The phantom menace of a "new Cold War" with China

Why left-wing fear-mongering about competition with Beijing misses the point

In recent weeks and months, many self-proclaimed progressives have rushed to the barricades in an attempt to ward off what they say amounts to a “new Cold War” with China and its ruling Communist Party. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) recent article in Foreign Affairs provides the latest example of this misguided impulse – one rooted in long-standing patterns of foreign policy thinking among many on the progressive left.

Along with other progressives, Sanders makes a number of explicit and implicit assumptions about U.S. policy toward China:

  1. The United States and China share clear and obvious common interests in tackling the sorts of global problems identified as important by Sanders and many progressives. 

  2. The United States remains the most significant – if not the only – stumbling block to bilateral cooperation. 

  3. Cooperation and competition between the United States and China are mutually exclusive propositions – if the United States and China compete with one another, they cannot cooperate.

None of these assumptions pass muster.

Take the list of issues where Sanders sees the need for Sino-American cooperation: “climate change, pandemics, nuclear proliferation, massive economic inequality, terrorism, corruption, authoritarianism.” It’s manifestly unclear, for instance, why a Chinese Communist Party obsessed with maintaining its own grip on power would seek to undermine the authoritarian political system that keeps it there. Similarly, the Chinese government defines its ongoing campaign of genocide against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang as a prophylactic counterterrorism measure. Nor has the Chinese government proven particularly forthcoming or cooperative during the COVID-19 pandemic: Beijing has tried to obstruct the delivery of vaccines to Taiwan, sowed disinformation about American- and European-made vaccines, and “stonewalled” international investigations into the origins of the pandemic.

Nor is it evident that competition between the United States and China necessarily and by definition rules out bilateral cooperation on areas of actually existing mutual interest. It’s already clear that Beijing remains willing to cooperate with the United States on climate change, for instance, despite acrimonious diplomatic exchanges and contentious disputes on other important issues. Moreover, strenuous competition between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War never foreclosed cooperation between the two superpowers on matters ranging from arms control to space exploration.

Specifics aside, the interventions on China policy by Sanders and other purported progressives demonstrate the weaknesses inherent in their general thinking about foreign policy. It’s a worldview that prefers oppositional politics to the formulation of constructive policy alternatives, one that typically sees the United States as the main or only morally responsible force in international affairs and often fails to take into account the motives and goals of other nations. All in all, it’s a mindset that leaves Sanders and other alleged progressives bereft of real answers to the actual foreign policy challenges confronting the United States today. 

At the same time, though, it’s a distinct view with a history stretching back at least a century and animated by three main instincts:

  1. The default position. Coined by the heterodox left-wing political philosopher Michael Walzer, the “default position” describes the tendency of leftists to eschew actual thinking about foreign policy in favor of an almost exclusive focus on their preferred domestic policies. As Walzer puts it, the default position argues that “the best foreign policy is a good domestic policy.” In some idioms, it assumes a prophetic guise: the notion Walzer derives from the Hebrew Bible that establishing a “just society” at home will allow the United States to serve as a beacon to other nations. The default position courses through the arguments made by Sanders and other progressives about China. For them, America does not actually need a China policy or even a foreign policy, for that matter; it merely needs to enact the domestic policies preferred by the contemporary left and sit still.

  2. Self-absorption. Deeply intertwined with the default position is a form of self-centeredness that effectively views the United States as the only morally responsible actor in world affairs. Other countries cannot help but react to whatever the United States does or doesn’t do; their policies remain wholly dependent on the actions and rhetoric of the United States. If Beijing simply reacts to whatever the United States does, then it makes sense for Sanders and other self-proclaimed progressives to assert that all America needs to do is express a willingness for cooperation with China to make it so. But the Chinese government doesn’t simply react to American policies; like any other government, it takes actions to pursue its own priorities and interests – and will do so regardless of how ardently the United States may want to cooperate on certain issues.

  3. Oppositional politics. Knowing more what they’re against than what they support, many progressives fail to offer constructive alternatives to the policies they oppose. In certain discrete cases, that can be enough – but it’s a shaky foundation for an overall worldview. Today’s purported progressives do not actually offer an alternative policy approach to China. Instead, they put forward a bill of complaints about a Biden administration approach that supposedly prioritizes “corporate greed and militarism” and “inflames bigotry” coupled with a call for more attention to the domestic policies preferred by Sanders and other progressives. There’s precious little discussion of what American policy towards Beijing should actually entail beyond a generic call for cooperation on pressing global issues – and all that’s necessary to make that cooperation a reality is an American desire to do so with a China that’s assumed to be receptive to any overtures it receives from the United States.

In the ongoing debate over the shape and nature of America’s foreign policy, today’s progressives have convinced themselves that they offer a compelling new approach to the world. But in reality, they provide little more than the same worldview they have for decades – one no more persuasive now than it was in the past.

Indeed, it’s hard to see the allegedly progressive approach to China offered by Sanders and others catching on with the American public. In one recent survey, the idea that China was America’s “biggest economic competitor” garnered widespread consensus among all American voters. While Americans didn’t see “taking on China’s military and economic aggression” as an immediate foreign policy priority, they ranked cooperation with China and Russia on climate change dead last among twenty possible policy ideas.

It’s cliché to say that America’s relationship with China will be a mix of competition and cooperation moving forward, but it’s true. For the time being, that mix will likely be more heavily weighted in the direction of competition. But as we’re already seeing on climate change, cooperation between the United States and China remains possible in the midst of fierce competition – just as cooperation between the United States and Soviet Union was possible during the Cold War. 

In diplomacy as in dancing, it ultimately takes two to tango.