By Marcus Breen
In the sixth paragraph of the May 4, 2023 Boston Globe obituary for Major General Vincent Stewart, he was remembered as someone who said that China, Russia, Iran and North Korea are “long-term existential threats” to the United States. As Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) for Presidents Obama and Trump, Stewart was an advocate for the claim that the United States cannot accept the existence of sovereign nations whose political structures and ideologies differs from that of the US. Indeed, as the Director of anti-terrorism for the US, Stewart continued the unhealthy US tradition of bringing violence around the world – upon nations, regions, and peoples he considered threats. As he said in 2016: “And if we can’t stop the war, let us beat the stuffing out of anyone who comes up against us.”
Words matter. When the US Government decides, particular interpretations of words matter, too often followed by specific acts of violence and war.
The struggle for peace against selective US assertions of its “national interests” is universal.
A thought experiment illustrates how words like “long-term existential threats” have a specific meaning that deny the universality of peace.
In fact, the words are given an inverted meaning: the United States is an existential threat to China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. This interpretation can be made based on the evidence of the historically disruptive role the US has in hindering peace in world affairs. Unfortunately, peace advocates know this too well: when the US Government says “peace” the meaning of the word is negated by US action. In this way the phrase “existential threat” becomes nothing more than a dog whistle to the military industrial complex and the US media that feeds the hungry maw of warfare promotion alongside public opinion.
China is an example of the inverted turn in US English. At no point has the Chinese national leadership said that it seeks the military overthrow of the United States. Rather, China’s model of development prefers peace as an expression of its capacity as an independent socialist country. Since the end of the revolution in 1949, the Communist Party of China has been guided by a complex of interests that act for and against the established world order: for trade, friendly coexistence and collaboration or win-wins and against imperialism, western domination and feudalism. These principles are informed by the Chinese experience of imperialism, first by European then Japanese colonizers. Peace advocates should recognize them as ideas that reflect China’s position as a country whose history and ideology is different to the US and worthy of respect. In this sense, peace advocates should be the world’s leading cosmopolitans.
For many people, China’s approach includes the complex moving parts of globalization. This is increasingly offering the US Government and its media an artificial case of indigestion because the American mind is trained to think along a single trajectory. Complex measures by sovereign nations are too much. Anyway, they might threaten national security!
Perhaps even worse – now that the emotional trigger of national security has been raised – the US mind thinks through the lens of retributive justice. This idea of retribution offers a simplistic perspective that inevitably promotes violence and war, in a winner-take-all strategy, rather than tactical programs of diplomacy, education and compromise.
Rather than acknowledge the history that informs China’s socialist goals, the US mischaracterizes these goals as “aggression.” Heightened alerts from China hawks like Wisconsin Republican Mike Gallagher, provoke this threat, taking a leaf out of the McCarthyist Red Baiting playbook of the 1950s. As the chairperson of the Select Committee on China formed in December 2022, Gallagher has argued in the UK in May 2023 that China’s goal is “to render us subordinate, humiliated and irrelevant on the world stage and make the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] the dominant global power.”
Such statements are dangerous, adding to an unhealthy US-China relationship, already characterized by containment wherein several hundred US military bases surround China.
These bases are an expression of the deeply ingrained US view that the entire planet is its frontier. Accordingly, China must be stopped from steeping into the frontier the US has considered its own. The emergence of China challenges US global entitlements. The implications of the end of the endless frontier is brilliantly explored by the Yale historian Greg Grandon, in The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall to the Mind of America (2019), in which he illustrates the depth of the US idea of territorial domination.
\Meanwhile, China offers a competitive political system that continues to grow and flourish while offering to live in peace. It does this with a flourishing economy and a rising standard of living that reflects its socialist aspirations. Its achievements are reluctantly acknowledged, such as ending extreme poverty, the build out of thousands of miles of high speed railway along with new national highway systems and glossy new cities.
To give President Biden credit, he pointed out the growing list of US underperformances in the 2023 State of the Union Speech. For example, the US has not provided high speed (internet) broadband across the country: “No parent should have to drive by a McDonald’s parking lot to help their — do their homework online with their kids, which many — thousands were doing across the country.”
Nor has the US invested enough in its infrastructure: “And, folks, as you all know, we used to be number one in the world in infrastructure. We’ve sunk to 13th in the world. The United States of America — 13th in the world in infrastructure, modern infrastructure.”
These kinds of examples of American decline are intolerable for China hawks and, it appears, all US Congress people. China, they say – in yet another inversion of logic – is the cause.
Long convinced that US capitalism is unsurpassed in world history, a socialist option cannot be allowed to succeed. The battle lines have been well drawn, even set in rhetorical concrete.
In a Washington Post op-ed on July 10, 2019 by Gallagher, “The Lost Art of Ideological Warfare,” he reminded readers of a statement made by Ronald Reagan in the lead up to the fall of the Soviet Union, insisting it be applied to China: “U.S. policy must have an ideological thrust which clearly affirms the superiority of U.S. and Western values of individual dignity and freedom, a free press, free trade unions, free enterprise, and political democracy over the repressive features of Soviet Communism.”
Advocating for peace with China is difficult. There are many reasons why this may appear to be a fools errand for peace advocates. Yet to not work for peace with China would be to leave the cause of peace to the war hawks. It is going to take a lot of words that matter – no inversion necessary.
Marcus Breen is a member of MAPA’s No Cold War Committee.