Great-Power Competition Can’t Be Won on Interests Alone

By Hal Brands and Zack Cooper

March 16, 2021

China’s then-Vice President Xi Jinping speaks to a Los Angeles classroom as U.S. then-Vice President Joe Biden looks on, February 2012 David McNew / Reuters

On the campaign trail, U.S. President Joe Biden pledged to put values at the heart of his administration’s China policy. Since entering office, he has called on the world’s democracies to gird for a new era of strategic competition with China in which they “work together to secure the peace and defend our shared values and advance our prosperity across the Pacific.” Biden’s interim National Security Strategic Guidance labels democracy “our most fundamental advantage” and insists “our model isn’t a relic of history; it’s the single best way to realize the promise of our future.” As the administration prepares for its first high-level meeting with Chinese officials this week, it has clearly embraced the view that the Washington-Beijing rivalry is driven by competing ideals and systems of government as much as by competing interests.

Some self-described foreign policy “realists” contend that ideology and geopolitics are a dangerous combination. Mixing the two, they believe, led the United States to adopt a Manichaean and counterproductive strategy during the Cold War. Better, these analysts argue, to approach the rivalry in realpolitik terms—as a cold-eyed contest over power—and leave values to the side.

Yet purging ideology from American statecraft would be both ahistorical and unstrategic. The United States won the Cold War precisely because it put values near the center of that competition. Likewise, if Washington hopes to understand Beijing today, to mobilize its democratic friends for a long struggle, and to exploit its asymmetric advantages, it must take ideology seriously. Compromises will be necessary: the United States never took an ideologically puritanical approach during the Cold War, and it cannot do so today. But now as in the past, a strategy that requires the United States to cast aside its values and ideals would be unwise and unrealistic.



Although the competition with China is not a replay of the Cold War, the history of that struggle may still hold useful lessons for present-day policymakers. In his famous 1947 “X Article” in these pages, George Kennan argued that the Soviet regime’s hostility toward the West was rooted in ideology—a toxic mix of communist dogma and Russian historical understanding that made the Kremlin impossible to reassure and animated a ceaseless quest to undermine and, eventually, overthrow its capitalist rivals. Thus, Kennan declared, the Cold War could not end until Washington secured the “breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”

As with the Soviet-era Kremlin, the Chinese Communist Party’s aversion to the United States runs deep. “Because China and the United States have longstanding conflicts over their different ideologies, social systems, and foreign policies,” a Chinese military document argued as early as 1993, “it will prove impossible to fundamentally improve Sino-U.S. relations.”

The Chinese Communist Party’s aversion to the United States runs deep.

Chinese leaders have long assumed, correctly, that their counterparts in Washington would never view an authoritarian Communist Party as fully legitimate; even Robert Zoellick’s famous 2005 speech urging Beijing to become a responsible stakeholder insisted that “China needs a peaceful political transition to make its government responsible and accountable to its people.” Although Beijing’s long-standing suspicion that Washington is actively trying to topple its regime is inaccurate, it betrays the Chinese Communist Party’s sense of vulnerability in an international order led by democracies and rooted in liberal values.

Chinese leaders appear to believe that efforts to increase China’s power and influence cannot fully succeed unless the global order becomes one in which an autocratic superpower can flourish. Through economic coercion and diplomatic pressure, Beijing has sought to suppress speech—even in democratic societies such as Australia and New Zealand—deemed damaging to the Communist Party. Meanwhile, China is providing surveillance equipment to illiberal rulers around the globe while also working to change the norms and operations of international organizations so that they favor autocratic models such as Beijing’s. China’s leaders are promoting authoritarianism beyond their borders for much the same reason that Americans extoll democracy abroad: they expect to be more secure and influential in a world that shares their political values.



In March 1947, when U.S. President Harry Truman addressed a joint session of Congress to request aid for Greece and Turkey, he cast the issue in expansive, ideological terms. “At the present moment in world history, nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life,” he declared. “I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

Truman had good reason to frame the conflict this way. “Geopolitical abstractions and economic statistics may be important,” the Princeton professor Aaron Friedberg wrote in 2018, “but historically what has moved and motivated the American people is a recognition that the principles on which their system is founded are under threat.” The Cold War consensus reflected this two-fold conviction that the Soviet Union threatened the United States’ security and its values. When, by contrast, the United States seemed to neglect the role of values—as President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his secretary of state, were accused of doing during the 1970s—U.S. policy became politically unsustainable.

Mobilizing Americans today will again require tapping their passion for freedom. Unlike the many abstract issues at the core of Sino-American competition—such as the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait or who controls the world’s information networks—the fact that China commits horrifying abuses at home and is seeking to strengthen authoritarianism abroad offends ordinary Americans on a visceral level.

The recent downturn in international public opinion on China is not simply a reaction to the origins of the COVID-19 crisis—which showed the world some of Chinese authoritarianism’s most dangerous tendencies—but also to reports about Beijing’s genocide in Xinjiang and repression in Hong Kong. Polls show that 86 percent of Americans support sanctioning Chinese officials engaged in these abuses. Additionally, leaders in both parties support robust engagement with Taiwan, in part because it is a vibrant democracy.



During the Cold War, Washington was not doctrinaire in constructing an anti-Soviet coalition: it partnered with authoritarians when necessary, especially outside Europe. Yet U.S. policymakers consistently emphasized the shared political values that bound the United States to its closest allies—their “common faith,” as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it, in individual liberty and human dignity. Doing so underscored what united these allies even during intense policy disagreements. It promoted deeper cooperation than would have emerged from a purely transactional approach. And by putting ideology at the center of the competition, American officials reminded other countries that the Cold War was more than a quest to defend U.S. primacy. It was a struggle to ensure that the world reflected the norms and values of a democratic coalition rather than its authoritarian rivals.

Shared principles are critical to forging robust international coalitions.

For similar reasons, shared principles are critical to forging robust international coalitions today. European democracies are beyond the reach of most Chinese military power, but they are nonetheless concerned by China’s challenges to global rules and norms. The Quad—Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—is tied together in part by a shared (albeit imperfect) commitment to democratic principles. Concerns about coercive pressure from the Chinese Communist Party are driving countries to side with Washington, even at a time when the United States seems weakened, distracted, and divided. And although nondemocratic rulers in frontline countries such as Vietnam may be put off by an agenda that values democracy, it is hard to imagine them rejecting Washington’s help in managing an increasingly aggressive China.

In fact, emphasizing the ideological nature of the contest is critical to giving many countries reason to support the United States. For if the U.S.-Chinese competition was only about power, then why would countries that are not directly threatened by China’s military care whether Beijing or Washington comes out on top? What ultimately attracts many U.S. allies and partners is the belief in an international order, rooted in democratic values, that allows many nations to flourish. If the United States drops this principled argument—if it is simply one great power competing with another—the United States will lose its most important appeal.



A principled strategy also highlights the United States’ greatest competitive advantage: the moral asymmetry between an unelected one-party regime and its democratic rivals. Acknowledging the importance of ideology makes clear that cooperating with the Chinese Communist Party means working with a regime that systematically violates the human rights of its citizens. It allows Washington to draw a crucial distinction between the Communist Party, whose repression the United States opposes, and the Chinese people, whose aspirations the United States should support. Drawing such distinctions is not tantamount to promoting democracy through forceful regime change; rather, it is an acknowledgment that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

During the Cold War, U.S. policymakers exploited a similar asymmetry. For decades, the United States kept a spotlight on Moscow’s repression of its own population and its military domination of Eastern Europe. By doing so, Washington made the Soviets absorb diplomatic and political costs for ruling in an authoritarian, domineering fashion. It also appealed to dissidents in the Soviet bloc who sought to change the system from within. Over time, and particularly during the 1980s, these strategies proved extremely valuable in putting the Soviets on the defensive.

Faith in the United States did, unfortunately, erode under U.S. President Donald Trump. But the nature of the American political system has given the United States a chance, with Trump’s departure, to reestablish itself as a principled advocate of human rights and democratic values.



A renewed emphasis on ideology need not come at the cost of diplomatic flexibility. The United States managed to blend ideology and realpolitik during the Cold War, and it should be able to do so today.

From the late 1940s onward, American strategy was often intensely ideological yet surprisingly supple. In 1947, Truman declared that the United States must support free peoples resisting oppression. Just a year later, he threw U.S. support behind Josip Broz Tito, the communist dictator of Yugoslavia, in hopes of splitting the Soviet bloc. In the 1950s, John Foster Dulles publicly criticized the stance of governments that refused to align themselves with the United States, even though he privately evinced a far sharper understanding of the choices they faced. Over the three decades that followed, U.S. presidents conducted pragmatic negotiations with Moscow on a host of issues, including arms control.

The United States did make terrible mistakes during the Cold War, but it is inaccurate to claim that these were typically driven by ideological fervor. The most egregious of those mistakes—the intervention in Vietnam—did feature a quintessentially American belief that Washington could somehow reform the authoritarian South Vietnamese regime. But that war was not principally about vindicating liberalism—a motive that one top U.S. official estimated to account for only ten percent of the United States’ determination to prevail. It was motivated primarily by geopolitical issues, namely the belief that U.S. commitments had become psychologically and strategically interdependent and that retreat in one area would undermine positions around the globe.

Today, smart policymakers can negotiate periodic pauses in competition or isolate areas of cooperation, such as countering climate change, amid intense ideological rivalry. Avoiding unwise interventions is more a matter of exercising good judgment than of banishing ideology. Now, as during the Cold War, there is no inherent reason ideology must deform American strategy.

The fact that ideology has historically played such an important role in U.S. policy shows that the United States cannot avoid making competition with China about principles as well as power—and it shouldn’t try. Leaving values and morality to the side would eliminate one of the United States’ greatest advantages and make it harder to rally coalitions at home and abroad. It would play into Beijing’s hands by making the rivalry an amoral struggle over military dominance rather than a contest over what philosophical principles should structure domestic governance and the international order. Purging ideology from American strategy, as the realists recommend, is neither possible nor desirable. American policymakers were sophisticated enough to emphasize the centrality of power and principle in the Cold War. They should emulate that approach today.


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