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Trump Is in Denial—and America Is Unsafe

A house divided against itself can’t compete on the world stage.

President Donald Trump leaves Number 10 Downing Street after a reception on December 3, 2019 in London.
President Donald Trump leaves Number 10 Downing Street after a reception on December 3, 2019 in London. Leon Neal/Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump’s refusal to concede that he lost the election—a stance that has received support from officials such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior Republican leaders such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Lindsey Graham—reveals a blithe disregard for its foreign-policy and national security implications. Continuing to challenge President-elect Joe Biden’s decisive victory (based, I emphasize, on counting the same ballots that elected lots of Republican senators and representatives) does further damage to democratic institutions and will weaken the United States relative to other countries. Those who continue to pursue this course are acting as if the United States has no vital interests to defend, faces no serious challenges to those interests, and doesn’t have to worry about a goddamned thing occurring beyond its borders.

If the United States were the only country on earth, then Trump’s head-in-the-sand delusions, lame legal challenges, refusal to help Biden’s transition team prepare for the transfer of power, and petulant 11th-hour purge of top national security officials might be written off as the final childish tantrums of a tragically flawed human being. Americans could just ride out the last two months of Trump’s Lear-like ravings and then move on.

But that’s not the world we live in, and the GOP’s willingness to indulge Trump’s dangerous fantasies is, if anything, more alarming. The GOP used to portray itself (rightly or wrongly) as better at foreign policy and national security than the Democrats; today it is acting as if competing effectively with others no longer matters at all.

Reality check: We still live a world of anarchy, where no central authority exists to protect states from each other (or from their own follies). It is still a self-help world where each state must rely primarily on its own capabilities and strategies (including, when appropriate, cooperating with others) to preserve the security and well-being of its citizens. Anything that makes it harder for the United States to perform those tasks—such as refusing to let a president-elect get intelligence briefings or appointing comically unqualified people to positions of grave responsibility—can only undermine its global position. It is the sort of thing Americans like to see happen to their adversaries, but not to themselves.

This matters greatly because we are no longer living in the “unipolar moment.” When the United States stood unchallenged at the pinnacle of power, it could afford a certain carelessness (not to mention hubris) in the conduct of foreign policy. A cavalier and unrealistic approach to foreign policy wasn’t desirable, mind you, but the consequences for the United States were bearable given the enormous advantages it already enjoyed.

Today, however, an increasingly powerful and ambitious China is seeking to challenge the comfortable position of power and influence that the United States has enjoyed for decades. It will be a far more formidable rival than the Soviet Union ever was. China’s population is more than four times larger, its economy is roughly the same size and growing at a faster rate, and its model of state capitalism is vastly more efficient than either the old Soviet model of central planning or the disastrous development policies of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong. China weathered the 2008 financial crisis better than most other states, and while its mishandling of the initial coronavirus outbreak helped spread the pandemic worldwide, its response since then has been far more effective than the United States’. Unlike the Soviet Union, which consistently lagged the West in most areas of science and technology, China has a fair shot of competing with the United States in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and other areas of advanced technology on which future power and wealth will likely depend. An economic and geopolitical rivalry with China is serious business, yet Americans are spending their time and political energies arguing about whether to wear masks in the midst of a pandemic. Who do they think they are kidding?

One can argue, as Michael Beckley does, that China’s strengths are exaggerated and that the United States still enjoys a sizable lead over its Asian rival. The trend lines are still running against it, however, and even Beckley acknowledges that U.S. primacy will not last if U.S. leaders keep making mistakes and fail to marshal the nation’s advantages effectively.  Alternatively, one can assume—as some progressives and libertarians do—that China’s ascendance does not matter very much, because the United States is still an ocean away, still has thousands of nuclear weapons to deter a direct attack, and would still be pretty well-off even if Beijing has more influence over the shape of the emerging global order than Washington does.  But they should at least consider whether ceding influence in this way would be wholly benign: If China turns out to be as ambitious and heavy-handed as the United States was over the past 50 years or more, Americans might find adapting to a Chinese-centric world decidedly uncomfortable. One need not replace the failed strategy of liberal hegemony with passive acquiescence to China’s rise.

To be clear: Acknowledging that Sino-American rivalry will be intense and prolonged does not reduce the United States’ need to cooperate with Beijing when their interests align. Climate change may be a more serious threat to U.S. interests than a shifting balance of power, for example, which is why Washington and Beijing must address this problem together even as they compete in other areas. Developing arrangements that preserve the gains from trade while safeguarding other interests is highly desirable as well. Americans also need to recognize that they cannot prevent a wealthier and more powerful China from exerting more global influence than it did when it was vastly weaker. The question is how the United States can make sure that the balance of power does not tilt too far in China’s direction, while avoiding major war. A tall order, perhaps, but not an impossible one.

So if U.S. officials were taking this competition seriously, what would they do?

First, both parties, instead of just one, would be stressing the need for national unity, and Republicans would have been quick to acknowledge the results of the election. Biden has made it clear that he wants to heal the partisan divisions that are weakening the country, because he understands that the country cannot compete if Americans see their fellow citizens as a greater threat than any foreign rival. Instead of turning mask-wearing into a matter of a partisan contention, leading politicians from both parties would be encouraging everyone to make this exceedingly modest sacrifice for the good of the nation as a whole.

In particular, healing the United States’ current divisions would require calling out leaders and other public figures who are actively and intentionally reinforcing them, and making it clear to all that their efforts are inherently unpatriotic. This is a tricky task, of course, because those who level such accusations can themselves be accused of trying to divide the country further, and U.S. leaders should still welcome dissent and encourage lively but respectful debate on important political issues. But there is a crucial difference between principled disagreements about concrete policy issues (e.g., the size of a stimulus or whether the country should remain in Afghanistan) and the scorched-earth obstructionism, norm-breaking, and factually challenged discourse that began in the 1990s and has reached new heights under Trump.

Second, if U.S. leaders were serious, they would be working to reinforce all the sinews of national power: their people, their economy, their infrastructure, and their relations with the rest of the world. Instead of attacking the Affordable Care Act, they’d be trying to strengthen it, because a healthier population will be a more productive one. They’d be increasing spending on scientific research, instead of cutting it, and politicians would not cast doubt on scientific expertise of all kinds. Instead of making it harder for talented foreigners to work in the United States—especially in high-tech fields—they’d go back to encouraging a brain drain in their favor.

Third, in a United States that took global competition seriously, the Trump administration would be following the example set by every one of its predecessors and be working to ensure a smooth handoff to Biden and his team. Nobody likes losing, but public officials are responsible to more than their own egos. How does it help the United States to make the next president less able to fight a pandemic, confront adversaries, work with allies, and avoid costly errors or delays? Should Americans have to wait longer for a vaccine to be available because the Trump administration refused to help Biden prepare for its distribution?

Lastly, if as a country Americans recognized that interstate competition will not end in their lifetimes, they would take a hard look at the global balance of power and set realistic priorities. Gone are the days when the United States could aspire to play the dominant role in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East simultaneously, and to use its economic and military power to try to spread liberal ideals around the globe. Counterbalancing China should be its top priority, which means striking a new division of labor with its European allies and strengthening ties with partners in Asia. The United States should also pursue business-like relations with all states in the Middle East, instead of special relationships with a few and unremittingly hostile relations with others.  China and Russia talk to everyone in the region, and this approach gives them greater influence with all of them. Washington should do the same.

I do not know if the United States can summon the sense of common purpose and shared identity required to secure a safe and prosperous future for Americans. The divisions between Americans may be too deep, and their current crop of politicians (or their financial backers) may be too selfish and unprincipled to rise above party and personal ambition and recommit themselves to the greater good.  As I said 14 years ago: “Although geography, history, and good fortune have combined to give the United States a remarkable array of advantages, it would still be possible to squander them.” And if it does, I warned, “we will have only ourselves to blame.”

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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