Polarization Threatens U.S. Foreign Policy

In the recent past, the U.S. and China have been scrambling for influence in the southern Pacific. China last year signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands, leading to fears that Beijing would acquire a military base there. To counter this, U.S. President Joe Biden was to have visited Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, following the G7 summit in Hiroshima, to sign his own defense agreement that would give the U.S. access to military facilities in that nation. The trip never happened, however, because Biden had to return urgently to Washington to negotiate with Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy over raising the debt ceiling and avoiding a U.S. default on its massive debt.

An agreement was ultimately reached by the end of May and default avoided, but the entire incident is a good illustration of the way that political polarization in the United States is weakening U.S. foreign policy. No U.S. President had ever visited Papua New Guinea before, and there was a huge degree of expectation there with other regional leaders coming to Port Moresby for the event. While the security agreement was ultimately signed by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, there was a palpable sense of disappointment in the region that the U.S. president could not fulfill his promise and pay attention to this increasingly strategic part of the world.

The domestic struggle over the debt limit is but one facet of the broader problem of polarization in the United States. Alone among modern democracies, the United States requires Congress to vote almost every year to authorize increasing this limit as part of its budget process. The Republicans have repeatedly used their control over at least one house of Congress to block the raising of the limit as a means of pressuring Democratic administrations to accede to their budget demands. This happened first in the 1990s when Newt Gingrich was Republican House leader, then again under President Barack Obama, a Democrat, when Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz tried to use this tactic to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The Republicans are in effect holding a gun to the head of the American public and threatening to pull the trigger if they don’t get their way. Threatening suicide is a dangerous and irresponsible negotiating tactic, particularly in a Congress where Democrats continue to control the Senate and the Republicans have the barest of majorities in the House of Representatives. But the contemporary Republican Party is controlled these days by its extremist wing and figures like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a conspiracy-spouting extremist who is much more interested in attracting attention on social media than in responsibly governing the country.

Putin waiting for Trump

While relations with Papua New Guinea were not irretrievably damaged, there are other much more important foreign policy issues at stake. The largest ongoing crisis today is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Russian military has been repeatedly humiliated by Ukraine, having been forced to retreat from Kyiv, Kharkiv, Kherson, and other major cities attacked early in the war. Russia exhausted itself over the past six months in a failed attempt to capture the single town of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, where it has reportedly lost tens of thousands of casualties.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has a theory of victory, however. He wants to hold on to his gains in Ukraine long enough for Donald Trump to return to the White House in 2024. Trump admires Putin and dislikes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy; while president he evidently told his National Security Advisor John Bolton that he would pull the U.S. out of the NATO alliance were he to win the 2020 election.

Trump has presided over a reversal in conservative Republican attitudes towards Russia. Republicans fiercely criticized Obama for being too soft on Russia and for trying to negotiate a “reset” of relations between Washington and Moscow. Since then, Trump’s ultraconservative wing of the party has in effect switched sides, and today regards Moscow as a friend. Trump likes the fact that Putin is a “strong” leader, and many Christian evangelical voters consider Putin to be a fellow Christian. Zelenskyy by contrast is accused of espousing a “woke” liberal agenda by pushing gay marriage and transgender rights in his country. This charge is of course nonsense; Putin is much more a fascist aggressor than a peaceful Christian. But American conservatives today live in a separate information world in which their premises are shaped by alternative and untrue facts. Ukraine will indeed be in trouble if Trump returns to the presidency next year.

There is ostensibly more partisan agreement on policy towards China. Biden has continued many of Trump’s initiatives and gone further in many ways. The U.S. is in the process of decoupling itself from China in certain areas like semiconductors, batteries, rare earths, and other goods which the U.S. believes have strategic importance. Biden has also kept in place many of the trade barriers first erected by Trump, and has promoted an “America-first” industrial policy to keep manufacturing in the United States. Democrats are in many respects competing with Republicans as to who can be the most hawkish on China. One of the grounds on which Republicans have criticized aid to Ukraine is that it is depleting U.S. weapons stocks that would be needed in the event of a conflict with China.

GOP isolationism returns

This apparent foreign policy convergence can be deceiving, however. The single most important focal point for strategic conflict with China is Taiwan, and it is by no means clear that conservative Republicans will support U.S. military defense of the island. Up through World War II, the party was strongly isolationist, not wanting the U.S. to be involved in foreign conflicts of any sort. That strand of thought has returned in the contemporary party; Trump’s “America First” rhetoric echoes that of pre-World War II isolationists like Charles Lindbergh who opposed U.S. entry into the war. In any event, polarization runs so deep that many Republicans will instinctively criticize virtually any action towards China taken by a Democratic administration.

Policy towards China will be very complex in the future. It is already the case that anti-Chinese rhetoric is spinning out of control in Washington, leading to a very dangerous situation in which overt conflict between the two countries may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The U.S. needs to keep open lines of communication with Beijing while being firm and united at the same time. This will not be easy if the two parties are constantly outbidding one another for who can be the most anti-Chinese.

Francis Fukuyama

Fukuyama is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

The Japanese translation of this article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun’s June 25 issue.