In our strategic competition with China, Americans have focused up until now on economic and military contests — at the expense of one of the most important tools in our arsenal. The 2017 National Security Strategy argues that the United States is locked in “fundamentally political contests between those who favor repressive systems and those who favor free societies.” But we are ignoring this important insight. If the United States fails to emphasize the ideological dimension of its competition with China, it will ignore one of the primary lessons of President Ronald Reagan’s twilight struggle with the Soviet Union.
Reagan understood the primacy of the political. While his ideological offensive was less heralded than his military buildup, it was no less important. It targeted the foundation of Soviet identity: Marxist-Leninism. As the United States again grapples with a challenge to its principles and its power, it will have to relearn the lost art of ideological warfare. Only by challenging the basic legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party can the United States win this competition, and thereby ensure the survival of the free, open and prosperous world that Reagan did so much to foster.
In 1977, Reagan described a simple goal to end the Cold War: “We win and they lose.” His vision was radical at that time — it challenged the prevailing consensus that the Soviet Union was a permanent part of the landscape. But upon entering office four years later, he set about creating a framework for victory. His administration issued a national security directive in 1983 that argued, “U.S. policy must have an ideological thrust which clearly affirms the superiority of U.S. and Western values of individual dignity and freedom, a free press, free trade unions, free enterprise, and political democracy over the repressive features of Soviet Communism.”
It was a “clear break from the past,” wrote its lead author, Richard Pipes. “Our goal was no longer to coexist with the Soviet Union but to change the Soviet system.”
Reagan had laid the intellectual foundation of this approach months earlier in the House of Commons. Criticizing the “shyness of some of us in the West” in standing for “ideals that have done so much to ease the plight of man and the hardships of our imperfect world,” Reagan called on the citizens of the world’s democracies to be “worthy of freedom and determined not only to remain so but to help others gain their freedom as well.”
That 1982 address marked the purest distillation of Reagan’s ideological offensive against the Soviet Union. Expressing his support for Solidarity, the independent Polish trade union movement, Reagan invoked the historic Polish motto, “for our freedom and yours.” He declared that “we the people of the Free World stand as one with our Polish brothers and sisters. Their cause is ours.”
Reagan made similar arguments time and again over the ensuing years. In May 1988, he had the chance to prosecute his case against Marxist-Leninism in the heart of the Soviet Union. In what a New York Times editorial called Reagan’s “finest rhetorical hour,” he told an audience at Moscow State University what Americans mean by freedom.
"That's hard to do without turning pious or stale. Yet he was stirring,” the editorial argued. “When people some day look back on the milestones of the Cold War, they are likely to remember the day Ronald Reagan extolled freedom, while Lenin looked on."
If some in the audience had been expecting to hear hard-line anti-communist rhetoric, they had not been paying attention to Reagan’s ideological war. Rather than directly criticizing the Soviet government, he criticized bureaucracy everywhere while emphasizing commonalities between the Russian and American peoples. He talked about things more fun and fundamental than politics, like technology, literature, movies and religion. In fact, the word “communism” did not appear anywhere in his speech. The word “freedom,” on the other hand, appeared 23 times.
Reagan’s goal was, of course, subversive. The point was to plant within the audience the understanding that freedom was a fundamental human right, as inalienable for Russians as it was for Americans. As Reagan described it, “Freedom is the recognition that no single person, no single authority or government has a monopoly on the truth, but that every individual life is infinitely precious, that every one of us put on this world has been put there for a reason and has something to offer.”
While the glasnost-era Moscow State audience was in a receptive mood, this was not an accident. Russia scholar Leon Aaron has argued that even more than stagnant economic conditions, a sense of moral collapse among Soviet leadership paved the way for glasnost and perestroika. Reagan’s ideological offensive was designed to exacerbate exactly this kind of crisis of legitimacy.
A year and a half after Reagan preached the gospel of freedom in Moscow, the Cold War was over.
History, unfortunately, did not end. The very year Europe saw a new beginning with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, a continent away to the east, a different totalitarian adversary was doubling down on its instruments of oppression, beginning in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
The Soviet collapse has not been lost on Xi Jinping. The most interesting conclusion concerning the end of the U.S.S.R. by the general secretary of China’s Communist Party is that the Soviets were insufficiently dedicated to ideology. According to Xi, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union became corrupted by wealth, leading to a loss of faith and political legitimacy. As Xi put it: “The wavering of idealistic faith is the most dangerous form of wavering. A political party’s decline often starts with the loss or lack of idealistic faith.”
Xi’s goal is to invoke Marxism-Leninism as a source of domestic legitimacy. After all, when faith in the party flags, the entire system risks collapse. Xi’s challenge, to continually convince 1.4 billion people that the party should remain in power and to persuade foreign governments that they should partner with his ethnocentric totalitarian government, is no small task. It would be great power competition malpractice for the United States to fail in making Xi’s efforts more difficult.
To wage a Reagan-style ideological offensive against China’s communist government, the United States must first promote its track record and values as a direct contrast to the CCP. America’s diplomatic and development achievements are an indispensable public diplomacy asset that China’s Communist leaders cannot hope to match. As Reagan was fond of arguing, even former adversaries, once incorporated into the American-led international community, have prospered economically and politically. America’s historic magnanimity is especially potent in light of the CCP’s growing reputation for debt traps, economic coercion and regional bullying.
Highlighting divergent records and values is critical because, as one Chinese academic wrote in 2011, “the core of competition between China and the United States will be to see who has more high-quality friends.” Xi and his cadres are working daily to turn American allies neutral, and to get neutral states to lean toward China. Despite well-publicized financial risks associated with Chinese investment, if this calculation comes down to a strictly economic decision, investment-starved nations are unlikely to turn down Xi’s offer. America’s challenge is to make a values-driven ideological case that the downsides of aligning with China are not worth the cheap capital.
Secondly, the United States can make it more difficult for the CCP to use emerging technologies to exercise domestic political control. Taking a page from the Reagan administration’s emphasis on blocking the transfer of sensitive technologies to the Soviet Union, Congress could take up legislation that would block U.S. exports from supporting party-directed firms such as Huawei and ZTE, and deny sales of critical technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum computing. The private sector should chip in, too. Silicon Valley should exclude technology partnerships with Chinese entities that are likely to exacerbate human rights abuses and promote the party’s surveillance state.
Finally, U.S. policymakers must differentiate between the Chinese people and the Chinese Communist Party. Just as Reagan sympathized with and supported Soviet citizens against the system that oppressed them, the United States must make it clear it has no quarrel with the people of China. Vice President Pence hit the right note last October when he emphasized CCP oppression, including of religious minorities. The key is to demonstrate, in ways that resonate with the Chinese people, that the party is their oppressor and not their champion. At every opportunity, U.S. policymakers should highlight the concentration camps of Xinjiang and make the case that this arbitrary mass detention and pervasive surveillance state is the logical conclusion of a corrupt regime.
Discrediting the CCP in the eyes of the world and the Chinese people will not be an easy process. Neither was opening up the Soviet Union. But the million or more courageous Hong Kong residents who are standing up to the CCP in defense of their remaining freedoms should give us cause for long-term optimism. While it may be too much to hope for similar protests across the mainland anytime soon, the 30th anniversary of both Tiananmen and the fall of the Berlin Wall reminds us that totalitarians are frequently less secure than they outwardly appear.
The United States may be in an earlier stage of its great power competition than Reagan was during the Moscow spring of 1988, but his road map to victory is no less relevant today. By rediscovering the lost art of ideological warfare, the United States can live up to Reagan’s legacy and ensure that the Chinese Communist Party joins the Soviet Union on the ash heap of history.