China Is Not Ten Feet Tall
How Alarmism Undermines American Strategy
U.S. foreign policy is stronger when it enjoys bipartisan support. For the United States to play a steady, stabilizing role in world affairs, its allies and adversaries must know that its government speaks with one voice and that its policies won’t shift dramatically with changing domestic political winds. The best way to ensure that clarity and consistency is to pursue policies that are guided by American values of freedom, openness, opportunity, and inclusivity—and that have the support of policymakers and ordinary Americans across the political spectrum.
After four years under U.S. President Donald Trump, returning to clarity, consistency, and bipartisanship will not be easy. Trump’s “America first” political narrative has proved to be compelling and politically powerful. It taps into a long-standing strain of isolationism in U.S. politics, and it resonates with many Americans who question the benefits of globalization and of endless military engagement overseas. Trump’s supporters are not going away, and they cannot be easily dismissed as extremists. If U.S. policymakers seek to restore a bipartisan consensus favoring American global leadership, they must persuade ordinary Americans that international engagement and alliances are worth the cost.
Advocates of U.S. international leadership must recognize that domestic and foreign policy are inextricably linked and that a successful and durably bipartisan foreign policy depends on the American people’s appreciation of that link. The United States does not have to choose between being the world’s policeman and total retrenchment: it can engage the world more selectively, in principled and pragmatic ways that better serve the interests of working Americans.
History and polling data suggest that voters are unlikely to cast their ballots in a presidential election based on foreign policy alone. But on November 3, voters will face a stark choice between two very different visions for the United States’ role in the world. If Trump is reelected, he will push the United States even further toward isolationism and unilateralism. Alliances that have kept the American people safe and prosperous for decades will continue to deteriorate, and global institutions that have served American interests will wither. If Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is elected, by contrast, a seasoned foreign policy leader will take the helm. Biden is uniquely positioned not only to repair U.S. alliances and restore U.S. leadership of international institutions but to lay the foundation for a bipartisan twenty-first century strategy that can win the lasting support of Congress and the American people.
In 2016, Trump campaigned on a promise to challenge bipartisan assumptions that have guided U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. These included the assumption that alliances make the United States stronger, that removing trade barriers benefits U.S. consumers, that democracy and human rights belong at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy, and that the liberal international order created after World War II benefits the United States as much as it does the rest of the world. Trump has spent the last four years following through on his promise: alienating U.S. allies whose defense he feels costs Washington too much, emphasizing shortsighted measures such as bilateral trade deficits, and downplaying human rights and democracy. The president withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the Iran nuclear deal and rejected commitments to important multilateral institutions such as the World Health Organization. But even with Republican majorities in the House and the Senate in his first two years, he did not entirely succeed in implementing his nationalist, unilateral agenda.
Congress has checked the president’s most impulsive and ill-considered attempts at statecraft. When Trump attempted to dramatically slash the foreign aid budget, Congress maintained funding for national security, commercial, and humanitarian interests overseas. When Trump canceled military exercises on the Korean Peninsula, Congress prevented him from withdrawing troops from that theater. After Trump attempted to ingratiate himself with Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Congress passed new sanctions against Moscow and Pyongyang by veto-proof margins. And after Trump signaled his approval of China’s horrific human rights abuses, Congress passed—and Trump was forced to sign—legislation promoting human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
After four years under U.S. President Donald Trump, returning to clarity, consistency, and bipartisanship will not be easy.
While congressional guardrails in these foreign policy areas have proved encouragingly strong, Trump has still done tremendous damage to the prestige and reputation of the United States. A reelected Trump would be even more emboldened to subvert Congress. Perhaps more concerning, the word of the U.S. president would mean even less than it does now to the rest of the world. After 36 years in the Senate, including time as chair of the Committee on Foreign Relations, and eight years as a vice president who formed deep relationships with world leaders, Biden is capable of uniting Americans around a renewed bipartisan foreign policy and of building back better our global leadership role. The country is deeply divided, but signs suggest that members of Congress from both parties will get behind a President Biden to reposition the United States on the world stage.
The key to a bipartisan foreign policy is never losing sight of the home front. For every action they take abroad, U.S. leaders must ask: How does this policy affect the middle class at home? Can it be explained to Americans at a town hall meeting? Holding that domestic dimension in view does not require the United States to pursue only narrow economic interests, retreat within its borders, or withdraw from multilateral commitments. But it should lead the United States to take actions overseas that make American families more secure and that promote the common good. This type of foreign policy will have the American people behind it and will also serve to marshal global support. The United States will need that support as it pursues its bipartisan foreign policy priorities.
Countering China tops the list of those priorities. In universities, the private sector, and politics, Americans largely agree that an assertive and globally ambitious China poses the greatest long-term challenge to the United States. They understand that the U.S.-Chinese relationship will be the defining relationship of this century. Many agree that in order to compete with Beijing, the United States should work with allies that share its values to develop a common strategy for reaching mutual goals—in particular, preserving the same freedom and openness in emerging technologies, trade, and international organizations that have fostered seven decades of shared prosperity. Isolationism, nativism, and protectionism won’t work. The United States can’t compete with China with tariffs that harm American farmers and alienate U.S. allies or with a president who shrugs off Chinese President Xi Jinping’s most egregious human rights abuses and praises Xi’s handling of the coronavirus during the critical early days of the outbreak. Trump’s approach to China, like his approach to foreign policy in general, fails to meet the demands of this moment.
The United States can outcompete China only by being the best version of itself. Democrats and Republicans, working together to deal with today’s big problems, can demonstrate to the world the appeal of the American model of democracy. China offers a competing vision of the relationship between the state and the individual—one that places the strict control of the party and the will of the collective over the individual liberties and freedoms Americans celebrate. The very act of coming together to offer a positive and inspiring American alternative to China’s worldview can show that democracy works and help bridge the divisions that currently cleave the United States.
China policy is not the only area where bipartisan consensus is beginning to take shape. Support crosses the aisle for American leadership of a strong global economic recovery, for investing in research and development and worker retraining and retaining an innovation edge, and for writing enforceable rules for global trading arrangements that benefit the American worker. Members of both parties support negotiating a multilateral deal with Iran—one that includes constraints on the country’s nuclear program and rigorous inspections, enforceable limits on its ballistic missile tests, and punishment for its support for terrorist proxies throughout the Middle East.
The key to a bipartisan foreign policy is never losing sight of the home front.
Members of both parties believe that the United States should work with NATO and its European partners to deter Russian aggression. There is long-standing bipartisan support for sanctioning Russia for its brazen attempts to undermine democracy in the United States and abroad; for an ironclad U.S. commitment to Article V of NATO’s founding treaty, which obliges member states to come to one another’s defense in the event of an attack; and for working with NATO and the EU to develop standards for cyberspace, artificial intelligence, and 5G telecommunications that are consistent with democratic values.
Members of both parties agree that the United States should strengthen ties with the youngest and fastest-growing continent in the world, Africa, and take on the corruption, violence, and endemic poverty that drive migration from Latin America to the southern border of the United States. Democrats and Republicans alike support defending the frontiers of democracy and working with foreign leaders who are attempting to consolidate democratic reforms and safeguard good governance and the rule of law.
Bipartisan support for tackling climate change is growing. For the past year, I have co-chaired the bipartisan Senate Climate Solutions Caucus. Our 14 members, equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, have consulted with CEOs, business organizations, advocates, scientists, and other experts in an effort to develop legislation that addresses the causes and consequences of climate change—from creating economic incentives to reduce emissions to promoting clean energy and agricultural innovation to ensuring that any energy transition protects American consumers and workers.
Politicians have also lent bipartisan support to efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic with U.S. contributions to international vaccine development initiatives, swift and equitable vaccine distribution plans at home and abroad, and a stronger, more resilient global health system.
I am not naive. Building a better bipartisan foreign policy is a tall order and won’t happen overnight. But after four years under an unconventional, unpredictable president, it is easy to forget that such consensus exists within this diverse country. If Biden is elected, politics still may not stop at the water’s edge, but the United States will have a leader who can work with Congress to craft a renewed global role—one that is principled, pragmatic, and cognizant of the interconnected nature of today’s world. A Biden administration will listen to the American people and explain the links between what happens overseas and what happens at home, working with Congress to build a more resilient global health system and to prevent democratic backsliding around the world. Biden can provide the steadfast engagement with the free world that has been missing for nearly four years.
A Biden administration will not have a backward-looking foreign policy. It is not sufficient to rejoin agreements and multilateral organizations from which the Trump administration has withdrawn. A Biden administration will need to develop and execute enduring, bipartisan strategies that reimagine U.S. partnerships for a world that has been rocked by a deadly pandemic, an economic recession, racial injustice, and the existential threat of climate change. Only then will the United States be able to compete with China from a position of strength, rein in the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, and meet transnational challenges such as future pandemics and international terrorism.
Trump has stained the United States’ reputation. His administration has made the American people neither safer nor more prosperous. Nor has it built coalitions to address global crises. A Biden presidency would offer a rare opportunity to set U.S. foreign policy in a new direction: one that encompasses the concerns of average Americans and the reemerging bipartisan congressional consensus for a foreign policy rooted in American ideals. Along with many of my Senate colleagues, I am committed to helping a Biden administration lead the way.
The Global Imperative to Rebuild Governance and Restore Democracy