Early in the Cold War, the United States faced a similar crossroads. Some figures, such as President Dwight Eisenhower, took a tough line on the Soviet Union but counseled the need to be selective in confrontations, steering US foreign policy toward selectivity and what he called the “middle way”.
Others, such as the authors of NSC-68 (the influential 1950 National Security Council report in 1950), believed in an expansive, systemic approach to confronting the Soviet Union, a conviction that helped to entangle the United States in Vietnam. Washington is now at a similar juncture in a new great-power struggle, and it should choose a stance akin to Eisenhower’s.
We are not proposing a one-dimensional realpolitik. The United States must stand for freedom, republican government and human dignity. Standing for these values will draw others around the world to the US banner, help demonstrate the dangers of bowing to Beijing, and provide a motivating force to collective efforts. And we must recognise that Beijing itself thinks in at least substantially ideological terms, even if the competition is not fundamentally about ideology.
Yet foreign policy consists of a hierarchy of needs. Foreign policy — especially in a republic— should serve the interests of a country’s citizens. Although Americans may wish for China to become a freer and more just society, their government should not be responsible for making it so, especially given the costs and risks of pursuing an excessively ideological conflict with Beijing. The United States can and should certainly emphasise respect for human dignity and political rights as a way to distinguish itself from China. But policymakers must maintain a clear-eyed perspective and be selective, especially when the stakes are so high.