On July 21, The New York Times, having demonized Russia as America’s top enemy since at least 2012—if not longer—showed something of a change of heart, and informed readers that “given its economic, military and technological trajectory, together with its authoritarian model, China, not Russia, represents by far the greater challenge to American objectives over the long term. That means President Trump is correct to try to establish a sounder relationship with Russia and peel it away from China.”
That analysis might well have come from the pen of Steven K. Bannon, who, in a surprise twist, recently teamed up with arch-neocon and noted Islamophobe Frank Gaffney to re-form the Cold War–era Committee on the Present Danger (CPD) in order to “educate and inform American citizens and policymakers about the existential threats presented from the Peoples Republic of China under the misrule of the Chinese Communist Party.”
This is the fourth go-around for the CPD, which rears its head every couple of decades in order to inflame, inflate, and then capitalize on the latest hysteria gripping Washington.
First founded in 1950 at the dawn of the McCarthy era, the CPD emerged just as the Truman administration adopted, via National Security Council directive 68, a militarized version of George Kennan’s containment policy. A little over a quarter-century later, in 1976, just as the budding neoconservative movement was turning its attention away from the hippies and “long-hairs” they viewed as defiling university campuses, CPD reformed and took US-Soviet policy as its focus. With the backing of cold warriors like Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the committee agitated for the Carter administration to take a tougher line against the Soviets. As it happens, the CPD found a receptive audience in Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose hawkish anti-Soviet policies anticipated those of the succeeding administration—so much so, that President Reagan considered asking Brzezinski to stay on as national security adviser.
Reagan’s victory in 1980 was the high-water mark of the CPD’s influence. By one account, nearly a sixth of its members, including George Shultz, Paul Nitze (author of the aforementioned NSC-68), and William Casey, took up positions within the new administration.
With the collapse of the USSR came the collapse of the Cold War–era CPD. But it didn’t take long for an new enemy, and hence, a new committee to emerge. In 2004, under the leadership of Gaffney, CPD reformed, this time in order to cheerlead the so-called Global War on Terror. Yet, when things went somewhat less than optimally in Iraq and elsewhere, the CPD slinked away—that is, until this past March when, under the aegis of Bannon and Gaffney, it was reestablished in order to take on China.
Dr. Lyle Goldstein, research professor at the China Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College, says, “The CPD will certainly not be alone among Washington think tanks in taking up extreme causes with a highly selective approach to deploying information. Still, the impact could be extremely deleterious for US-China relations.”
“If Americans are serious about a genuine debate on China, they should actually welcome more analysis from scholars and diplomats with actual knowledge of China,” says Goldstein.
Chas Freeman, senior fellow at the Watson Institute at Brown University, who served as deputy ambassador to China and, later, assistant secretary of defense for international affairs under President Clinton, describes the Bannon-Gaffney committee as “a who’s who of contemporary wing-nuts, very few of whom have any expertise at all about China and most of whom represent ideological causes only peripherally connected to it. Almost none speak or read Chinese. There are a few exceptions, almost all of them vocal advocates of greatly enhanced relations with Taiwan.”
A look through the committee’s membership would seem to bear Freeman out. In addition to Bannon and Gaffney, the committee’s members include neocon hard-liners such as retired Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin, William Bennett, James Woolsey, and Frank Wolf.
An Existential Threat?
Not surprisingly, given its personnel, the CPD paints the most alarming picture possible of China’s goals and motives. According to the committee’s “guiding principles,” in the face of the threat posed by a resurgent China, America “must mobilize all instruments of national power to protect its people, territory, human freedom, vital interests and allies from the Chinese Communist Party.”
“There is,” they say, “no hope of coexistence with China as long as the Communist Party governs the country.”
What’s more, a strong stench of xenophobia runs through the CPD’s bill of indictment. The committee believes the Chinese Communist Party has been successful in “undermining and subverting Western democracies from within” through its “control, domination and exploitation of Chinese diaspora communities, including overseas students, professors and researchers.”
If the CPD took as its focus the economic challenge China poses to the United States, it might have been easier to take it a bit more seriously. After all, as Sherle R. Schwenninger, director of the World Economic Roundtable, tells me, “Chinese corporations are now becoming peer competitors with American corporates and the US will soon face even greater competitive pressures as a result of China’s 2025 program aimed at building national champions in more advanced sectors of the economy.” But the committee, says Schwenninger, seems to be taking “legitimate concerns over Chinese economic practices and instead is intent on blowing them up into a call for a new cold—potentially hot—war by demonizing China.”
Nevertheless, the committee’s message will likely fall on fertile ground in Trump’s Washington. In addition to the trade war, the Pentagon’s national defense strategy has elevated China and Russia as the country’s principal national security threats, downgrading terrorism. Meanwhile, federal law enforcement agencies have been busy targeting Chinese college students, research scientists, and businessmen. FBI Director Christopher A. Wray has even espoused the view that “the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat, but a whole-of-society threat” that will require “a whole-of-society response by us.”
But not everyone is buying into the hysteria. “The debate on China in this country is nonsensical,” says Freeman. “We are repeatedly told that China is an enemy because it is an autocracy. But the truth is the Chinese don’t care how foreigners govern themselves—they are opposed to democracy at home; they are not opposed to democracy abroad.”
According to Freeman, “The assault on China rests upon the assumption that everyone else has to be governed in the same way we are.” As Goldstein puts it, “China has not used force on a large scale (a ‘war’) in four decades and thus has shown remarkable restraint for a great power. Its defense spending is significantly lower than that of the US; it has one single base overseas, and no real alliances.”
The Manichaean impulse to split the world into white hats and back hats, an impulse the CPD has embodied on and off for 70 years, leads not to peace and prosperity but to runway defense budgets, nuclear and conventional arms races, proxy wars, and the erosion of civil liberties at home.