Beware the Hawkish Consensus on China

Whenever the U.S. sets out on some new global struggle, it empowers ideological zealots and causes previously sensible people to adopt that zealotry as a way of remaining “relevant.”

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Judah Grunstein warns against the entrenchment of the hawkish consensus on China:

The result is that competition and even potential conflict are now considered the default position for relations with China; those who suggest that cooperation – even on existential challenges like the climate crisis – is still valuable and at times necessary are seen as either naïve or, worse still, useful idiots.

What’s striking is that this approach has now become so entrenched that its premises are no longer scrutinized or debated. Moreover, maximalist objectives that only recently were considered farfetched and unfeasible are now granted serious consideration or else taken for granted.

Grunstein is right to sound the alarm here, and I fear that he is also correct when he says that “the momentum behind the hard-line consensus on China will only grow.” Once there is a bipartisan consensus about an adversary, the debate sharply narrows to fights over tactics. In this case, it is no longer a question of whether the US should continue pursuing a militarized rivalry with China, but rather how and where it should do so. There is remarkably little debate over the scope of Chinese ambitions or the necessity of “countering” them, and it is simply assumed that US “leadership” requires the latter.

To the extent that there are differences between the major parties, it is a difference in rhetoric and emphasis and not a fundamental disagreement over the substance of the policy itself. Unfortunately, this gives the advantage to more hawkish elements as they constantly push for more military spending, more deployments, and more coercive measures. Less aggressive adherents of the consensus feel compelled to go along with most or all of it in order to be taken “seriously,” and even critics often feel the need to frame their arguments using the language of the hardliners. Even those that believe that the US and China must cooperate on some major issues are now described as “competitive coexisters” for fear that identifying too much as advocates of engagement is politically toxic.

Hardliners set the agenda, “centrists” quibble over details at the margins, and only a small minority challenges the wisdom of the strategy itself. That was the pattern in the Cold War and the “war on terror,” and we can see that the same thing is happening again now. One of the reasons why those “considered cranks and extremists before the new consensus emerged” are so easily accepted as part of a new hardline consensus is that mainstream policymakers have chosen to embrace the extremism that they previously shunned.

Whenever the US sets out on some new global struggle, it empowers ideological zealots and causes previously sensible people to adopt that zealotry as a way of remaining “relevant.” Zealotry is a poor guide for statecraft, and before you know it the US is on the road to another reckless war in a country that has little or nothing to do with our security. Each time this happens, it is a predictable consequence of following the flawed consensus to its “logical” conclusion, but then no one seems to learn much of anything from that failure and the US proceeds to do it all over again a generation later.

Read the rest of the article at SubStack

Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

3 thoughts on “Beware the Hawkish Consensus on China”

  1. Well said.

    The problem with the foreign policy blob is that there is no real policy debate or dissent. Everyone jumps on a bandwagon and and no matter how wrong the bandwagon is, no one dissents for fear or losing political points. It’s a terrible system that only favor the MIC.

    1. I see it as more that their job is to promote whatever foreign policy the U.S. empire wants, so that’s what they do. It’s not that they’re “wrong,” except for morally and ethically, it’s that they promote war and threats of war in order to support the empire.

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