Vance Serchuk is the executive director of the KKR Global Institute and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
Unfortunately, the embrace of great-power competition comes with a critical caveat. Both parties’ enthusiasm for the concept abruptly ends when it requires doing something politically hard.
Despite solemn warnings about the enormity of the China threat, the policies it is inspiring have been mostly feel-good: promises of new U.S. manufacturing jobs and condemnations of Beijing’s transgressions. On initiatives that might discomfit voters or influential interest groups, on the other hand, Washington demurs — even when these are exactly what a serious competitive strategy requires.
Consider trade. America’s friends in the Indo-Pacific have been vocal in warning that the rules of commerce in their region will be rewritten by Beijing unless Washington negotiates its own deals. Yet Democrats and Republicans alike have largely fled this challenge in recent years, viewing it as too politically fraught.
Thus even as the Biden administration has moved to reenter multilateral agreements rejected by President Donald Trump, such as the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear framework, it has stayed aloof from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The 11-nation trade pact originally envisioned to cement U.S. economic leadership against China has instead become symbolic of its limits.
It is a similar story with immigration.
If Washington has an asymmetric edge in long-term competition with China, it is that anyone can come to the United States and become an American, whereas Beijing must rely exclusively on the talents of its native-born population. Immigration also helps the United States avoid the demographic decline that afflicts other advanced economies — another advantage against an aging China.
Here, too, whatever the threat from China that Republicans perceive, for many it is apparently insufficient to risk provoking the wrath of nativists. Meanwhile, some left-wing Democrats insist on treating immigration as a humanitarian rather than strategic issue. The result is another case of national self-sabotage.
Then there is defense policy. It’s no secret what the U.S. military requires to shore up the deteriorating power balance in the Indo-Pacific: more spending on disruptive capabilities while cutting back on costly legacy assets less relevant in a China fight.
Yet those traditional platforms invariably have congressional backers, for whom they represent home-state jobs, as well as entrenched defenders inside the Pentagon. Consequently, the United States keeps buying more manned fighter aircraft, aircraft carriers and helicopters of dubious value, at the expense of transformative bets on networks of smaller, cheaper unmanned systems that lack a political constituency.
The military also needs predictable budgets that grow well above inflation, as meticulously detailed by the congressionally mandated National Defense Strategy Commission. Instead, it seems all but certain to start the next fiscal year saddled by another continuing resolution, followed by a budget that will decline in real-dollar terms.
And good luck engaging either party about how to pay for its respective China agenda. The recent Senate bill mostly dodges this question by authorizing rather than appropriating the bulk of its mandate. Though Democrats and Republicans advocate more spending in order to compete with Beijing, neither party has shown any willingness to reconsider its orthodoxy on taxes.
Contrast all of this with the early Cold War, when competition with the Soviet Union truly did alter the laws of political gravity in Washington.
Faced with an aggressive Kremlin, U.S. officials made the case for policies that previously would have been anathema. Former isolationists, such as Arthur Vandenberg, came around to champion NATO and the Marshall Plan, while the U.S. Army and Navy were forced, despite bitter rivalry, to accept grudging coexistence inside a unified Pentagon.
Rivalry with communism even helped tip the scales in the struggle against state-sanctioned segregation, which Washington suddenly saw as a vulnerability in the contest for moral high ground with Moscow.
Today, too, the proper test of America’s seriousness about great-power competition is not the willingness of leaders to promote ideas that are politically popular, but to tackle those that are genuinely difficult. Judged by that standard, the United States is still not rising to the China challenge.
In his memoirs, Henry Kissinger relates how, on a visit to China 50 years ago as U.S. national security adviser, he was upset to see virulently anti-American posters in his government-furnished guesthouse. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai reassured him, dismissing the communist propaganda as “firing an empty cannon” meant for domestic consumption.
Washington now thunders with rhetorical fusillades against China. But will U.S. leaders invest real political capital behind their tough talk? Until then, some of America’s most powerful cannons will be empty.