Read its foreign policy statements and this much becomes clear: The Trump administration is preparing for a new Cold War. Its National Security Strategy, unveiled in December, asserts that “The United States will respond to the growing political, economic, and military competitions we face around the world. China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests.” The following month, in announcing the administration’s National Defense Strategy, Defense Secretary James Mattis declared that “Great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.”
There are problems with this. President Trump’s national security documents make “competition” sound like an inevitability rather than a choice. Thus, they skip over a critical question: When can America best achieve its interests not by competing with China and Russia but by trying to cooperate with them? It’s no coincidence that the same National Security Strategy that downplays the importance of great cooperation also omits the words “climate change.”
But let’s assume the Trump administration is at least partially right, and America is destined for increased great power competition, especially with China, which unlike Russia could match America’s economic, and even military, strength in the decades to come. If that’s true, then the people writing Trump’s national security manifestos need to have a blunt talk with Trump, because he’s throwing away America’s trump card.
Consider what happened last Sunday. Across the world, newspapers reported that the Chinese Communist Party—which in the 1980s restricted presidents to two five-year terms to prevent a repeat of the horrifying abuses committed during the 27-year reign of Mao Zedong—is now lifting the restrictions. That means China’s current president, Xi Jinping, can serve for life.
It’s the latest evidence that, in the words of Freedom House, “China’s authoritarian regime has become increasingly repressive in recent years. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is tightening its control over the media, online speech, religious groups, and civil society associations while undermining already modest rule-of-law reforms.” Last summer, Beijing became the first regime since Nazi Germany to have a Nobel Prize winner, the heroic intellectual Liu Xiaobo, die as a prisoner of the state.
In its geopolitical competition with the United States, China has many strengths. But tyranny is not one of them. Last October, the Pew Research Center asked people around the world whether “a democratic system where representatives elected by citizens decide what becomes law would be a good or bad way of governing” their country. Look at the answers in Asia, the region where U.S.-Chinese competition will likely be most intense: 88 percent of Australians and 87 percent of Vietnamese endorsed democracy, higher percentages than in the United States. In Indonesia and the Philippines, the figures were 86 and 82 percent, higher than in France. In South Korea, Japan, and India they were 78, 77, and 75 percent, higher than in Spain.
Yes, many Asians admire China for lifting millions out of poverty. Yes, many appreciate the enormous trade and aid benefits Beijing provides. But by large margins, people around the world see the United States—not China—as a government responsive to its people and bound by law. Which helps explain why, when Pew in 2016 asked people in 37 countries which leaders they believe will “do the right thing regarding world affairs,” 64 percent expressed confidence in Barack Obama while only 28 percent expressed confidence in Xi.
For all these reasons, the lifting of China’s presidential term limits offered the Trump administration an excellent opportunity to flex some soft power. It did not. In fact, on the same day that China announced Xi could serve for life, Axios reported that Trump has “been telling friends for months” how much he admires the way Beijing fights drug abuse. “He’ll say, ‘You know the Chinese and Filipinos don’t have a drug problem. They just kill them,’” explained a senior administration official. Trump, noted Axios, “would love to have a law to execute all drug dealers here in America.”
Not many people around the world likely saw the Axios report. But many have noted that the United States, under Trump, exhibits less respect for the liberal and democratic norms they admire. Over the past few years, Pew has asked people around the world, “Do you think the government of the U.S. respects the personal freedoms of its people?” Between 2013 and 2017, the percentage answering “yes” dropped 12 points in the Philippines, 13 points in Indonesia, 16 points in Japan and 25 points in Australia. By vast margins, non-Americans also disapprove of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement and Trans-Pacific Partnership and his threats to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal, ban Muslims from entering the United States, and build a wall along America’s southern border. In Trump, they see a leader who respects neither human dignity nor the rule of law at home or abroad. Which is perhaps why, between Obama’s last year in office and Trump’s first, the percentage of non-Americans who expressed confidence that America’s president will “do the right thing regarding world affairs” dropped a massive 42 points.
Since Trump took office, there’s been lots of discussion about China’s growing global power and prestige. But the polling is clear: Admiration for China isn’t going up. When Gallup last year asked people in 134 countries how they feel about “the job performance of the leadership” in Beijing, only 31 percent said they approved. That figure has remained basically static since 2010. What’s changed is how people feel about “the job performance of the leadership” in Washington. In 2016, 48 percent approved. In 2017, it was 30 percent. China isn’t rising to America’s level. America is dropping to—or even below—China’s.
This is the crucial context for understanding Budget Director Mick Mulvaney’s comments last year that Trump was presenting a “hard power”—not a “soft power”—budget. Trump is boosting the defense budget and accelerating naval voyages near contested Chinese islands in the South China Sea. And U.S. officials often justify these actions as necessary to defend a “rules-based order” between countries and democracy within them. The National Security Strategy calls America’s struggles with China and Russia (as well as Iran, North Korea, and terrorist groups) “contests between those who value human dignity and freedom and those who oppress individuals and enforce uniformity.”
But Trump’s actions, both at home and abroad, undermine those distinctions. How can a president who pulls out of a global climate change agreement signed by 195 countries preach about a “rules-based order?” How can a president who threatens journalists and judges credibly speak about “human dignity and freedom?”
By undermining America’s soft power—both its moral authority and its diplomatic capacity—even as it ramps up competition with China, the Trump administration is sabotaging its own strategy. It’s also making that competition more dangerous. Soft power is the power to attract. The less of it America has, the more it will rely on its power to coerce.
Not long ago, global observers would have seen the lifting of Chinese term limits as an example of the ideological gulf between the world’s two most powerful countries. Now they’re more likely to see it as evidence of a global authoritarian turn, a shedding of checks and balances underway not only in Beijing, but in Washington too.