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The importance of U.S. leadership

Point: To win a cold war, Washington must go on offense

Speaker Mike Johnson speaks with reporters at the Capitol in Washington on April 17. Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

The importance of U.S. leadership
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Headlines around the globe depict a world on the brink of disorder. In Eastern Europe, Vladimir Putin continues his imperial war against Ukraine. In the Middle East, Iran and its proxies continue their campaign to eliminate the state of Israel. In the Indo-Pacific, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) continues to threaten Taiwan with invasion.

In the face of these threats, Washington has been slow to respond. Political gridlock has jammed aid to Kyiv, Jerusalem, and Taipei, at least until this past weekend. Congress has thus far proved unable to supply America’s allies with dependable assistance. Meanwhile, dysfunction had frustrated policymakers’ efforts to address the disinformation threats that Beijing’s control of TikTok poses to Americans. The bill passed Saturday by the House of Representatives now goes back to the Senate. Within a few days, we will know where that effort stands.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has taken note of these failures, and has tried to capitalize on them. Since February, CCP propaganda has sought to portray America as incapable of global leadership. Indeed, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence warned of this campaign the same month: “The PRC aims to sow doubts about U.S. leadership, undermine democracy, and extend Beijing’s influence.” The CCP leverages this narrative around the world to foist a choice on America’s partners: make peace with Beijing now while terms are good, because the United States is out of the picture.

Congress has done little recently to convince the world otherwise—at least until now. This weekend, the House of Representatives passed critical national security legislation that includes billions of dollars in funding for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. It also mandates TikTok’s divestment from its Chinese parent company, ByteDance. If the Senate approves and sends the package to President Biden, Washington can notch a tactical win in its ongoing cold war with Beijing, and strike a blow against the PRC’s disinformation campaign in the process.

An increasing number of elected leaders seem to reject the premise of American leadership.

Even so, context matters. Standing with allies and protecting the U.S. homeland are the bare minimum of responsible leadership, not the apex. Supporting America’s partners should be assumed policy. Defanging Beijing’s Trojan horse app that threatens 170 million Americans should be routine business. That they aren’t suggests a deeper strategic problem for America.

Great powers do not win gold stars for doing the expected. Nations win cold wars by going on offense, controlling the competition, and forcing adversaries to compete on unfavorable terrain. The supplemental is a necessary play, but it is also defensive. America must react to restore order, but policymakers must take the next step and force Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran to react to Washington. Thus far, U.S. leaders have proven largely unwilling to compete at these stakes. In the case of U.S.-China relations, President Biden has repeatedly withheld or diluted competitive actions to protect other priorities like climate change. As long as America’s leaders believe the fiction of living in a positive-sum world, America will handicap its own efforts to protect its friends and its own people.

This week ahead thus presents a test for America’s elected leaders. Will Washington take a much-needed and long-delayed step to protect its own homeland and lead the free world? An increasing number of elected leaders seem to reject the premise of American leadership. Some Republicans sought to strike the TikTok bill from the supplemental, while others threatened to oust Speaker Johnson for including Ukraine aid. Meanwhile, progressives continue to undercut the U.S.-Israel relationship. This undercurrent of disunity is the greatest unanswered question in U.S. foreign policy: is the United States poised to be the leader in this century that it was in the prior one?

To be sure, Congress can’t answer that question alone. The resolve of the American people is the ultimate test of national strength. On that front, thankfully, the United States appears strong. Public support for arming Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan remains robust. On balance, meanwhile, polling on TikTok suggests backing for severing CCP control of the app. Now, Washington needs to match the courage of the American electorate.

Michael Sobolik

Michael Sobolik is a senior fellow in Indo-Pacific studies at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Countering China’s Great Game: A Strategy for American Dominance (Naval Institute Press, 2024).

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