National Review

On Foreign Policy, the New Populists Are Old Declinists

The US can—and must—confront Russia and China simultaneously.

Senior Fellow and Director, Keystone Defense Initiative
Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin on March 21, 2023. (Photo by Pavel Byrkin / SPUTNIK / AFP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin on March 21, 2023. (Photo by Pavel Byrkin / SPUTNIK / AFP)

The national-security threats to the United States are growing more numerous and varied, and Americans sense it. Even after last weekend’s attempted coup, Russia continues its unprovoked war on Ukraine and seeks to splinter NATO. China audaciously flew a spy balloon over the United States, and still threatens to invade Taiwan. Moreover, these nuclear-armed dictatorships are increasingly working together in a “no limits” partnership to threaten American interests. Despite the Biden administration’s appeals for de-escalation with Russia and a “thaw” in the frozen tensions with China, our adversaries respond with more aggression.

Republicans are the party of President Ronald Reagan, who won the Cold War by embracing the maxim of “peace through strength.” Reagan invested in American military power, armed those fighting our shared enemy, and rallied the free world to defeat the Soviet Union — all while avoiding a catastrophic hot war. These strategies would work well today.

But there is a new vision that threatens to take the GOP and America down a different path. The “Asia First” approach maintains that Washington should focus on Asia, because America is overburdened and it must husband its resources to confront its most capable adversary — China. Prominent members of this group include Senators Josh Hawley and J. D. Vance. They oppose sending weapons to Ukraine because they argue these arms are needed to deter a Chinese assault on Taiwan. For them, leading the free world is the naïve stuff of Reagan and an optimistic, bygone era.

The necessary assumption undergirding this “Asia First” foreign-policy position is that Washington can no longer do it all, that America is in decline. But like past declinists and doomers, “Asia First” proponents are mistaken.

Today’s debate is an old one. In the 1970s, many believed that American power was stagnating and that the Soviet Union was ascendant. Rather than allow Moscow to surpass the United States, President Richard Nixon and his national-security adviser, Henry Kissinger, believed the best course of action was to negotiate a détente with the Soviet Union to lock in parity between the two sides.

Reagan proved them wrong. He believed that America’s model of a free political system and open markets had inherent strengths and that the Soviet Union’s brittle, state-planned dictatorship was fundamentally flawed. He bet that if Washington took the gloves off and forced the Soviet Union to compete, Communism would collapse under its own weight. He was right.

Today’s declinists are as misguided as Reagan’s critics. The United States and its allies are stronger, and Russia and China weaker, than they think.

Washington and its allies have the necessary resources (if appropriately leveraged) to counter China and Russia simultaneously. The United States possesses 25 percent of global GDP compared to China and Russia’s combined 20 percent. If one adds formal treaty allies to the equation, the free world possesses nearly 60 percent of global GDP, a clear preponderance of power.

Like that of the Soviet Union before it, China’s state-led authoritarian model is brittle. By reasserting state control over China’s economy, Xi Jinping killed off China’s successful growth model. Xi’s aggressive foreign policy is also causing the United States and Europe to selectively decouple from the Chinese economy, kicking down the ladder that facilitated China’s rise. Economists increasingly say that China, once on a path to become the world’s largest economy, may now never get there.

Moreover, the more negative current trends are not immutable. The Asia Firsters point to a weak U.S. defense-industrial base that, after decades of neglect, is unable to produce the weapons the United States needs to deter adversaries and, if necessary, win a major war. But the answer is not to abandon important U.S. interests; it’s to rebuild the defense-industrial base with a sense of national purpose. As a percentage of GDP, U.S. defense spending is under 4 percent, putting it near historic lows. It could be doubled and remain below Cold War averages. Washington has agency, and with the right leadership, can reverse those trends. The solution is not to accept American decline, but rather to grow U.S. and allied military strength and wield power with prudence and skilled statecraft.

There is great media interest in the loudest voices calling for global disengagement and an end to support for Ukraine, but, fortunately, most Republicans remain firmly in the Reaganite camp. A new survey from the Reagan Institute shows that 71 percent of Republicans believe it is important for Ukraine to defeat Russia. Republican leaders on national-security committees such as Senators Tom Cotton, Roger Wicker, and Jim Risch, and Representatives Michael McCaul, Mike Rogers, and Mike Gallagher, argue that empowering Kyiv to defeat Russia strengthens, rather than weakens, America in its rivalry with China. Russia and China are in a deepening strategic partnership and a weakened Russia hurts China. Xi will be more hesitant to invade Taiwan if he sees Putin roundly defeated in Ukraine. In addition, U.S. military aid to Ukraine is prompting the defense industry to increase weapons-production capacity, which will have spillover benefits for Asia.

These leading Republicans do not criticize President Biden for being too supportive of Ukraine and tough on Russia. Rather, they correctly criticize the administration for pursuing a strategy of support for Ukraine’s defense that is aimless, indecisive, and risk-averse. Learning from the mistakes of the “forever wars” in the Middle East, they urge the United States to pursue a clear theory of victory, backed by ample resources, to help Kyiv succeed quickly and decisively.

Contemporary statesmen should look to the example of Ronald Reagan. Arming Ukraine presents a moment to rally allies, build our respective military-industrial bases, and counter Russia and China at the same time. This will require clear-eyed realism, moral clarity, and determination. The challenges are great, but the country has achieved harder things under more dire circumstances. Decline is a choice — one we can’t afford to make.

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