Restraint and the Rise of China
Two big ideas threaten to overturn decades of conventional wisdom about how U.S. power should be used overseas. The first idea is a general admonition that the United States should give up its role as guardian of the liberal international order and adopt a more circumscribed grand strategy of restraint. The second is an emerging consensus that America’s leaders should reverse the trend toward economic integration with China and should instead implement a policy of economic, political, and military containment of Beijing’s growing geopolitical clout. Each idea seems to be gaining traction with elected officials in both parties. The only problem is that the ideas might be incompatible.
Calls for restraint
The argument that the United States should severely curtail its overseas commitments is gathering steam in America’s foreign-policy community. It is easy to see why. After 9/11, the United States began a significant program of military interventionism meant to stamp out foreign threats to U.S. national security. Around 7,000 U.S. soldiers have died in those wars -- most of them in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in warzones such as Syria, Libya, and Yemen. These wars have also cost taxpayers more than $5.9 trillion. Despite these efforts, international terrorism remains an enduring and evolving threat, raising serious doubts about whether endless warfighting has done anything to improve U.S. national security.
For some, it is hard to admit that America lacks the military power to enforce a peaceful settlement on the rest of the world. Commentators such as Max Boot insist that the United States should accept open-ended wars as the price of “policing the frontiers of Pax Americana.” But so-called restrainers are advocating for retrenchment. They insist that blind faith in overseas interventionism has led U.S. leaders to squander American blood, treasure, and credibility; junking militarism is an overdue first step toward improving America’s security environment and recalibrating foreign policy to better protect the nation’s core interests.
Of course, calls for restraint rest on the assumption that retrenchment can be done safely. Either the international system is already placid enough to support a much-reduced global role for the United States, or else a grand strategy of restraint would help to make the international environment benign from the U.S. perspective.
Big ideas at odds
This assumption, however, cuts right against the grain of the other big idea that is refashioning the domestic debate over U.S. foreign policy: the notion that the United States must urgently organize a wide-ranging response to the rise of China. According to today’s China hawks, the international environment is anything but benign. Not only does a rising China present a clear military threat to the United States and its Asian allies, but Chinese leaders also seem to be bent upon remaking the U.S.-led (“liberal”) international order in their own image.
Indeed, the relationship between the United States and China is sometimes portrayed as an almost Manichaean struggle between opposite social and economic systems. Beijing’s terrible abuses of the Uighurs in the western province of Xinjiang, its stymieing of democracy in Hong Kong, the development of an Orwellian social-credit system to assess Chinese citizens’ reputations -- all of these policies and others like them contribute to the perception that nothing less than the survival of democracy is at stake in the geopolitical competition with China.
Whereas restrainers blame U.S. activism for creating or exacerbating a stormy international security environment, the China hawks take the opposite view: When it comes to dealing with Beijing, America’s leaders have not been forceful enough. Allowing China’s authoritarian government to expand its influence in East Asia and the wider world would be a disaster, and the United States cannot leave the job of containing China to others who are less able to put up a fight. Only the adroit application of hard U.S. military and economic power can stop the rise of the 21st Century’s most dangerous international actor.
It is clear, then, that restrainers and China hawks disagree over how to characterize America’s security environment. Either the world is a safe enough place to warrant U.S. retrenchment, or else it is so dangerous that Americans must prepare for another cold war with a menacing geopolitical rival -- it cannot be both.
Or can it?
Finding a synthesis
In fact, there might be some ways to square the circle -- that is, for restrainers and China hawks to both be right about the exigencies facing the United States. For example, perhaps the restrainers are correct to argue that the international system is mostly devoid of serious threats to U.S. national security, with the Western Pacific being the only exception. According to this view, the United States should retrench from Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere in order to focus on the one region where overseas activism is required: East Asia.
Another possible synthesis is found in the idea that the United States should orchestrate a concert of regional powers to contain China. By passing some responsibilities to formal and tacit allies who already have an interest in opposing Beijing -- Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India, for example -- the United States could feasibly scale back its own overseas commitments while still meeting its objective of limiting China’s international ambitions.
Even so, the possibility must be taken seriously that restrainers and China hawks will not be able to agree on a reading of the present international context. After all, some restrainers simply do not accept that China’s rise will inevitably threaten core U.S. interests in East Asia. Scholars such as Joshua Shifrinson argue that Beijing might, in fact, have strong incentives to cooperate with Washington over the long term. If this is right, it makes little sense to antagonize China and risk bringing about the very outcome that the hawks wish to avoid: a hostile bilateral relationship and the prospect of a catastrophic great-power conflict.
On the other hand, if China comes to be accepted as an existential threat to the United States, then it will be difficult for the restrainers’ belief in a placid international system to simultaneously take hold in the imagination of the American public or political class. On the contrary, it is possible that competition with China will galvanize domestic support for more overseas engagement. Taking on China could easily become a rationale for expanding America’s already large global footprint, from Asia to Africa to Latin America. This would kill calls for retrenchment.
At some point, America’s leaders might well have to decide on this question: Can the United States safely pursue a sustained reduction of its overseas commitments, or does the rise of China compel a more aggressive foreign policy? Whatever the outcome, the twin debates taking place over retrenchment and U.S.-China relations cannot be treated as discrete, parallel discussions. How one question gets resolved will inevitably influence, if not determine outright, how the other is settled.
Peter Harris is an assistant professor of political science at Colorado State University. You can follow him on Twitter: @ipeterharris. The views expressed are the author's own.