The Democratic candidates need to ask themselves a fundamental question: Is the minimalist foreign-policy message that has been used repeatedly since 1992 appropriate for a moment defined by political and technological upheaval around the world? Is there an opportunity for a candidate to offer a more comprehensive message about why Trump is failing abroad and how it matters to Americans in their daily lives?
As long as he avoids war and recession, Trump’s political Achilles’ heel is not his aggressiveness or ignorance, but his focus on the past, not the future. He is obsessed with the industries of the 1950s—steel, aluminum, cars, and dishwashers—and never speaks about the industries of tomorrow. He talks about the unfairness of old security commitments but never about how the United States must work with others on the challenges of the future. He never even mentions the central message of his administration’s own national-security strategy, that the United States is in a new great-power competition that supersedes terrorism and rogue states.
The problem is that, on foreign policy, many Democrats are also stuck in the past. They talk about the liberal order from the 1940s, NATO’s shared past, territorial disputes that date back decades, and an intervention debate that began in the 1990s. But voters don’t want to embrace the past or abstractions. They care how the world challenges their lives and those of their children, not just now but also in the years to come. Americans have always been motivated by threats and challenges to liberty and prosperity at home, rather than grand projects to promote democracy. This was even true of the liberal order itself—Americans rejected the project in 1945 and 1946, only turning to it as a necessary tool to confront communism.
The challenge for the Democratic candidates is to connect all the issues, domestic and foreign, into a larger narrative that relates to Americans’ daily lives, illuminates the future, and offers a path forward. The most likely way to do this is to say that the United States is losing a vitally important competition with China because the president is obsessed with the past and ignorant about the future. China is the one thing that connects all other things. It directly affects the economy, the financial system, technological innovation, values, and national security. As the Center for American Progress study showed, it is the only foreign-policy issue, other than terrorism, that voters really care about—not because they seek conflict, but because they worry about falling behind.
The United States is in a multifaceted competition with China. This is unlikely to involve military conflict, although there is a military dimension to it. The competition is technological, economic, political, diplomatic, and ideological. It is particularly complicated by the fact that the United States and China are interdependent and need to cooperate with each other even as they compete. The president styles himself as tough on China, but as Ely Ratner, director of studies at the Center for a New American Security, put it, Trump is “confrontational but not competitive.” Many of his actions are counterproductive and irresponsible. And in some areas of the competition, such as the clash between the free world and autocracy, Trump is on the wrong side.