To treat great-power competition as an afterthought is irresponsible, even dangerous. The 2020 presidential candidates did just that.
There was a post-superpower quality to this week’s Democratic debates. On both nights, foreign policy came up near the end, and the discussion focused mostly on the need to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, avoid war with Iran and, in Michael Bennet’s words, “invest in America again.” That’s fine, as far as it goes. But there was strikingly little discussion about America’s role in upholding a particular balance of power in the world. It was almost as if these Democratic candidates were running for prime minister of Canada.
That’s a problem, because the United States is trying to uphold a particular balance of power, even as the economic and military might of China keeps growing. Washington is now pursuing roughly the same grand strategy that ended in war with Japan in 1941: preventing any single Asian power from dominating the Western Pacific. China is challenging that effort. And unless the world’s two superpowers accommodate each other, that challenge could lead to war.
What kind of accommodations would Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, or Joe Biden make to avoid that? Would they fight for Taiwan or for American access through the South China Sea, the two places where World War III is most likely to break out? No debate watcher would have any idea. China came up 16 times during Tuesday night’s debate—every time in the context of trade. But in the section of the evening devoted to national security, it wasn’t mentioned once. Things were much the same on Wednesday night: eight mentions of China, seven about trade and one stray reference by Tulsi Gabbard to “nuclear-armed countries like Russia and China and North Korea.”
To treat great-power competition as an afterthought is irresponsible, even dangerous.