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Senator Hawley Hits China Without Compromise

The upper chamber’s youngest member is demanding economic independence and an end to Beijing's 'imperialism.'

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., speaks with reporters after a vote in the Capitol on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

The first time I met Steve Bannon—in the summer of 2017, following his exodus from the White House—he said something that’s been central to my understanding of the Trump years ever since. The “liberal international order?” He didn’t believe in it.

That order—which has, since the Second World War, been the semi-official project of three generations of American statesmen—has come under considerable fire since the dawn of global populist politics last decade. Pioneered by Woodrow Wilson, its first iteration after the First World War was a failure. But after the Second, sophisticates in London, Paris, Berlin, Seoul—but most of all Washington—developed an architecture of trade agreements and treaties, a new regime of international law meant to forever banish the anarchy experienced during the age of Hitler. 

After the Soviet collapse thirty years ago, that order expanded its jurisdiction. Proponents sought to subsume the old Eastern Bloc, including perhaps Russia itself, into the American sphere. And they wanted to do so firmly on Washington’s terms. Even as the country began to deindustrialize and growth slowed, American leadership developed a taste for fresh crusades in the Middle East; exotic savagery, went the subtext, had to be brought finally to heel. China was a rising force, but its regime would inevitably crater or democratize. Besides, Beijing was a peaceful trading partner of the United States.

2008, 2016 and 2020—the financial crisis, Trump’s election and now the Coronavirus and its reaction—have been successive gut punches to this project, a hat trick which may seal its demise. Ask anyone attempting to board an international flight, or open a new factory in China, or get anything done at the United Nations: the world is de-globalizing at a speed almost as astonishing as it integrated. Post-Covid, U.S.-China confrontation is not a choice. It’s a reality. The liberal international order is not lamentable. It’s already dead.

This was the argument made by Bannon. It had other backers, of course, within both the academy and an emerging foreign policy counter-establishment loathe to repeat the mistakes of the past thirty years. But coming from the former top political advisor to the sitting president of the United States, it was provocative stuff. Bannon articulated a perspective which seemed to be on the tip of the foreign policy world’s tongue. And it riled people up. The most fulsome rebuttal to the zeitgeist was perhaps The Jungle Grows Back, tellingly written by Robert Kagan, an Iraq War architect. The peripheral world was dangerous brush; the United States was the machete. 

Trumpian nationalism has chugged along for nearly three years since—stripped, some might say, of its Bannonite flair and intelligence. The most hysterical prophecies of what the president might do—that he might withdraw from the geriatric North Atlantic Treaty Organization, for instance—have not come to pass. Trump has howled and roared, true: but so far, his most disruptive foreign policy maneuver has been escalation against Iran. 

That could change, especially if Trump wins a vindicating second term and sincerely governs like the man who won power in Republican politics by (laudably) trashing the legacy of the previous Republican president. Pulling out of an agreement devised by his predecessor was chaotic and internationally censured—so, not exactly in the spirit of the liberal international order. But picking up the lance against the mullahs in Tehran, the long-held obsession of the American deep state, isn’t exactly the stuff of President Pat Buchanan.  

♦♦♦

On Wednesday, one man gave a preview of what the discourse will look like, regardless of a Trump victory or vanquishment in November.

“Now we must recognize that the economic system designed by Western policy makers at the end of the Cold War does not serve our purposes in this new era,” proclaimed Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri. “And it does not meet our needs for this new day.” He continued, perhaps too politely: “And we should admit that multiple of its founding premises were in error.”

The Senator sang from the realist hymnal, attacking the liberal order’s spiritual father. “When the Soviet Union fell, ambitious policy makers in this country and other western nations saw the opportunity to create something new, something in the spirit of Woodrow Wilson, a dream to remake the world,” the upper chamber’s youngest member opined.   

And Hawley laid blame at the feet of the Coronavirus’ originators. 

Hawley attacked the ethnonationalist regime in Beijing for what it is, a careless incubator of infectious disease. The arguably largest economy in the world is a blasé and heedless enabler of the wet markets that scandalize—and evidently, infect—the world. The Chinese state’s treatment of minorities—most notably, its Muslim and homosexual population —were generally countenanced by the international community, status quo ante. Such charity would have been a laughable concession with any other major player; Russia, India and Israel, for instance, are frequently censured for much less.

The self-evident avarice and corruption of Western elites has been a key enabler. And just beneath the surface is a sophisticated campaign to exploit largely well-meaning anti-racist figures and politicians in the United States. But criticism of the Chinese state is not automatically prejudiced. As Americans entering a potential fourth month of house arrest can attest, it’s based in lived reality. The country is depressed, and if you look at the economic statistics, you can observe a literal truth. But Hawley sounded a note of optimism: “A new departure is upon us whether we like it or not. The old order is giving way. But the future need not be limited, not for this country. This moment is full of promise, if we have the courage to lead.” 

Hawley hopes for a new birth of freedom. “Will we acquiesce? Are we in this nation willing to witness the slow destruction of the free world? Are we willing to watch our own way of life, our own liberties and livelihoods, grow dependent on the policy of Beijing?” he said. “Already we hear a chorus of voices telling us that America must accept a narrower future. We must live with slower economic growth. We must expect lower wages. We must accommodate ourselves to the rise of China.”

The senator also wants to provide partners an alternative to serfdom. “We benefit if countries that share our opposition to Chinese imperialism—countries like India and Japan, Vietnam, Australia and Taiwan—are economically independent of China, and standing shoulder to shoulder with us,” he said. 

It’s worth noting that the thrust of Hawley’s thinking differs from that of some of his sharp-elbowed rivals, such as Sen. Tom Cotton. Unlike Cotton, Hawley seems to actually lament most of the United States’ counterproductive efforts in the Middle East. Of course, he could also vote more in that direction, as a small but existent group of Republicans have. This time last year, Hawley declined to help end the U.S. military’s perverted support of the Saudi coalition in Yemen. 

But the broader swoop is significant. 

“The 40-year-old freshman senator is often discussed as a 2024 presidential prospect,” Axios reported Wednesday. “He’s betting that Trump’s populist nationalism and hawkishness on China aren’t passing phenomena, but the future of the Republican Party.” 

If nothing else, I’d say that’s a savvy bet. 

about the author

Curt Mills is Senior Reporter at TAC covering national security, the 2020 campaign and the Trump presidency. Previously, he reported for The National Interest, Washington Examiner, U.S. News & World Report and the Spectator. Mills was a 2018-2019 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow and is a native and resident of Washington, D.C.

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