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Conservative Nationalism Can’t Beat China

Words: Will Moreland
Pictures: Steve Johnson

Conservative nationalism can’t compete with China. Over the past month, the Trump administration has embarked on a full-court press to show otherwise. Culminating in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech on “Communist China and the Free World’s Future,” conservative nationalists have laid out their case, ending by calling for a democratic alliance to counter the Chinese Communist Party’s growing reach. Greater coordination among democracies is undoubtedly necessary to counter the challenge from Beijing. However, neither the Trump administration nor a Republican Party led by conservative nationalists can build that international coalition.


If candidate Trump’s 2016 primary victory dethroned establishment conservatives within the Republican Party, President Trump’s administration has been a bridge for the rise of conservative nationalists within the GOP. This growing faction views itself as defending the United States against the forces of “globalism” – protecting American sovereignty from international constraints or influence, expanding the US military to defend national interests, renegotiating trade agreements, and rejecting immigration in the name of an “American” identity.

Here President Trump is not alone. Former National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary Pompeo have voiced similar positions. Simultaneously in Congress, Senators Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton have picked up this mantle for the next generation of Republican leaders. From rejecting arms control treaties to denouncing the World Trade Organization (WTO), these Senators have joined with the Trump administration in seeking to upset most of the alliances and institutions that have defined the postwar period.


In doing so, conservative nationalist energy these past three years has centered on quarreling with the very democratic partners on whom Pompeo now calls. From Germany to South Korea, the Trump administration has focused its ire chiefly on allies, lambasting partners around the world on trade, taxes, and troop deployments. Some would seek to separate the burgeoning conservative nationalist movement from this mercurial president. Yet, this tension with like-minded partners is a feature, not a bug.

Some would seek to separate the burgeoning conservative nationalist movement from this mercurial president. Yet, this tension with like-minded partners is a feature, not a bug.

Fundamentally, conservative nationalists are on a different page from most other democratic states on the values that could underlay a more unified foreign policy among democracies. From President Trump’s open acceptance of Uighur concentration camps in Xinjiang to Secretary Pompeo’s recent Commission on Unalienable Rights scaling back US support for human rights, conservative nationalists increasingly are out of step with the broader democratic world when it comes to human rights (particularly LGBTQ+ rights), the economic role of the state, and the importance of international cooperation on issues from nuclear non-proliferation to climate change.


This divergence – of which they are well aware – drives conservative nationalists’ seeming obsession with American sovereignty. The Trump administration is not the first to clash with other democracies in the name of sovereignty. Nonetheless, to the President and this next generation of Republican leaders, defending American sovereignty has become a central priority.

Often, this plays out in the US stance toward multilateral institutions. From the United Nations to the Paris Agreement, conservative nationalists claim their skepticism of international institutions is protecting American democracy against authoritarian influence in those regimes. Yet, equally driving their opposition is a fear of progressive forces abroad bolstering those at home. As John Fonte argues, conservatives “have two sets of serious global competitors, the hard competitors of geopolitics and geo-economics and the soft competitors of transnational progressives, globalists, post-sovereigntists…” Ultimately, conservative nationalists are as embattled with allies in Brussels as they are with rivals in Beijing.


Thus, while Secretary Pompeo is correct to advocate building closer networks of democracies, conservative nationalists are poor architects. Those same sovereignty concerns that propelled President Trump to abandon the World Health Organization and Senator Hawley to push for a vote to exit the WTO result in the United States abandoning fellow democracies on key fields for competing with China.

Decisions made in those international organizations matter in a 21st-century geopolitical competition. Washington’s ability to work with democratic partners within existing institutions and via new networks to write global economic rules, fashion standards for advanced technologies, and modernize communications regimes, will determine this struggle’s future as much as investing in an aircraft carrier.

An effective competitive strategy recognizes this reality. It would seek to close gaps with democracies, rather than dominate them out of fear of more progressive values. The Trump administration is correct that China’s growing authoritarian reach presents a serious and urgent challenge, but make no mistake – neither this administration nor its rising conservative nationalist heirs can successfully meet it.

Will Moreland is a foreign policy analyst focusing on US alliances and great power competition. He holds an MS in Foreign Service from Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter at @MorelandBW.

Will Moreland

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