Many argue that to contain or defeat China in this new Cold War, the United States must commit resources not only to our navy ships, nuclear weapons, and research and development but also to our tools for waging an ideological fight in defense of freedom, democracy and human rights.
Meanwhile, protesters in dozens of U.S. cities care little if at all about the Chinese communist threat. They are waging their own very real ideological fight for human rights, the rule of law and democracy in the United States.
But it’s those protesters who are the natural ideological allies of national security analysts and officials seeking to engage in a contest of ideas with China. Those trying to contain Chinese Communist Party ideas around the globe should be taking a knee with peaceful protesters, including in Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House.
Along many dimensions, the Cold War analogy distorts more than it illuminates U.S.-China relations today. Yes, China is a rising power and the second most powerful state in the international system today. But on most measures of power, including military capacity, gross domestic product per capita, higher education or foreign allies, the People’s Republic of China has a long way to go before catching up to the United States.
Yes, Chinese leaders seek to change existing international institutions, but their ambitions to date far outpace their achievements. Yes, there is an ideological dimension to U.S.-Chinese competition: Chinese leaders champion their model of autocratic, state-led development as an alternative to liberal democracy. But unlike the Soviets, the Chinese Communist Party is not exporting or imposing communism, and it has mostly deployed peaceful means to propagate ideas abroad. The United States and the Soviet Union fought proxy wars all over the world in which millions of people died. Thankfully, that feature of the Cold War has no parallel today.
There nonetheless remains an ideological component to U.S.-China relations today. And on that front, we are slipping. When a U.S. police officer commits murder, we fail to live up to our ideals of defending human rights and rule of law, offering our Chinese communist competitors an opening to discredit our system of government. When the First Amendment rights of peaceful protesters are violated, Chinese propagandists are handed fresh arguments for whataboutism. When our president threatens to deploy the military to “restore law and order,” we undermine our credibility to criticize Chinese Communist Party officials when they call for "restoring law and order” in Hong Kong. Statements from U.S. officials remembering the Tiananmen Square massacre will have less moral sway today because of current domestic events. And when Americans devote our all of our energies to fighting battles with each other, we retreat from engagement with the outside world, and have no time or attention for supporting small d-democrats fighting for freedom in autocracies.
In the past few days, several commentators have invoked 1968 as the proper historical parallel for our current tragic moment. It’s worth remembering that 1968 was a banner year for the Soviet Union. In 1968, the embrace of communist ideas was growing around the developing world, throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America. U.S. leaders were consumed with domestic struggles over civil rights and the Vietnam War, which Soviet propagandists exploited relentlessly. Our domestic distractions produced an impotent response from President Lyndon Johnson to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. That year, the “correlation of forces,” to invoke an old Soviet term, seemed to be moving against us and toward our enemy.
In the long run, however, 1968 helped to end U.S. overextension in Vietnam and gradually nurture democratic renewal at home. To compete more effectively with the new Chinese ideological challenge, we need the same now.
Making choke holds by police officers illegal is an element of our contest of ideas with China. Stopping the arrest of innocent protesters, affirming our commitment to the First Amendment and ending violence against journalists at home will help the country better meet the ideological challenge of the Chinese Communist Party. Conversely, promoting or even passively acquiescing to creeping authoritarian proclivities of President Trump or others will only damage our abilities to defend democratic ideas abroad, including in our relations with China.
If you want to help win the ideological struggle with the Communist Party of China, help seek justice for George Floyd.