In a Foreign Affairs article about China policy, Nikki Haley makes some remarkable claims that would almost be funny if she weren’t serious:
But the United States is not an empire. Ours is a democratic country that takes pride in respecting the rights of other countries and peoples. In foreign policy, we don’t always live up to our principles, nor do we always make the wisest decisions. But we don’t just do whatever we can get away with, either.
One principle that guides U.S. foreign policy is that countries should respect what belongs to other countries.
Haley is making these false assertions about U.S. foreign policy to draw a sharper contrast with China, but this part of her argument falls apart under minimal scrutiny. There are numerous examples of how the U.S. definitely just does “whatever we can get away with,” tramples on the rights of other countries, and fails to respect what belongs to them. Sovereignty is something that every country has, and it is something that every government is supposed to respect, but our government’s record over at least the last thirty years has been one of routinely violating the sovereignty of other states as and when it pleased our leaders to do so. Our government has spent much of the last thirty years launching airstrikes, sending in special forces, invading, toppling governments, and occupying other countries. Among other things, the U.S. has been maintaining an illegal military presence in Syria for almost five years, and aiding and abetting the Saudi coalition in the destruction and starvation of Yemen for more than four years. If another country happens to be run by people that our government doesn’t approve of, the rights of that country and its people don’t matter in the least to our government. Haley should be familiar with this because she helped cover up for the Trump administration’s abuse of other nations while she served as ambassador to the U.N.
The U.S. also wages unilateral economic wars against whole countries if their governments refuse to yield to Washington’s demands. Our government deprives other nations of access to financial networks and legitimate commerce all the time. Currently, the U.S. is inflicting devastating collective punishment on Venezuela and Iran in an effort to destabilize and bring down their governments. We don’t respect the rights of those countries, and we definitely don’t respect the rights of the people in either place.
The point here is not just to complain that Haley is whitewashing our government’s record. The bigger problem here is that she presents this fantasy of principled foreign policy behavior to support her argument for a more aggressive and confrontational China policy that the U.S. can’t afford and doesn’t need. Haley tells us that “it is necessary for us to think creatively and courageously—and without any illusions about our adversary’s intentions,” but in rehearsing her song and dance about a threat from China that is exactly what Haley has failed to do. She indulges illusions about China’s intentions so that she can make it seem as if they pose a real threat to our vital interests. She calls for thinking creatively and courageously, but ends up offering the most complacent, bog-standard arguments for the usual hawkish measures. Apart from some vague gestures towards using diplomacy to rally allied support, Haley’s recommendations boil down to punitive economic measures and increased military spending. When she includes a call for massive spending on the nuclear arsenal (“[w]e must also modernize our long-neglected nuclear infrastructure”), you know that this is just an attempt to use China as an excuse to fritter away more money on weapons that have nothing to do with countering China.
Treating China as an adversary in the way that Haley wants will have significant costs that she doesn’t account for and doesn’t even bother to acknowledge. She is calling for a “whole of nation” mobilization of resources and effort to oppose China when there is no need for one. Haley’s proposal is a huge overreaction that seeks to use an exaggerated threat from China to justify higher military spending that Haley probably already wanted. “We must act now, before it’s too late,” she concludes melodramatically. This is a line that con artists use to try to rush their marks into agreeing to do something stupid that they wouldn’t do if they stopped to think about it. Haley’s “vision” for “how to win against China” is a myopic and dangerous one, and we should reject it.