The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
In 2019, acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan spoke for many in Washington when he implored the Pentagon to focus on “China, China, China.” Indeed, if there is one consensus among U.S. policymakers and political leaders, it is that China represents the United States’ premier strategic challenge and that Washington is woefully behind in redirecting its energies accordingly.
The new resolve is, in large part, a useful corrective to years of insufficient focus on China. In view of its global economic weight, rapidly expanding military capabilities, illiberal values, and growing assertiveness, Beijing poses a formidable long-term threat to American security and freedom. Inarguably, a more comprehensive U.S. approach is called for. In the rush to address the neglect, however, Washington risks making a different blunder: subsuming all U.S. foreign policy to the U.S.-Chinese rivalry. Already, in several parts of the world, troops have been withdrawn, regional diplomacy redefined, and U.S. intelligence assets redirected, all in the name of a more robust posture toward China.
But the United States is a global power, not a regional one, and China is hardly the only problem it faces. Nor do enduring American interests outside the Indo-Pacific flow merely from the growing competition with China. It is necessary for Washington to prioritize China without allowing that focus to harm other interests and priorities. Balance, rather than tilting too far in one direction, should be the watchword.
The tendency to privilege a single issue has reoccurred periodically across U.S. foreign policy. Policymakers and politicians, often backed by a vocal consensus, elevate serious, legitimate threats—communism, terrorism, now China—in a way that crowds out the attention necessary to deal with other priorities and interests. When it comes to shifting military resources, diplomatic energy, and leader-level attention from other issues to China, policymakers should be wary of an abstract “do more” imperative. By ignoring the consequences for U.S. interests in other regions of the world, the all-in approach to China risks undermining, rather than strengthening, the U.S.-led international order.
It is not hard to find evidence of the growing dominance of China in U.S. foreign policy, across parties and administrations. President Donald Trump’s 2018 National Defense Strategy described a China that “seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term” and “global preeminence in the future,” and it prioritized long-term competition. Last year, top Trump administration officials gave speeches explicitly modeled on George Kennan’s “Long Telegram,” the American diplomat’s classic formulation of U.S. containment policy toward the Soviet Union, but with a major difference: “The People’s Republic of China,” said the Trump White House, “is a more capable competitor than the Soviet Union at its height.”
China has been even more prominent in the administration of President Joe Biden. It was the overriding focus of the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance and has been a central theme in U.S. diplomacy at the G-7, European Union, NATO, and Quadrilateral Security Dialogue summits. The new trilateral AUKUS (Australia–United Kingdom–United States) security agreement was greeted by most Washington observers as a major step forward in China policy, even as it led to new tensions with NATO ally France. Biden has said that Chinese President Xi Jinping is “deadly earnest on becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world.” At the Pentagon, China is said to be the “pacing threat,” while Secretary of State Antony Blinken describes U.S. relations with it as “the biggest geopolitical test” of the twenty-first century. Going further, the undersecretary for policy at the U.S. Defense Department has described China strategy as involving not one element of national power, or even the entirety of the U.S. government, but rather a “whole-of-society approach.”
As a general matter, such policies and statements usefully frame the China challenge, breaking with previous approaches aimed at transforming Chinese behavior rather than responding to it. The problem is not the tone or overall direction of the new stance but what it excludes: other, non-China challenges and other U.S. interests outside the Indo-Pacific region. These, too, are important in a world characterized by multiple threats in multiple areas.
The problem is what the new stance excludes: other, non-China challenges.
The rush toward China has strong antecedents in U.S. foreign policy. On various occasions during the Cold War and in the decades since, an American consensus has quickly emerged around a strategic challenge that is suddenly perceived to be paramount to all others. According to the usual pattern, policymakers declare recent U.S. engagement elsewhere to be wasteful and ineffective and resolve to launch a large-scale national effort, immediately, to address the overriding threat that has surreptitiously gathered strength while Washington looked away.
In the years after the Sputnik launch, the Soviet menace appeared so far-reaching that it led policymakers to see U.S. security as dependent, in part, on intervening to counter communists in the domestic politics of dozens of countries, from Laos to Angola to Grenada. Similarly, after the 9/11 attacks, the United States declared a global “war on terror,” shifting important diplomatic, military, and intelligence assets away from a focus on China and Russia in order to address terrorist threats in every region. Anticommunism and counterterrorism were the right approaches, but the disproportionate focus on them led American policymakers to ignore other compelling issues or to see them as mere adjuncts to the overarching strategic priority.
Washington risks a similar phenomenon today with its China policy. Already during the Trump administration, the United States sought to withdraw troops from Germany, shift intelligence capabilities away from French counterterrorism operations in Africa, and reduce Middle East engagement in order to bulk up U.S. resources in the Indo-Pacific. And among the primary rationales for Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has been to free up resources for China instead. It is telling that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in describing a recent Chinese hypersonic weapons test, likened it to a “Sputnik moment.”
Critics of the new Washington consensus about China have framed it as threat inflation, arguing that a softer approach based on cooperation and common interests will yield better results. That is shortsighted. The problem with the new emphasis is not its assessment of Chinese capabilities and intentions but that—like the Cold War and the war on terrorism—it threatens to crowd out vital concerns involving other countries and other issues.
It is not China but Russia, for example, that presents the chief current threat to democratic institutions in the United States and Europe. Since the early years of this century, groups backed by the Russian government have twice meddled in U.S. presidential elections and launched cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, and other forms of interference in some 27 different countries. Yet until now there has been no collective effort to defend democratic political systems against Russian infiltration, even among the multiple countries that have been subject to direct election interference.
Meanwhile, the United States faces a growing crisis on its southern border. While Mexico continues to struggle with economic and security problems of its own, the Biden administration has faced a new surge of migrants from Latin America and Haiti trying to pass through Mexico into the United States. Yet Washington has put far more effort into countering China’s Belt and Road Initiative than in providing a coherent strategy with countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to stem the flow of migrants.
Even in areas such as technology and innovation, China is not the only competitor to the United States. Policymakers increasingly fret about the possibility of China setting economic and technological standards to which Americans could be subject. But even broadly like-minded countries such as India and some of our allies in Europe take approaches to trade and technology that conflict with American positions. These other countries require U.S. engagement as well.
To be fair, even the most ardent China hawks are not calling on the United States to abandon other regions in favor of the Indo-Pacific. Yet policymakers and political leaders have made clear that the United States is pulling back from regions in which it has long held strategic interests. In the recent disengagement by Trump from Europe and Africa, and by Biden in Afghanistan and the Middle East, the beginnings of a lopsided foreign policy are discernible. And the experience of the past 70 years suggests that an unbalanced engagement in the world can lead to damaging consequences.
In the U.S. approach to China, there are two overarching reasons to seek greater balance with other interests. First are the opportunity costs of a pivot to Asia.
In view of Beijing’s ascendance, it is entirely reasonable for American policymakers to seek to devote new diplomatic, economic, and military resources to the challenge. In nearly every case, however, such additional engagement comes at the price of less attention to another area or region. In identifying resources that might be drawn on, policymakers should be able to demonstrate that the benefits of doing more in China and the Indo-Pacific outweigh the likely costs of doing less elsewhere. And when the calculation suggests that a shift in priorities is warranted, such a decision should be made with as much specificity as possible—on the basis of a particular set of policy tools or military deployments—rather than on the abstract basis that doing more is better.
Consider the U.S. push in 2020 to move some of the roughly 5,000 U.S. troops stationed in Africa to the Indo-Pacific region. Such a move was fully consistent with a “China first” approach and with the Trump administration’s emphasis on great-power competition. And yet U.S. support—including intelligence and reconnaissance assets—was critical to French security operations in the Sahel. It is highly unlikely that the benefits of a modestly increased presence in the Indo-Pacific are worth the pullback from a major front in Western counterterrorism efforts.
The U.S. increasingly resembles a regional power unable to pursue multiple interests.
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan provides another example. The roughly 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan during the Biden presidency will make little impact on the Indo-Pacific balance of power, even if all are eventually redeployed east. But in Afghanistan they made the difference between a democratic government and Taliban rule. The U.S. withdrawal, undertaken partly in the name of refocusing on China, seems likely to leave a significantly heightened terrorist threat in its wake. Defending Asia against Chinese hegemony is important, but protecting Americans against terrorist attacks is critical as well.
The second reason for maintaining balance in U.S. foreign policy goes to the heart of the U.S.-Chinese rivalry itself. Beijing sees the United States and Europe as two power centers rather than one allied bloc and has long sought to drive wedges into the transatlantic relationship. But the United States can effectively compete with China only alongside partners—not just in Asia but in Europe as well. The concept of a transatlantic division of labor, in which Europe tends to its continent and the Middle East, freeing up the United States to focus on the Indo-Pacific, is untenable in the long run. China needs to understand that the United States and its allies are united in countering its economic and military pressure, and both Europe and the Middle East require U.S. leadership to provide effective long-term stability. Setting priorities is important and even necessary. But without balance they can do more harm than good.
At the same time, renewing U.S. engagement with allies can itself help shift priorities. U.S. policymakers, for example, should welcome Europe’s growing response to China, including the EU’s recently issued regional strategy based on a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” France’s freedom-of-navigation exercises in the South China Sea, and the United Kingdom’s “tilt” to Asia. Rather than minimizing the benefits of these efforts, Washington should encourage more of them—and reassure Europeans that the United States will remain committed to their neighborhood as well.
Finally, U.S. policymakers would do well to keep the China problem in perspective. China may appear to many in Washington today as the most profound national security challenge facing the United States, one that evades easy solutions and is likely to endure far into the future. Yet in its attention to China, the United States risks overlooking acute threats in other parts of the world. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said, “In the 40 years since Vietnam, we have a perfect record in predicting where we will use military force next. We’ve never once gotten it right.” Modesty about our own capacity to predict the next threat is yet another reason to maintain a U.S. national security presence in multiple regions and issues simultaneously.
There is a deep irony in Washington’s singular focus on China today. Rather than a global power, the United States increasingly resembles a regional power that is unable to pursue multiple interests at once. At the very moment that China aspires to global influence, the United States appears to be backing away from the global stage to devote itself to the Indo-Pacific above all other regions. Only by balancing the Chinese threat with its interests in other regions and issues can the United States effectively contest Chinese power—and strengthen its own position in the world.
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