WHERE AMERICA competition with China may well become counterproductive is if it’s based on fear rather than a rational assessment of Chinese economic and military prowess. In a prudent move, President Joe Biden signed an executive order in February ordering a review of the supply chains for semiconductors, batteries, and critical minerals. The federal government’s promotion of American industrial development has a venerable history, dating back to the General Survey Act of 1824 and the funding of the first telegraph system between Baltimore and Washington, DC. It played an instrumental role in establishing American industrial and technological might.
E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post and Doyle McManus in the Los Angeles Times go a step further. Dionne counsels that “fear can also be a constructive force” and that “the danger China poses could fundamentally reorder U.S. attitudes toward government’s role in domestic economic growth, research and development in ways that leave the United States stronger.” McManus agrees. “A new cold war with China,” he says, “could be a good thing.” Really? This overlooks the prohibitive military and environmental costs, not to mention the hair-trigger dangers that all formed a constituent element of the Cold War. There was no guarantee that it would end without a catastrophic nuclear exchange. Anyway, determining fiscal strategy on the basis of murky and often-distorted apprehensions about the prowess of a foreign country hardly seems like a good basis for sound economic policy. The truth is that the tech world continues to be dominated by American companies like Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft. A huge amount of hysteria surrounded the app TikTok, a harmless personalized video feed that President Donald Trump threatened to ban. An often overlooked lesson of the Cold War is that corybantic warnings about America being on the brink of defeat could not have been more mistaken. By contrast, Kennan, who forecast the “gradual mellowing” of the Soviet Union, had it right.
Today it is America that faces the prospect of internal decay. “God,” Bismarck remarked, “has a special providence for fools, drunkards and the United States of America.” His favor, or at least attention, appears to have been diverted in recent years as America has suffered one grievous setback after another. Stumbling into an inadvertent crisis with Beijing over Taiwan or the South China Sea or North Korea would imperil Biden’s presidency. He may be riding high in the polls, but a foreign imbroglio would quickly dent his standing. To succeed at home Biden may have to contain the impulse to intervene abroad.
Jacob Heilbrunn is Editor of The National Interest.