In a recent column that U.S. policymakers and observers should consider closely, Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh posits that a new external challenger to the United States could again “make domestic antagonism seem beside the point”. Such a foe could have the additionally salutary effect of imparting greater discipline to U.S. foreign policy. In 1994, on his 90th birthday, the diplomat and historian George Kennan remarked that the Soviet Union’s dissolution had deprived Washington of “a guide for our responses” to “a world full of squabbles, conflicts and violent encounters.”
It is not immediately apparent, though, that China’s resurgence will prove to have a comparably galvanizing effect: Where Cold War-era Moscow was an existential challenger with which Washington had little in the way of socioeconomic exchanges, present-day Beijing is a selective revisionist with which it has significant cultural and commercial linkages. It is easier to mobilize public opinion and overcome policy inertia when aiming to counterbalance a nuclear antagonist with pretensions to a universal ideology than when seeking to manage a complex competitor with at most an inchoate conception of an alternative world order.
In addition, “internal cohesion” could actually prove to be counterproductive if it facilitates misguided policy, whether a unilateral attempt to contain China or an alarmist effort to match each of Beijing’s declared strategies and objectives. If, however, the prospect of long-term bilateral competition compels the United States to invest anew in its competitive strengths—including its ecosystem of innovation and its network of alliances—and recommit to modernizing the postwar order, U.S. historians a generation hence may express gratitude to China for mollifying America’s political polarization and slowing its strategic drift.
Ali Wyne is a foreign policy analyst.