Democrats need to put their minds to the China question
US Politics: Parochialism of party’s primary race so far gives advantage to Trump
Democratic presidential candidate Seth Moulton: his “mistake” has been to run on foreign policy above all else. Photograph: Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Imagine for a moment that you are Seth Wilbur Moulton. It is no great hardship. Scholars who follow these things rank you in the top decile of US congressional members for bipartisan conduct. You have the patriotic bona fides of a man who gave his best years to the Marine Corps. You have medals of valour that it took an investigative journalist to make public. Cosmic luck gave you an expensive education and the looks of a beau ideal American president from a moreish, if middlebrow, Netflix series. When you run for that office at age 40, all of Washington mumbles: “But of course.”
Then something novel happens. You fail. Three months into your candidacy, you are struggling to register in opinion polls or to qualify for televised debates with your fellow Democrats. Many people reading this will be wholly new to your name.
The parable of Moulton signifies many things: life’s randomness, his own limitations, the still-early stages of a contest in which he may yet break through. But it also signifies the parochialism of the primary race. Moulton’s “mistake” has been to run on foreign policy above all else. Democrats – electors and candidates alike – prefer to think and talk of other things. Where the outside world does impinge, it is as something to be saved from climate change, or from the Dickensian labour standards of too-free trade.
Both causes matter, no doubt. With a millennial-heavy electorate, the Republicans’ insouciance about the first is bad politics as well as bad planet-management. But neither constitutes a geopolitical view. The lack of any such thing marred the recent debates, where Democrats made profuse mention of China, but almost always in the context of trade. You would not have guessed that China is also the most credible usurper of America’s position in the world. Indeed, eight months since the first candidates filed their papers, it is hard to know what any of them would say in response to this: Should it be the business of the US to retard the advance of China? If so, how?
President Donald Trump’s answer to both questions is unmistakable. He and those around him believe the US is joined in a great-power competition that his naive predecessors chose to duck. To that end, they are willing to use tariffs and to spend huge sums on the preservation of military supremacy. It is a pointlessly bellicose account of the world and it might overrate the willingness of the American public to endure a generational struggle. But it is an account of the world. What is the Democratic version?
The party’s terseness is not as canny as it seems now. Yes, voters are more worried about healthcare than “abroad”. The refusal of the seas to part for Moulton is salutary to observe. But in a general election, a candidate still has to clear a minimum standard of foreign policy seriousness.
Trump will spend much of 2020 accusing the Democrats of weakness on China. He has already done it to Joe Biden, who, as vice-president, was putting tariffs on Chinese tyres when Trump was still “firing” people in shiny suits for television ratings. Imagine what he will do to less seasoned Democrats. The more the party skirts the China debate now, the less prepared it will be for the coming barrage.
It is not as though there are no good answers to the China question. One is that, no, relative power is not a worthwhile concern in itself. The state’s duty is to the wellbeing of the citizenry, not to the abstraction of external greatness. Democrats might ask how American voters benefit from a trade war, or from the augmentation of the armed forces that already account for half of discretionary federal spending.
Another answer is that America cannot compete abroad without internal cohesion, and that Trump picks away at this all the time. Yet a third is that, if the US is to vie with China, then it must cultivate the loyalty of third countries through diplomatic attentiveness and economic largesse. For all their belligerence, their revival of the Committee on the Present Danger, the right has an amazingly narrow sense of what the cold war actually entailed. It was a contest for the allegiance of wavering countries, nonaligned countries, loyal-but-vulnerable countries. It was not just a bilateral arms race.
Trump’s confrontation with China has never looked less advisable than it has of late. The Democrats are spoilt for alternatives to it. But they cannot expect voters to read their minds. It is true to the point of cliché that US foreign policy has become unpredictable. At fault is not just the volatility of one president. At fault is the reticence of his putative successors. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019