Readers of this Sunday’s New York Times were told two main things about the newly re-formed Committee on the Present Danger, which recently held its first conference in Washington. Ana Swanson’s front-page feature on the group focused on two elements clearly meant to horrify liberals: Its return to the politics of the Cold War and the presence of former Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon among its leadership.
This latest revival of the Committee marks its fourth iteration. The most famous was the second, a group of intellectuals who helped stiffen the resolve of Americans to resist and roll back Soviet Communism in the 1970s and 1980s. That successful struggle was very different in some ways from the fight against present-day China. But the idea of an effort orchestrated in part by a prominent supporter of President Donald Trump that might interfere with trade and academic exchanges between China and the U.S. was apparently enough to provoke the Times to use the phrase “red scare” it its headline.
Thus was the new Committee painted as an effort to revive McCarthyite paranoia, which is a shame. Because while Steve Bannon is a soft target, the genuine worries of people on both the right and the left about the objectives of the world’s most powerful totalitarian state can’t be dismissed so easily.
The first Committee was established in the 1950s to support the Truman administration’s Cold War re-armament policies. The second and most famous was begun in the mid 1970s by a collection of prominent conservatives and neo-conservatives such as Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Jeanne J. Kirkpatrick to sound the alarm about the Soviet threat to U.S. security and Moscow’s appalling human-rights record. The third was started in 2004 to rally the West against the threat of Islamist terror.
The newest iteration, called The Committee on the Present Danger: China, to differentiate it from the previous ones, also contains many veterans of conservative foreign-policy debates, from mainstream figures such as former CIA director James Woolsley and University of Pennsylvania China scholar Arthur Waldron to populist firebrands such as Bannon. Its chairman is former Claremont Institute president Brian Kennedy, and its vice chair is hard line anti-Islamist Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy.
In some ways, the threat posed by modern-day China is reminiscent of the Soviet threat that so concerned the highly successful second Committee. Just as China does today, the Soviet Union of the 1970s seemed like a rising threat to a West that some on the right believed was in decline. But the analogy only goes so far. While détente with the Soviets had prominent advocates in both parties, the Soviet regime was loathed by a broad cross-section of Americans in a way Xi’s regime is not.
The decision of the Chinese Communist party to open up the country’s economy to investment from the West starting in the late 1970s created a powerful pro-China constituency in the U.S. business community and in Congress. That diluted Western opposition to the party’s retention of an iron grip on political power or the existence of the laogai — gulag — to which political and religious dissidents were sent. By the end of the 1990s, Congress decided to dispense with the annual vote on Most Favored Nation trading status for China, which had traditionally provided an opportunity to air criticisms of its human-rights record and its efforts to steal Western intellectual property.
What followed was an era in which massive Chinese investment in the United States and trade imbalances became a bigger factor in debating policy toward Beijing than American investment in China. While worries about Chinese economic tactics were aired throughout the last two decades, it was not until the election of President Trump, with his focus on American trade grievances, that growing worries about Chinese power became a major political issue.
That means that any efforts to focus on China as a threat face obstacles that the anti-Communists of previous generations never confronted. There is no comparison between the U.S.’s minimal economic ties to the Soviet Union and the vast financial system which seems to inextricably connect China and America. Nor are Americans conditioned to see China as a military threat to the nation’s security in the way they once viewed the Soviets.
The other problem for the Committee is that Trump’s goal in negotiations with Beijing is strictly to get better trade deals. There is little evidence that the president has any deep-seated problem with the Communist regime’s authoritarianism, whereas Bannon has said he believes the two nations are locked in an epic historical battle in which one system — either the West or China’s Communists — must succeed and the other fail.
All that said, you don’t have to be a fan of Bannon or pine for the ideological battles of the Cold War to understand that the alarms being sounded by the new Committee are based on concerns that are shared by large numbers of Democrats and Republicans.
China’s lawless efforts to infiltrate the American academy and high-tech industries are not an invention of anti-Communist fanatics. Nor is the Committee’s purpose to fuel prejudice against Chinese-Americans. Moreover, given the concerns expressed by so many about Russia’s aggressive foreign policy and mischief-making in the West, liberals have an obvious political motive to dismiss what may be a far larger and more concerted effort by China to pursue some of the same objectives, and Bannon’s involvement gives them a clear avenue of attack.
The same applies to those who have tried, but largely failed, to engender Western interest in China’s appalling human-rights record, though recent demonstrations in Hong Kong and the violent efforts of Beijing to suppress them have at least for the moment shone a spotlight on that issue.
Nor is Bannon out of bounds to remind us that that while the Chinese Communist party’s partial embrace of capitalism makes Xi’s regime seem less ideological, the regime’s opposition to freedom and the rule of law puts it on an inevitable collision course with the West. The notion that the two economic systems can coexist indefinitely seems a stretch, as do hopes that China’s growing military power in the Pacific poses no real challenge to American security policy.
As much as Bannon seems to be a warrior in search of a war, the idea that China is not a threat to the West is a myth that needs debunking. Rather than dismissing the new Committee’s worries, both liberals and conservatives should understand that the concerns it has aired are rooted in the defense of Western values, not Trumpist politics.