embrace of nationalism and populism. Trump’s critics are also disturbed by the president’s attitudes towards European allies, seeing criticism of NATO as a way of finding common ground with the Russian president, who considers the organization to be a threat. All of these factors have now culminated in the Democratic-controlled House’s attempt to impeach President Trump over his alleged mishandling of American aid to Ukraine as a result of quid pro quo.
President-elect Biden will enter the White House with a poor relationship with Moscow due to Democratic rhetoric since Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat, and more of the same will only cause Russia to double down on its disruptive actions. Moscow previously pursued a similar course in response to President John F. Kennedy’s positioning of missiles in Italy and Turkey. Likewise, the Bush administration’s post-9/11 muscle flex caused Moscow to view Washington as pursuing an expansionist agenda. So far, Biden’s picks for important national security posts such as secretary of defense, national security adviser, and the CIA, show a tendency towards toughness on Russia.
Meanwhile, President Trump has doubled down on attacking China in the aftermath of the election. During the campaign, Trump alleged that China wanted him to lose to Biden so Beijing would have someone more comfortable to work with. While echoing his Democratic detractors, Trump has alluded to close links between Chinese interests and the Biden camp. All of this will put the Biden administration in an even more difficult position with regard to relations with China. Any potential demonstration of flexibility towards Beijing could lead to Republican charges of Biden being soft on China.
Then again, perhaps the red-blue divergence only exists in messaging designed to appeal to each party’s respective base. During the election season, Biden’s campaign released several policy proposals to counter Chinese influence through mechanisms like multilateral engagement, emphasis on liberal democratic values, and the movement of supply chains back to the United States. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi oppose any softened view towards Beijing. The progressive movement also remains highly critical of Chinese human rights, environmental, and trade policies.
Despite Democratic claims to the contrary, President Trump has taken steps to punish Moscow for its near-abroad actions. The Trump administration has implemented sanctions against individuals tied to Putin’s government. Simultaneously, the White House under Trump has removed the United States from bilateral agreements with Russia, such as the Open Skies treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Washington has also taken military action against Bashar al-Assad and Russian entities in Syria. The outgoing administration has pushed domestic fossil fuel development instead of environmental interests, which hurts Russia’s commodity-based economy.
However, the danger to U.S. foreign policymaking and how both parties view great power competition is evident. Washington increasingly sees threats through a red and blue lens; the broader American culture wars inflamed by hyperpolarization have reached our national security debates. Unlike during the Cold War, when there was a universal understanding of the challenges the U.S. faced, there is far less agreement on what those challenges are today and how to deal with them.
Kevin Brown has previously written for The American Conservative, The Diplomat, and the National Interest. Follow him on Twitter @KevinBrown778.