The January 6, 2021 insurrection against the U.S. Government with the assault on the Congress and the illegal occupation of the capitol building exposed serious cracks in America’s own belief in its democratic principles. Americans have been questioning institutions, mistrust in media has been rising and racial divisiveness remains a huge problem. Against a backdrop of a growing nationalist movement which only exacerbates these issues, America’s identity as a liberal democracy is at a crossroads. The stakes are not just domestic. Authoritarian regimes sit on the horizon looking for any advantage in upsetting the U.S.-led world order. America’s strong rhetoric against China in both the previous and current administrations have framed China as America’s greatest foe. While rallying against a common enemy is easy for the American public to support, foreign policy is bigger than China. America’s greatest hurdle is not China itself, but the spread of illiberalism, both domestic and overseas. For sure America’s unipolar moment has passed and no longer stands astride the world as the lone superpower. A future that defeats illiberalism foretells of democracies acting collectively as the superpower. Democracy is the world’s defense against authoritarianism and while China stands today as America’s biggest foe, it will not be the last.
The United States must remain the beacon of liberal hope abroad. But it will require America to re-embrace its role as a champion for democracy. For over 200 years, the United States has stood for the rule of law, individual rights, and a belief in a more perfect union. Peaceful transitions of power marked the strength of American democracy across political parties. Rallying behind these principles, America led the free world against fascism, communism, and terrorism. Although there are many both abroad and at home who question the notion of American exceptionalism, America is still the free world’s best bet for defending democracy against the current surge of authoritarianism. A rising China looks to oust American leadership and set up a new world order in its oppressive image. Russia challenges American power wherever it can, ruthlessly striking the free world with cyber and disinformation warfare just below conflict levels. North Korea and Iran pursue nuclear weapons programs. Dictators in Africa steadfastly hold onto power while increasing the surveillance state.
Instead of many enemies, America should view its many threats as a collective advance of illiberalism acting against the post-World War II democratically led, rules-based world order. China is and should remain the focal point of America’s foreign policy because China leads the charge in spreading illiberal values. A largely absent United States created space for China to grow parallel institutions challenging the international rules-based system. China’s Belt and Road Initiative furthers China’s debt trap diplomacy and entrenches countries into a Sino-centric economic, technological, financial, and development ecosystems. China is also reorganizing economic structures, as seen in its signing of trade agreements with the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Such institutions reflect values enforced by the Chinese Communist Party at home: encroaching on democratic Taiwan’s sovereignty, disposing of political opposition in Hong Kong, and committing genocide against Muslim minority Uighurs in Xinjiang. By asserting its unwillingness to follow the rules-based system, China is consciously undermining liberal values and emboldening fellow authoritarian regimes.
By pushing an agenda that is the United States versus China, American foreign policy is forcing countries into a binary choice many countries are hesitant to make. Structural realism predicts countries will indeed have to make that choice, but it need not be Washington who insists on it. America’s strength both home and abroad is steadfastly rooted in promoting democratic institutions. Within Asia, the quadrilateral security dialogue group comprised of India, Japan, Australia, and the United States provides a foundation that challenges China’s coercive policies and attempts to destabilize the existing regional order. Growing this group of like-minded democracies will do more than just combat China. It will generate momentum for countries to turn to the rules-based order in a bid to curb illiberalism.
America’s foreign policy cannot become a tunnel headed only towards the end goal of competition with China. The notion of great power competition invokes the false belief that defeating China means winning a war. This misses the forest for the trees. The common enemy is illiberalism. America must fix centuries-old problems threatening democracy from within while pressing forward with a foreign policy that matches America’s might. As Amanda Gorman presciently stated at the inauguration, “we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.” America’s democracy may be bruised, but it is not defeated. It will carry the burden of the liberal world on its back and fight illiberalism as only America can.
This article does not reflect the official views of the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Government.
Commander Michele Lowe is a Foreign Area Officer in the U.S. Navy and a Federal Executive Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She has spent the last eight years overseas at the front of U.S. foreign policy and recently served as the U.S. Defense Attache resident in Cameroon.