Photo Credit: Getty Images via CNN
By Chloe Vitali
The 2024 presidential election is shaping up to be a defining moment in American politics. The implications it will have on America’s voting behaviors, party affiliations, and domestic policies will no doubt be monumental and have ripple effects for decades to come.
However, 2024 will also mark an important point in the United States’ international standing. Over the past 25 years, the hegemony of the U.S. has been carefully and strategically undermined by adversaries large and small. And, with the global phenomenon of democratic backsliding, the United States’ place as number one appears to be teetering. The most concerning challenges to U.S. hegemony come from China.
Competition with China
Previously, international relations scholars have acknowledged that China could not challenge U.S. power, given the disproportionate amount of time and money the U.S. had spent gaining influence and building its military. However, China has been making efforts to build influence in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Furthermore, their military continues to evolve. China is modernizing its military with technologies made to target the very U.S. capabilities that have guaranteed American security and hegemony for the past 30 years.
This competition crystallized for the U.S. when, in 2008, China became the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt, creating an interdependence between the two economies. Now, however, China is buying less U.S. debt, causing worry. Initially, China purchased U.S. debt to fund its growth as a manufacturing superpower and to stabilize its currency. But now that it has achieved both, it no longer relies on the U.S. for stability. The major concern is that China, who still owns $981 billion in U.S. debt, could topple the U.S. economy by attempting to sell off everything at once.
Over the past three presidential administrations policy toward China has become increasingly precarious. 2011 marked the official beginning of the United States’ “pivot to Asia” that has dominated U.S. foreign policy concerns since. For a few years after this, U.S.-China relations appeared to operate on cautious but overall good graces with a series of agreements and meetings between former President Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, despite trade concerns.
During the Trump administration, relations with China transitioned from attempts at trade deals to more hardline policies including a trade war. The Trump administration’s main grievances towards China were its aggression in the South China Sea, trade malpractice, human rights violations, and theft of U.S. intellectual property. The Administration maintained that the Chinese government is unfit for engagement with the U.S. on account of these offenses.
Championing nonconfrontation, President Biden has mainly focused on undermining the areas in which China holds superiority over the U.S. His “invest, align, compete” strategy outlines U.S. efforts to build up domestic infrastructure and strengthen international coalitions to expand the possibilities of competition with China and strengthen American weak spots that have been targeted.
Most concerning for the U.S. is the fact that China’s military strategy, in conjunction with increased spending, is designed to create a new type of warfare. The Chinese government has identified its tactics of targeting adversaries’ perceived weaknesses– as opposed to militarizing for traditional battlefield tactics– as the “new way of war.” And, at the same time, China is expanding its naval power and military presence in international territories in ways that align with U.S. conventional military tactics. The U.S., while spending almost four times as much on the military as China, is unprepared to combat this new type of warfare.
In fact, it has been predicted by a U.S. Four-Star General that the U.S. will go to war with China by 2025. And, while the Department of Defense has stated that this general’s opinion does not represent that of the U.S. government, the ongoing strategic escalation between the two nations as well as President Biden’s National Security Strategy in October of 2022 signals that a conflict with China is inevitable. If the 2025 prediction is correct, the next president will lead us into battle with one of our greatest foreign adversaries.
For this reason, many Americans will face a hard choice come November of 2024. Amid heated disputes about national identity and the goals of both political parties, Americans will also need to consider which candidate can act best as commander-in-chief.
America’s Candidate Options
The question then becomes, who? Which candidate will be able to garner the most domestic support to win the election and sustain a war effort at home? And, who has the experience and knowledge to successfully navigate diplomacy, strategy, and negotiations in a way that leads to a U.S. victory with minimal costs? The pool of candidates remains small at this point, and the pool of potential candidates becomes even smaller when you consider these questions. One thing is for sure: we cannot go to war with China with Donald Trump as our president.
The Trump Administration’s tumultuous four years count out the former president for any future as the leader of the free world. During this time, Americans found a new understanding of just how much the world relies on and is impacted by our actions. The jerky and abrupt international policies of the Trump Administration, as well as Trump’s seeming ignorance of the importance of diplomacy likely further undermined U.S. credibility as a world leader. Trump lacks the diplomatic finesse to create strong coalitions with allies as well as maintain the calm yet stern relations with adversaries that have for so long characterized the U.S. as a global leader.
Trump’s actions as president resulted in chaos in the State Department; attempting to cut the Department’s budget by 30% and failing to fill several key vacancies caused by the Administration’s dismissal of many career diplomats are just a few of the factors that led to State Department officials stating that he is “entirely unfit to be in office.” Anthony Blinken, the current Secretary of State, has stated that the Trump Administration’s actions in the State Department will cause problems for “generations” to come and could have been avoided through “development and diplomacy.” The loss of valuable diplomats as well the positive impact that they would have had on relations with China almost certainly sped along the process of escalation between the two countries and contributed to the lack of cooperative policies initiated by the Trump administration.
Ron DeSantis, the other Republican favored to run, has offered limited opinions on U.S. international affairs, until recently. Though he served in the U.S. Navy as a legal advisor to the Navy SEALs, DeSantis has broadly focused on what he touts as his successes as Governor of Florida. When discussed as a possible presidential candidate, his policies seek to play on the qualms that a conservative base holds about a fundamentally changing American culture.
DeSantis recently drew criticism from many prominent Republicans for minimizing the war in Ukraine to a “territorial dispute” stating that the conflict should not be of interest to the U.S. With this, DeSantis is demonstrating a clear lack of understanding of international relations theory as well as U.S. foreign policy interests. Even if the Governor does hold mastery of foreign policy, DeSantis’ willingness to sacrifice that for political capital is disappointing.
Following DeSantis’ comments, former New Jersey governor and 2016 Republican candidate, Chris Christie, made heated comments about the U.S.-China relationship. Christie held an event last week in New Hampshire where he dragged DeSantis’ Ukraine opinions for being “naïve”, stating his belief that the U.S. is already in a proxy war with China.
Christie’s event appeared to be testing the waters for a 2024 presidential run he said he will decide on and announce in the coming days. Christie’s comments regarding China are promising for any voters concerned with the issue but he has become increasingly obsolete since leaving the Governor’s office and dropping out of the 2016 race. Further, as a firmly anti-Trump candidate, Christie will face challenges in a primary where Trump is leading primary polls anywhere from 18-47 points.
Nikki Haley is a Republican running with international expertise. However, her campaign has garnered little support thus far compared to those of Trump and DeSantis’ potential campaigns. Haley’s time as Trump’s UN ambassador was defined by her defense of U.S. removal from several international coalitions, her support of Israel, and her continuous attacks on the UN for hypocrisy. Haley’s time at the UN, though, undermined U.S. international commitments in the name of reducing benefits that China receives from multilateral cooperation.
Compounding with his age, Joe Biden doesn’t have what it takes to unify the country, despite continued efforts to do so. During wartime, his age and controversiality could create more problems than his experienced policies could solve. But, the lack of decisiveness from the President on this issue is keeping other Democrats out of the race so far– and cheating them out of vital fundraising and campaigning time.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer could be the unifying force that Democrats need to snatch a 2024 win, given her historic ability to win and mobilize in the swing state. But, she lacks experience with foreign policy and, like Haley, faces a gender bias when it comes to preconceived notions about women’s capabilities at war. Further, Whitmer seems to have ruled out a 2024 run.
As of now, most Democrats have defaulted to supporting the president in the event that he runs. Several potential candidates have been quietly preparing but it appears that until the president makes a final decision, the Democratic candidates won’t be solidified. The only official challenger to the president’s supposed run is Marianne Williamson who is vehemently opposed to violence and champions the idea of a Department of Peace. Given her unpopular opinions on war, her limited political experience, and her lack of traction, she likely wouldn’t make the commander-in-chief we’ll need.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Another thing to consider is the Democratic base’s opposition to military spending. A Democratic candidate championing the survival of U.S. hegemony– that could win over Republicans who may be fearing a conflict with China and want to split from their divided party– may lose out on valuable votes from their base. It seems unlikely that a Democrat can play both sides of this issue.
This election will demand Americans choose continued neglect of domestic issues, including national debt, wage inequalities, and the impending collapse of many welfare programs, in exchange for the survival of our nation’s international security. And, even if the 2025 prophecy is incorrect, the U.S. is in dire need of renewed and more versatile military capabilities, and a president who can make that happen.
By the time November 5, 2024 rolls around, Americans will have to confront a hard fact. The international standing of the U.S. is being threatened, and the international order will fundamentally change if we revert to a bipolar system. The election will have a direct impact on this. If Americans feel inclined to uphold the current status, the candidate they choose must have superior strategic experience and skills as well as the ability to unify the country. The current pool of candidates does not appear to have these qualifications; we can only hope that someone can divert attention from formers and incumbents to make a much needed bid for the presidency.
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