China — the latest existential enemy? How about no.

America must have an enemy.

I cannot tell you how much disappointment I feel in writing those words. But they are true: America must have an enemy.

China is viewed as the most lethal current foe, but that country is merely one of many that throughout American history has been molded by the political, military and media elite into being defined as an existential threat to the United States. The incomplete list of recent enemies has included (or still includes) Iran and its allies, the former Soviet Union and now Russia, Japan (first for fascism and then in the 1980s because it was “buying up” America), North Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Cuba, East Germany and many other nations that have dared to impede on American hegemony.

This narrative forgets the flip side of the coin: How American imperialism often has wrecked America’s image around the world, and worse has done terrible damage to the nation being invaded. Too often through the misguided use of force, the U.S. has engaged in military excursions that have crippled independent nation states for decades; long after the last bullet was fired or bomb was dropped, the internal recovery has only added to the damage caused by external military excursions. Iraq remains the most recent and obvious example: Almost 20 years after the U.S.-led invasion, Iraq is no closer today than it was then in becoming a democratic nation, the ostensible reason for the commencement of that war. Perhaps it never wanted to or was prepared to be?

Recently, the Siena College Research Institute again asked some of America’s top political scientists and presidential scholars to rank order America’s presidents. Dwight Eisenhower came in sixth overall, and ahead of every man who has succeeded him. What makes President Eisenhower relevant to this conversation about America and its enemies? Simple: Sadly, the country has not heeded his warning about the dangers of the military-industrial complex.

As he prepared to leave office, President Eisenhower delivered a farewell address to the nation. It contained a plea to Americans that they never allow the federal government and the defense industry to become too closely aligned. Of course, over time, they have, and what President Eisenhower warned would happen has come to pass.

His words, spoken in 1961, continue to echo loudly 60 years later. Consider this short excerpt:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

How right he was.

The narrative about America always facing a “dangerous” ememy ignores another truth: America sought to attack — whether through military, political, economic or other means — many of these “enemies” that had no designs on overthrowing the U.S. as the world’s either sole or shared superpower. Never had. And when it comes to China, never will.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s book China in the 21st Century serves as an important reminder of why thinking with an open mind and not a clenched fist is necessary when it comes to China. He points out a fundamental and longstanding difference between American and Chinese thinking: While America strongly endorses human rights and civil liberties, China values social stability and economic rights. In addition, Wasserstrom offers an important critique of the Chinese media, which are universally condemned in the West because they are state-run:

“The PRC media…have long focused to an overwhelming degree on positive developments, at least when discussing China” … and “good news about domestic issues remains the norm.”

Rather than accepting and respecting these differences, the American political, military and media elite twist them into claims that China is dangerously different than the U.S. and therefore it cannot be trusted to be a real global partner. In other words, “they” are not like “us.” And that they/them and we/us divide is one that comes up in all sorts of conversations when it comes to defending hostile policies: Islam is not like Christianity; communism is not like capitalism; Asians are not like Americans. And the list goes on.

We’d be wise to read a recent opinion piece written by Michael Swaine, the director of the East Asia Program at the Quincy Institute. Throwing ice-cold water on the idea of China as an existential threat to the U.S., Swaine writes

In the most basic, literal sense, an existential threat means a threat to the physical existence of the nation through the possession of an ability and intent to exterminate the U.S. population, presumably via the use of highly lethal nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. A less conventional understanding of the term posits the radical erosion or ending of U.S. prosperity and freedoms through economic, political, ideational, and military pressure, thereby in essence destroying the basis for the American way of life. Any threats that fall below these two definitions do not convey what is meant by the word “existential.”

As a military power, China has no ability to destroy the United States without destroying itself. 

If it wasn’t enough to neuter the argument that China seeks to destroy the U.S. by military means, Swaine then undercuts the economic arguments used by many to justify a belligerent stance aimed at that country.

This leaves the unconventional threats. Here they are presumably twofold: economic and technological, and in the realm of ideas and influence operations within the United States and other Western countries, including the export of China’s so-called “model” of authoritarian rule to the rest of the world.

The former threats would presumably consist of China attaining a level of total superiority over both economic and technological levers of influence globally and with regard to the United States (perhaps combined with a successful military blocking of U.S. sea lines of communication) that would so impoverish the country as to threaten its existence as a stable and prosperous democracy and bring it under Chinese control. Presumably, the specific basis of such leverage would consist of near-absolute global Chinese dominance over both trade and investment relations and supply chains with the United States and other countries and over all the key technologies driving future growth and military capabilities.

It is virtually inconceivable that China could achieve such a level of dominance over the United States. 

So, if China doesn’t want to fight a military or economic war against the U.S., then how it can it have hegemonic aims?

Think about it.

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