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The New China Scare

Why America Shouldn’t Panic About Its Latest Challenger

Visitors in front of a picture of Xi at the Beijing Exhibition Center, September 2019 Jason Lee / Reuters

In February 1947, U.S. President Harry Truman huddled with his most senior foreign policy advisers, George Marshall and Dean Acheson, and a handful of congressional leaders. The topic was the administration’s plan to aid the Greek government in its fight against a communist insurgency. Marshall and Acheson presented their case for the plan. Arthur Vandenberg, chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, listened closely and then offered his support with a caveat. “The only way you are going to get what you want,” he reportedly told the president, “is to make a speech and scare the hell out of the country.”

Over the next few months, Truman did just that. He turned the civil war in Greece into a test of the United States’ ability to confront international communism. Reflecting on Truman’s expansive rhetoric about aiding democracies anywhere, anytime, Acheson confessed in his memoirs that the administration had made an argument “clearer than truth.” 

Something similar is happening today in the American debate about China. A new consensus, encompassing both parties, the military establishment, and key elements of the media, holds that China is now a vital threat to the United States both economically and strategically, that U.S. policy toward China has failed, and that Washington needs a new, much tougher strategy to contain it. This consensus has shifted the public’s stance toward an almost instinctive hostility: according to polling, 60 percent of Americans now have an unfavorable view of the People’s Republic, a record high since the Pew Research Center began asking the question in 2005. But Washington elites have made their case “clearer than truth.” The nature of the challenge from China is different from and far more complex than what the new alarmism portrays. On the single most important foreign policy issue of the next several decades, the United States is setting itself up for an expensive failure.

Let’s be clear: China is a repressive regime that engages in thoroughly illiberal policies, from

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