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National Conservatives’ China Dilemma

Anti-imperialism, rather than preserving the “liberal international order,” should be the argument for post-liberals wanting to counter China.

When an international mix of right-wing conservatives, disaffected liberals, and labor advocates gathered together on the night of Halloween to convene the National Conservatism Conference in Florida, the product was, unsurprisingly, an odd brew. Much has and will continue to be written about the event because it is likely to go down in history as marking a significant realignment toward a “post-liberal” political moment. But, in the short term, the gathering of this new alliance raised as many questions and contradictions as it resolved.

Among the most visible was the question of what to do about China. The issue exploded into view with a panel that was quickly memorialized by attendees into a quasi-legendary moment in which two former Trump administration figures engaged in a heated and personal verbal knife fight over the necessity of being willing to fight a nuclear war over Taiwan—complete with accusations of appeasement, surrenderism, and warmongering.

This level of contention in part represented two factions present: the common species of hawkish Republicans like Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz—never ones to miss a chance to burnish their anti-Communist bona fides in a fiery tough-on-China speech—and a more pensive group frustrated with the neoconservative establishment’s habitual interventionism. But it also reflected a far deeper conceptual contradiction about what it means to be a “nationalist” in today’s world.

The truth is that the new right’s vision for a politics that places popular and national sovereignty at its core, and which stands in opposition to the transnational and supranational ambitions of hegemonic globalist liberalism (and hence in sympathy with causes like Brexit or Hungary’s struggle against Brussels), pushes it far closer to conceptual agreement with Beijing than it is comfortable discussing.

At least rhetorically, China places the principle of national sovereignty—a term it repeats like a mantra—at the core of its vision for international relations, along with “non-interference” in other countries’ internal affairs and denunciations of liberalism’s assumption that “the West’s values are the prevailing norm for all human civilization.” Few have articulated this more forcefully than China’s foremost political theorist, Wang Huning, who literally wrote the book on national sovereignty in China. In it, he writes scathingly of the fact that the West seemingly only discarded its taste for national sovereignty, self-determination, and “cultural conservatism” in favor of universalist liberal ideas and institutions at the very moment when these became most helpful in justifying its attempted consolidation of sprawling imperial possessions.

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This highlights the post-liberal, nationalist right’s dilemma. They clearly sense a threat from China and feel they must do what it takes to oppose it from a position of strength. But why, exactly?

For President Biden, and for most past establishment administrations in Washington, the answer has been straightforward: China’s rise challenges the prevailing “liberal international order,” i.e. the global thicket of liberal international institutions and norms that were established by the West after WWII and are now at the vanguard of the globalist project. Hence, in part, why Biden has framed the struggle with China as a new global cold war between “liberal democracy” and “autocracy.”

But if the new generation of nationalist conservatives opposes the hegemonic nature of the liberal order, then how do they explain their hostility to China, which shares the same foe? So far this question seems met most often with confusion or a swift change of topic.

There is, however, a straightforward answer to this quandary available, should they be willing to take it up: a recovery of the Anglo-American conservative tradition’s longstanding historical clarity about the domestic foundations of national power, the importance of carefully weighing core national interests, and the deep danger of imperialist enthusiasm (often in contrast to their liberal opponents).

Through this lens, China still appears as a threat, but for quite different reasons. Instead of the risk being that China will seek, as a rogue nation-state, to overturn the “liberal international order,” the threat is that China is highly likely to pursue its own imperial agenda at the expense of independent, sovereign nations—no matter how often it repeats its platitudes about national sovereignty.

The Chinese will of course protest that they have no such intention, and even genuinely believe this claim. But, human nature being what it is, that isn’t especially relevant. We can fully expect China to behave as so many other rising powers have behaved in similar circumstances after achieving positions of strength—including the United States, which conceived of itself as an explicitly anti-imperial power but soon nonetheless ended up swinging around Teddy Roosevelt’s Big Stick of gunboat diplomacy in order to transform the Caribbean into an “American lake.”

And China has indeed already begun laying the groundwork for empire through projects like its global infrastructure initiative and the rapid construction of a blue water navy capable of projecting power across the seas. If unopposed, such an imperial power will inevitably move, consciously or subconsciously, to enforce conformity with its material and political preferences around the world.

Maintaining American national sovereignty would thus require prudently balancing against and constraining Chinese power, a strategy that would by necessity revolve around forming coalitions of strength with similarly concerned and self-interested allies and partners, including ones who don’t necessarily share the same liberal values.

Such a conceptual approach would have a number of advantages, the first of which would be eliding any need to nail down what China’s contradictory political ideology actually is. Ironically, however, more significant may be that it would likely allow greater flexibility for maintaining peace with China, not only through military deterrence, but by avoiding a reflexive rejection of the legitimacy of the Chinese nation-state and its interests on ideological grounds.

But, most importantly, reconsidering the answer to “why fight?” in this way would resolve the fundamental incoherence of nationalist conservatives who continue to find themselves regularly defending universal liberalism abroad even as they decry its sway at home. With a clear statement of what they are for (national sovereignty and independence) and against (imperial power), they may even be able to break free from the neoliberals and neoconservatives whose influence they still struggle to resist.

N.S. Lyons is an analyst and writer living and working in Washington, D.C. He is the author of The Upheaval.

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