China Hawks Aren’t Antiwar

The Biden administration recently accused Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of "parroting Russian talking points" when he suggested that the U.S. should oppose Ukraine’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The administration’s response was insulting, but it was also wildly off the mark because Hawley’s objections to bringing Ukraine into NATO had nothing to do with Russia or Russia policy as such. A closer look at Hawley’s argument against NATO expansion shows that his doubts about adding Ukraine to the alliance are based entirely on a hawkish preoccupation with containing China. It appears that he opposes further NATO expansion only because it might detract from a larger military buildup in East Asia that he wishes to see. Opposing new security commitments in one region so that the US can entangle itself more deeply in another is just another kind of militarism and overreach. The China hawks aren’t antiwar.

Hawley’s case against expanding US commitments in Europe is a simple one. He writes, "we must do less in those secondary theaters in order to prioritize denying China’s hegemonic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific." This is consistent with the so-called "strategy of denial" outlined by Elbridge Colby in his book of the same name, according to which containing Chinese power should be the overriding concern of US foreign policy. China hawks are frustrated by the attention Europe is currently receiving because it threatens to derail or at least delay the confrontational policies they want the US to pursue on the other side of the world. If they had their way, the US would jump out of the confrontational frying pan into the militaristic fire.

China hawks do not really object to taking an overall hardline approach to Russia as long as it doesn’t take up too many resources. In Hawley’s case, he isn’t even absolutely opposed to bringing Ukraine into NATO as long as European allies pick up more of the slack with increased military spending. As he says, "Concerns about NATO enlargement might be lessened if our European allies were shouldering their fair share of the burden of our collective defense. Were they doing so, then it might not be so difficult for NATO to admit new members, without jeopardizing America’s ability to keep its focus on the Indo-Pacific." Hawley seems oblivious or indifferent to the fact that bringing Ukraine into NATO would create an obligation to defend a country that the US and its allies have no ability to defend successfully against a nuclear-armed state. All the same risks and dangers of adding more members would remain the same. More European military spending here and there would not change the reality that this is an irresponsible and reckless commitment for the alliance to make.

Hawks like Hawley have proven to be opportunistic and unreliable in their embrace of antiwar arguments in the past. When Biden first announced the US forces would withdraw from Afghanistan, Hawley agreed with the decision but also attacked Biden for moving too slowly. Then, when the withdrawal happened, he condemned Biden for it and demanded his resignation. In response to the latest Biden administration criticism, Hawley said that Biden would be responsible for any Russian attack on Ukraine because he refrained from imposing Nord Stream 2 sanctions and didn’t do enough to "aid" Ukraine earlier. When faced with the slightest opposition, the senator responded with the most unthinking hawkish talking points imaginable. Even when it seems as if he might be on the right track on this or that policy, it seems that he is mostly just looking for any angle that he can use to bash a Democratic president no matter what the issue is. If Biden had ruled out further NATO expansion, it would not be difficult to imagine Hawley claiming that this was a great betrayal.

Hawley was never "parroting Russian talking points," but he is reciting the conventional wisdom that China is the great enemy that must be contained at all costs. That view is much more dangerous for the United States because it is so widely shared and so rarely questioned in our foreign policy debates. It is most often the policy views that enjoy broad, bipartisan support that are the least scrutinized and likeliest to produce costly failures later. The assumption that the US has to contain China and "deny" its regional dominance is setting the US on a path to more military spending and ruinous, avoidable conflicts. That is the path that China hawks would have us take, and it would be every bit as dangerous as the continued pursuit of NATO expansion on Russia’s doorstep, if not more so. Rather than courting great power conflict in Europe or Asia as it is doing now, the US would do well to focus on managing and reducing tensions with both Russia and China.

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.