Fear of ‘terrorism’ shaped U.S. foreign policy after 9/11. Will the U.S. make China the next big obsession?
By Ronald R. Krebs
Five years after the twin towers came crashing down, Jennifer Lobasz and I wrote an article explaining how a particular national security narrative had become dominant in the United States. By situating the 9/11 attacks within a compelling story about an existential global war between America and those who hate its freedoms, U.S. leaders fixed the meaning of 9/11 in American discourse, and paved the way to war in Iraq.
That initial article led to a book exploring how national security narratives become dominant, and how dominant narratives shape policy. I argued that politicians often aspire to set security narratives as a way to limit the range of legitimate foreign policies.
President George W. Bush was famous for bungling his words. But in the uncertainty following the 9/11 attacks, he used his authority as the nation’s storyteller-in-chief to advance a powerful narrative, muzzle competing accounts and undercut alternative policies. In contrast, many consummate orators — from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan — have fallen short, by misreading the moment or failing to advance a well-drawn story.
The dominance of what I have called the “terror narrative” eventually waned, but its legacy for U.S. foreign policy and domestic politics has been profound. It is tempting to imagine that, with the U.S. populace deeply polarized and with its divisions hardened by social media echo chambers, the time of dominant narratives has passed. In 2021, however, the narrative of a threatening China may well take the place of the terror narrative — and Joe Biden may be responsible.
How the terror narrative mattered
Narratives are essential to how human beings make sense of inherently messy experience. The post 9/11 terror narrative cast the terrorists as evil, America as blameless, the threat as existential — and the moment as transformative.
It was hardly the “natural” interpretation of that horrible day, even though it came to seem like common sense, for many Americans. An alternative narrative might have represented the terrorists as having legitimate grievances, the United States as at least partly responsible and the threat as more mass disruption than destruction. The dominant terror narrative thrust these alternatives to the margins and cast their proponents as illegitimate.
This narrative had major consequences for U.S. foreign policy. It underpinned the “Global War on Terror” and distracted the United States from other challenges. It tilted the playing field toward supporters of the Iraq War. Later that decade, even that war’s critics grounded themselves in the terror narrative, arguing that the United States had devoted itself to the “wrong” war on terror and should focus instead on Afghanistan.
That narrative has weakened
The terror narrative’s death grip on U.S. foreign policy eventually waned. The Obama administration began treating terrorism as simply one challenge among many. Today, questioning whether Islamist extremists pose a Soviet Union-like threat to U.S. national security is no longer virtual sacrilege.
While the terror narrative is no longer dominant, it’s hardly toothless. Republican critics of the Obama administration invoked its tropes amid the rise of the Islamic State. The narrative’s logic informed ongoing drone warfare around the world. It justified permanent changes at home in the balance between liberty and security. And politicians, notably Donald Trump, subsequently appropriated this language to legitimate political projects ranging from the border wall with Mexico to the crackdown on antifa.
Are we moving toward a new dominant national security narrative?
Could today’s polarized U.S. public unite around a single national security narrative? Exercising narrative leadership was challenging enough during the Obama years. Trump’s populist politics of division have made the task even harder.
But a new narrative of national security is vying for dominance. At its center lies the claim that an increasingly powerful and assertive China threatens the United States and the international order. To be sure, many other narratives are competing in the marketplace. But there is little question that the China threat narrative has the upper hand.
This is not unexpected. The decline of the terror narrative left behind a vacuum, which the China threat narrative is poised to fill. But it has been slow to attain dominance, due largely to the absence of an authoritative storyteller: the president of the United States.
Trump missed his chance to advance a coherent narrative about China. When it came to trade, he consistently portrayed China as taking advantage of the naive United States. But, beyond that, Trump was rhetorically flummoxed.
As the president who promised to end America’s “endless wars,” he could not concede that China’s rise to superpower status was inevitable — as some realists claimed — for fear of escalating military tensions. As a longtime critic of the postwar international order, he could hardly complain — as did Washington sages — that China was undermining the “rules-based order.” So Trump veered between portraying China as the cunning exploiter of American innocence and as a potential partner in managing shared regional and global challenges.
Meanwhile, Trump’s national security team leaned heavily into the China threat narrative. Along with Russia, China was a “revisionist power,” they contended, and would “challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.” On China, as on other issues, the administration did not speak with a single voice.
The more-disciplined Biden administration has resisted casting China as an existential threat. Instead, the administration has framed China as a rival, whose vision for global politics stands in stark opposition to Western values. Bolstered by this clear narrative, the U.S. has effectively mustered support among its European allies to counter Chinese influence.
My research suggests that if Biden consistently tells this story regarding China, and if his administration remains on message, we may see a new, dominant narrative of national security.
But the vices of dominant narratives outweigh their virtues. They can bind the nation together in common purpose and help mobilize national resources. But they also silence critical voices and marginalize alternatives, which can result in narrower foreign policy options and less adaptive policymaking.
If the China threat narrative prevails, the U.S. will be well-positioned to confront a new great power menace. But a dominant China threat narrative may also prove self-fulfilling. By sustaining a confrontational U.S. policy, the narrative’s vision of an aggressive China may become reality.