Competition, China, and America’s Purpose

U.S. policy toward China has many deficiencies.  Many are cited as weaknesses in our capacity to beat China, in military, cyber, financial, trade, manufacturing, or other contests.  We also have an overarching weakness, in a lack of clarity in our priorities, which reflects lack of consideration of our underlying purpose.  Would we loosen sanctions over Uyghur human rights to gain cooperation on climate change?  Or vice versa?  What about Taiwan, or cyber-hacking, or trade practices, or maritime territorial disputes?  Before a sense of inevitable hostility cements itself into doctrine, we might ask: does our purpose go beyond opposing China?  If so, to what end, and if not what is our goal?

A must-read book from Eurasia Group’s Ali Wyne points out that “great power competition” is inevitable in world politics but current discourse treats this “descriptive” statement as “prescriptive” guidance.  As a prescription, it drives rivals to work urgently to “win” in every arena of their relations.  A zero sum flavor comes to permeate the relationship.  In this dynamic the stakes rise continuously, steering the parties toward systemic existential confrontation.  America has historically obliterated its opponents in such confrontations.  The zero-sum prospect pushes our rivals to ensure against defeat, spurring our efforts all the harder in a self-escalating cycle of contention.

Wyne raises a question we must face.  Can’t we state our goals without saying “China?”  Don’t we have our own purposes, regardless of any competition?  If not, we will constantly have to react to our rivals’ actions, ceding them the initiative to global affairs.  If so, we can define where we oppose them by our own priorities, issue by issue, not just because we are rivals.  

This blog’s answer is yes, America exists for a purpose that transcends any rivalry, or friendship.  The nation conceived itself in 1776 as a new “People,” identified only aa “We,” who hold certain “Truths.”  That holding, voiced in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, is America’s founding creed and the definition of national identity.  No other expression was offered before or since.  The Constitution was promulgated by “We the People of the United States of America;” the nation already existed.   John Calhoun’s concept – that the “union” was premised on each state’s consent to any federal action – was eradicated in Civil War.  Lincoln dedicated the war to ensure that the nation as conceived in 1776 would “long endure.”  And in 1947 Kennan invoked our best traditions as the ultimate key to our survival. 

The Declaration’s creed defines our nature, and our core national interest.  Like the concept of great power competition, it does not in itself yield policy prescriptions.  It does set a limitation to the interests we pursue.  A nation of liberated people will hold interests good and bad, but a nation committed to a creed must only pursue the interests that fit that creed. 

Beyond this limit, we must couch policies and doctrines in terms of the Declaration’s creed.  The terms need clear understanding: the creed is abstract and nuanced.  As a first point, moral essence requires living vessels.  Our creed lives in American individuals and our nation-state, which have profane interests that we cannot dismiss.  Our rivalry with China is real, and much of our contention is over “lower” but often vital interests.  As a second point, though, our creed is bedrock rather than edifice.  To embody our creed America needs a tangible environment that nurtures people’s capacity to live by their rights, In security and well being. There lies an affirmative American purpose.  Different doctrines have served this purpose in different circumstances.  Isolationism shielded us as a young power; under Containment we overcame the Soviet challenge.  

This purpose does not require eradication of any given rival unless that rival is irreconcilable and poses an existential threat to our creedal vessel.  The Soviet Union and the Nazis did carry that menace.  But presuming that a rival fits that bill makes relations a zero-sum game from the outset.  Presumption could create an existential confrontation which otherwise would not exist.  Unnecessary existential competition will tend to detract from security and well being.

To avert the specter of actual Sino-American war, Australian statesman Kevin Rudd prescribes, in his recent book, a “managed strategic competition” between the two.  He calls for three steps.  First, he wants the two to delineate their “irreducible strategic redlines,” to ensure against unintended triggering of full scale war.  Second, strategic competition would continue within those bounds, but now in a way that pushes both to “maximize their … appeal to the rest of the world.”  Third, in this new atmosphere, “political space” would evolve in which collaboration on defined matters could arise.  

Rudd’s knowledge of both countries gives credence that his proposal could de-escalate Sino-American tensions.  He does note that the two sides mistrust each other.  A discussion of irreducible redlines could just repeat current battle cries, America standing on Uyghur rights, Taiwanese autonomy and an end to cyber threats, and China on “non-interference” in nations’ internal affairs.  Ongoing events, witness Nancy Pelosi’s planned trip to Taiwan in August, will always arise.  Rudd believes mutual interest can push the two sides to dialogue.  But if a process to establish helpful redlines only circles back to prior intransigence, the exercise might only validate the idea that conflict and war are baked into human nature.

Is there a way to ease a first step?  A major source of mistrust is the difference in ideologies.  Rudd would leave the two to compete within the bounds of each other’s redlines.  But perhaps redlines would look different if the two sides first explained their precepts to each other, as core aspirations.  “Ideology” carries a sense of sanctified commitment and intransigence.  Could explanation of precepts reveal points where contention is unnecessary?

Assuming that both sides would enter into sincere talks, it may be possible to imagine discussants whose analyses could credibly explain the conduct of their respective governments, yet could engage at a philosophical level.  A Chinese philosopher, Tong Dong Bai, has written revealingly “Against Political Equality,” and even proposes a bicameral legislature that resembles America’s Congress before direct election of Senators.  Could someone of such a perspective speak for the Chinese nation or government?

From America’s standpoint, who really understands our fundamental purpose and can explain how our conduct reflects it, or why it fails to when that is the case?   Who could actually speak for the nation overall, uncolored by political partisanship or occupational focus?  Perhaps America has to have this discussion first.  Even if no philosophical dialogue with China is possible, even if no redline exchange can help, America will fulfill its own purposes better if we know our purposes.  Then, any engagement with any rival, any stance toward the world, can be explained in durable, non-partisan, credible terms.  Policy would gain an orientation point that responds to who we are rather than what we fear.

Perhaps any dialogue with China can only occur in hard nosed bargaining over tangible stakes.  But just maybe, if we know our own mind, we can select where and how we pursue any competition, by our lights.  Just maybe China or any rival, even we ourselves, will see America’s deep purposes better.

Those purposes may not be easy for other societies and regimes to deal with.  But even as we must grow further into our creed at home, we carry it into the world.  At heart, the Declaration’s creed calls for people to be able to live by their own lights.  Advancing that ethos into the future is our purpose, by finding practices that keep us following and nurturing its spirit.  Policy to China or anyone else will serve larger ends.


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