For the past two years, the disconnect between the worldviews of the populist nationalists inside the Trump administration and everyone else in the wider foreign policy community has been palpable. On issues including NATO, Russia and trade policy, the divide between the Trump administration and foreign policy experts seems wider than ever.
For President Trump and his acolytes, this is a feature and not a bug. After all, populists argued that foreign policy had been dominated by out-of-touch elites for too long. Trump, in the only cogent foreign policy speech he gave as a candidate, pledged a more populist approach, saying, “I will seek a foreign policy that all Americans, whatever their party, can support.” And Trump was hardly the only person to stress the disconnect between foreign policy elites and the mass public.
There is, however, one burgeoning area of foreign policy consensus that unifies Trumpists, Democrats, realists, liberals and almost every foreign policy commentator out there: China. What is interesting is that this rare area of agreement does not include the American people.
Let’s start with the foreign policy consensus. The administration’s approach to China has, by Trump’s super-low standards, some actual thought behind it. Vice President Pence’s big speech on China last fall definitely caught the attention of China watchers. In that speech, Pence stated that “the American people deserve to know that, as we speak, Beijing is employing a whole-of-government approach, using political, economic, and military tools, as well as propaganda, to advance its influence and benefit its interests in the United States.” I have heard other senior administration officials sound equally hawkish on this point. The president’s decision to appoint U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer to be his point man for negotiating with China also demonstrates his hawkish approach. The administration’s push to block Huawei from building 5G networks in allied nations is part of this larger policy. It seems that a clear goal of this administration is to weaken the interdependence that exists between the two economies.
What is interesting is the degree to which everyone else sounds awfully similar to Trump administration officials regarding the bilateral relationship. Democrats sound similar to Trump on trade with China. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), for example, has been forthright in criticizing Chinese trade practices and its threat to the U.S.-created order.
Looking beyond partisanship, multiple schools of foreign policy thought agree that China merits a more forceful approach from the United States. Realists have been arguing for years that wars in the Middle East have distracted from the greater threat that a rising China poses to U.S. interests. Liberals have grown weary of China’s disregard for the global rules of the economic game and believe that some pushback is in order. Even U.S. businesses have grown exasperated with Xi Jinping’s autocratic turn and dubious economic policies. Commentators such as Josh Rogin and Tom Wright have vehemently opposed Trump at almost every turn but are concerned about China’s rise.
I do not mean to suggest that all of these schools of thought embrace Trump’s approach toward China. They disagree on means and tactics. Many outside the administration question the competency of those inside the administration who are executing such a high-stakes strategy. Nonetheless, disputes over the means should not blind us to consensus about the ends: This is a rare area of agreement between Trump, his partisan opponents and everyone else.
Everyone else, that is, except for the American people.
The polling data on this is clear. After two decades in which more Americans held an unfavorable attitude toward China, Gallup recorded a flip-flop in 2018. In a survey that highlighted partisan differences on foreign policy, Pew found Americans not worked up at all about China: “Reducing China’s power and influence is not a leading goal for either party.” Fears about China were particularly muted among younger respondents. Across the board, however, Pew found that fears about China trailed concerns about Russia, North Korea and Iran.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs’s 2018 polling (full disclosure: I’m on their advisory board) reveals a similar finding of minimal U.S. fear of China. Indeed, the lack of elevated concern was so clear that Karl Friedhoff and Craig Kafura wrote a whole memo about it. Among their findings: About 4 in 10 Americans (39 percent) said the development of China as a world power is a critical threat facing the United States. That placed it an underwhelming eighth out of 12 potential threats included in the survey. Furthermore, that number has essentially been unchanged for the past decade or so.
It is possible that the recent ratcheting up of tensions will focus the mind of Americans in 2019, but a January 2019 Ripon Society-commissioned poll suggests that it ain’t so. Indeed, they found instead that “a plurality of voters [42 percent] thinks the trade dispute with China will have a negative impact on their personal finances.”
I do not have a definitive answer for why the American public is not exercised about China. There are a lot of possible explanations, including fears of economic loss from continued conflict, distrust of all elites, or, maybe, the effect of Chinese efforts to shift American public attitudes that Pence referenced. The reasons are the topic for another day, perhaps many other days. For today, it is interesting to point out that China is a high-salience topic that unites populists, realists, liberals, Republicans and Democrats alike on foreign policy. And, yet, despite years of complaining that the American people need to weigh in on foreign policy, it turns out that they are completely unenthusiastic about this topic. That seems to merit further discussion.
In the meanwhile, so much for a foreign policy that all Americans can get behind.