The United States Can’t Stay a Great Power Without Beating Threats at Home

Before taking on challengers like China, Washington must put its own house in order.

A large group of supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump raise signs and flags on the grounds of the Capitol
A large group of supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump raise signs and flags on the grounds of the Capitol building in Washington on Jan. 6. Jon Cherry/Getty Images

Today, the gravest threats to U.S. national security come not from foreign adversaries and strategic competitors but from extremists and domestic terrorists who are attempting to subvert American democracy in support of President Donald Trump. The United States, once regarded—if sometimes chiefly in its own eyes—as the global champion of democracy, has grossly failed to achieve a peaceful transfer of power.

The invitation and encouragement of such mobs by Trump and his enablers in Congress has provoked violence and sedition in the Capitol in which only America’s adversaries can rejoice. Even in urging violent rioters to “go home in peace,” Trump continued to claim falsely the election had been “stolen” and was “fraudulent.”

The future of American democracy appears disturbingly precarious, and the damage of the past four years may take decades to repair. Not since the Civil War has white supremacy so threatened the American republic. At the height of the crisis on Jan. 6, the phrase “civil war” was trending on Twitter as violent insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, interrupting the certification of the results of the Electoral College.

Yet even in the face of such urgent dangers to the security and integrity of U.S. national security, certain American politicians and policymakers continue to assert that the primary dangers to the United States and its national security come from China. To be sure, China’s rise presents significant challenges to the United States and to American leadership, yet to point to a foreign adversary or competitor as the chief threat when there is such shameful sedition at home is at best terribly discordant. As during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the civil rights challenge at home undercuts any moral claims abroad—something that once helped spur activists in the United States to make their country better.

Over the past four years, American strategy has concentrated on “great-power competition” as a priority. But from today we should be more concerned about great-power self-destruction, as the failures of leadership during the Trump administration and attempted sabotage of our democracy by right-wing extremists continues, in ways that can also benefit Beijing.

[To read FP’s ongoing coverage of the aftermath of the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol, click here.]

America’s approach to national security has been distorted in recent years by a pathological tendency to focus on threats from abroad at the expense of recognizing the risks and systemic failings at home. For instance, in December 2020, outgoing Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe declared in a commentary for the Wall Street Journal, “If I could communicate one thing to the American people from this unique vantage point, it is that the People’s Republic of China poses the greatest threat to America today, and the greatest threat to democracy and freedom world-wide since World War II.”

The cognitive dissonance produced is bizarre but predictable. As one case in point, while Congress was being evacuated in the face of threats of seditious right-wing violence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, also known for trying to restore what he dubbed U.S. diplomatic “swagger,” continued to warn about the threat of China and celebrate achievements of American diplomacy, tweeting about how Chinese telecommunications equipment “threatens our families and our security.”

Of course, there is also the blatant hypocrisy that many of the loudest voices calling for a hard-line approach on China throughout the Trump administration have also been deeply complicit in undermining American democracy in ways that play to Beijing’s benefit on the world stage. To take one example among many, Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican who has often been strident in condemning any “sellout to China,” was silent in the face of violence by a mob that his objections to Electoral College certification contributed to instigating—and when later condemning the violence he repeated the false claims that had stoked it.

There has been an unprecedented politicization of U.S. policy on China during and since the 2020 election campaign, and this is likely to continue. Already, supposedly serious defense thinkers are criticizing President-elect Joe Biden on the grounds that his transition team may take an insufficiently hard-line approach to China. For instance, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio critiqued Biden’s choices for nominees to national security positions as “polite & orderly caretakers of America’s decline,” ignoring the degree to which America’s decline has been already dramatically accelerated by the abuses of a president he has been unwilling to confront.

While many in the Republican Party are quick to point to the evils of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and blame China for any ill, the party’s authoritarian tendencies are often reminiscent of the CCP itself. Beyond the praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping that Trump has articulated, Trump too has called for “patriotic education,” and there is also a cult of personality emerging around the U.S. president from his hard-line supporters.

Beijing could never dream of achieving such damage to U.S. unity, power, and image as Trump and his enablers have overseen. The architects and proponents of Trump’s policies on China may be poised to remain prominent in future debates on U.S.-China relations, yet his enablers and those complicit in his damage to American democracy should have no credibility or standing in debates on future American strategy or U.S.-China relations.

During the Trump administration, many within the Republican Party have sought to ignore or excuse abuses at home while talking up values and democracy abroad. Certainly, questions of values and ideology are at the heart of U.S.-China rivalry on the world stage. The CCP has defended and at times promoted its party-state model as an alternative in ways that endanger the future of democracy internationally. The CCP has also directed the grossest of abuses, including the genocide in Xinjiang and crackdowns in Hong Kong.

However, U.S. civil rights issues and abuses of human rights at home can undercut moral claims and exhortations abroad. Such dynamics once helped to drive activists in the United States to ensure their country more truly lived up to its principles in practice during the Cold War. So too, today, only a reckoning at home can bolster America’s capacity to defend human rights and partner with like-minded democracies internationally.

By Beijing’s reckoning, the United States is in decline and weakened by the turbulence of the past four years. The Chinese Communist Party has pointed to “profound changes unseen in a century,” including the relative decline of the United States and increasing internationalization.

Communist Party propaganda has often pointed to the relative success of China’s response to the pandemic as an indicator of its “institutional advantage.” By contrast, the United States is seen and readily portrayed as chaotic and weakened. This is hardly the most serious problem of the moment, but it is still a real one. Such propaganda is most effective when reality provides ample ammunition. Beijing views competition between the United States and China today is a rivalry of institutions, a clash of systems that can center upon ideological struggle. Today, Washington is losing that battle.

Americans cannot compete with autocrats with any prospects for success when their democracy so hangs in the balance. The United States cannot compete successfully when elements within the Republican Party are autocratic themselves and dependent upon strategies of voter suppression and disinformation to cling to power. Nor can the United States present a favorable alternative when chaotic and weakened from within.

Americans’ understanding of national security and national interests is skewed and dangerously so. The United States cannot point to foreign adversaries at the expense of recognizing the systemic failures and problems at home. America’s own house must be set in order first, through policies that center upon promoting the resilience of its system and society.

Elsa B. Kania is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University. Her research primarily concentrates on U.S.-China relations, Chinese military modernization, and emerging technologies. Her views are her own. Twitter: @EBKania

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