Is it ‘realism’ to build up a case for US military primacy in East Asia, or just intellectual inconsistency?

Ted Galen Carpenter

One of the more curious — and frustrating— features of the foreign policy debate in the United St-ates occurs when figures who generally advocate realism and restraint ma-ke a stark exception with respect to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Such deviations are evident in both the academic community and among some political leaders. It is an inconsistency that may cause significant credibility issues for the realism and restraint camp.
Among respected academics, University of Chicago Professor John J. Mearsheimer, considered the dean of the realist faction, is a prominent example. Mearsheimer has been an outspoken critic of Washington’s regime-change wars in the Middle East. He also was an early, vocal opponent of NATO expansion toward Russia’s border, warning correctly that the move would poison relations with Moscow. More recently, he has placed much of the blame for the growing tensions between NATO and Russia over Ukraine, culminating in the current war, on Washington and its allies.
Even earlier, however, Mearsheimer took a rather hard line toward Beijing, rejecting any notion of a major U.S. military drawdown in East Asia. He warned that China was likely to attempt to “push the United States out of the Asia-Pacific region,” in part by driving the U.S. Navy out of the ocean between China’s coast and the first island chain.
Mearsheimer’s perspective regarding the PRC has hardened over the years, and it encompasses opposition to the growing bilateral economic ties. Writing in 2021, he condemned Wash-ington’s policy of close economic engagement with Beijing. “Since a mightier China would surely challenge the U.S. position in Asia and possibly beyond, the logical choice for the United States was clear: slow China’s rise. Instead, it encouraged it.” Mear-sheimer added that “engag-ement may have been the worst strategic blunder any country has made in recent history: there is no comparable example of a great power actively fostering the rise of a peer competitor. And it is now too late to do much about it.”
In the political arena, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) echoes many of Mearshei-mer’s views. Hawley is a prominent proponent of avoiding unnecessary U.S. entanglements (especially military entanglements) in the Third World and even in Europe. Indeed, he was the only member of the Senate to vote against admitting Sweden and Finland to NATO in 2022. His criticism of the Biden administration’s unconditional support of Ukraine also has become increasingly vocal, and it seems to be gaining some traction within the Republican congressional delegation.
Yet Hawley is an outspoken hawk on matters relating to China, whether the issue involves trade policy, support for Taiwan, or the U.S. military posture in the Pacific. In his Senate floor speech opposing adding Sweden and Finland to NATO, he explained his underlying rationale:
“Expanding NATO will require more United States forces in Europe, more manpower, more firepower, more resources, more spending. And not just now, but over the long haul. But our greatest foreign adversary is not in Europe. Our greatest foreign adversary is in Asia. And when it comes to countering that adversary, we are behind the game. I’m talking, of course, about China, the communist government of Beijing has adopted a policy of imperialism. It wants to dominate its neighbors, dictate to free nations, it’s trying to expand its power at every opportunities, and that includes power over the United States.”
Hawley also drew a contrast between U.S. interests in Europe and those in East Asia. He voiced the need for Washington to adopt a more cautious, limited policy in Europe and instead f-ocus more on the Chinese threat: “Finland and Sweden want to join the Atlantic Alliance to head off further Russian aggression in Europe. That is entirely understandable g-iven their location and se-curity needs. But America’s greatest foreign adversary doesn’t loom over Europe. It looms in Asia. I am talking of course about the People’s Republic of China. And when it comes to Chinese imperialism, the American people should know the truth: the United States is not ready to resist it. Expanding American security commitments in Europe now would only make that problem worse—and America, less safe.”
More recently, Hawley explicitly urged Secretary of State Blinken to prioritize arming Taiwan instead of giving military aid to Ukraine. In his view, Ukrai-ne is (at most) a marginal U.S. interest, while Taiwan constitutes a crucial one.
One can certainly make the case that China is a more plausible threat than such adversaries as Syria, North Korea, or even Russia to America’s security and overall interests. Nevertheless, being in the forefront of the faction that pushes a hardline, confrontational posture toward Beijing does not enhance the credibility of Hawley (or any other figure who advocates realism and restraint elsewhere in foreign affairs.)
A hawkish stance toward the PRC poses far more serious dangers to the United States than such a stance toward small rogue states does. Indeed, it exceeds even the considerable risks that Washington has incurred in using Ukraine as military proxy to bleed Russia. Defending an assortment of U.S. allies and clients in East Asia, especially Taiwan, means risking a direct war with China. Yet Hawley is AWOL when it comes to applying the strategy of realism and restraint to the most crucial situation of all.
It is an unfortunate lapse that limits his potential as a political leader who might be able to transform U.S. foreign policy into a more prudent and sustainable posture in world affairs.