Democracy or Plutocracy? – America’s Existential Question

Kishore Mahbubani is a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore. This essay contains excerpts from his latest book Has China Won? (2020). You may follow him on Twitter @mahbubani_k.


Is the United States of America still a functioning democracy or has it become, for all practical purposes, a plutocracy? And why is this question important? It’s important because the answer to the question of whether America has a dark or shining future will depend on whether it’s a democracy or plutocracy. Indeed, this question may well be the most existential question America has to address.

Let’s begin to answer this question from the very beginning. What is the actual difference between a democracy and a plutocracy? In a democracy, the masses broadly determine their future. Equally critically, in terms of the economy, society, and political system there is a level playing field where the working classes, middle classes, and affluent elites compete. The term “level playing field” is absolutely critical here. Many Americans believe that their economic and political systems create a level playing field in which the poor and disadvantaged can rise to the top. This is also why there is no social resentment of billionaires in America. Most Americans believe that they have an equal opportunity to become billionaires. So the first big question we need to address is this: is there a level playing field for the poor and rich?

The honest answer is no. Today, when working class or even middle class Americans have to compete with the affluent elites, they are not competing on a level playing field. They have to run uphill to score goals. By contrast, the affluent elites run downhill as the playing field is tilted in their favor. Writing in the Financial Times in June 2019, Edward Luce provides one statistic to drive home this point: “Studies show that an eighth grade [i.e. a 14-year-old] child from a lower income bracket who achieves maths results in the top quarter is less likely to graduate than a kid in the upper income bracket scored in the bottom quarter. This is the reverse of how meritocracy should work.”

There is no shortage of data to drive home the point that there is no longer a level playing field in America. Anand Giridharadas, a former New York Times columnist, has documented in great detail in his book Winners Take All (2018) how the dream of the American middle class has effectively evaporated. As he says:

A successful society is a progress machine. It takes in the raw material of innovations and produces broad human advancement. America’s machine is broken. When the fruits of change have fallen on the United States in recent decades, the very fortunate have basketed almost all of them. For instance, the average pretax income of the top tenth of Americans has doubled since 1980, that of the top 1 percent has more than tripled, and that of the top 0.001 percent has risen more than sevenfold—even as the average pretax income of the bottom half of Americans has stayed almost precisely the same. These familiar figures amount to three and a half decades’ worth of wondrous, head-spinning change with zero impact on the average pay of 117 million Americans.

Giridharadas claims that the American people are beginning to “feel” that the system is unfair:

Thus many millions of Americans, on the left and right, feel one thing in common: that the game is rigged against people like them. […] There is a spreading recognition, on both sides of the ideological divide, that the system is broken, that the system has to change.

Giridharadas is right. To create a level playing field, the system has to change. But it will not change. Why not? What are the obstacles to change? And, if there are obstacles, why hasn’t the world’s freest media, the American media, revealed these obstacles? This is where the story becomes complex. We also have to venture into politically controversial territory to understand the obstacles to change.

Main Obstacle to Change

The main obstacle to change is a myth. An example from history will help. For centuries, European serfs accepted a feudal system in which they were second-class citizens (if not slaves) in a system dominated by feudal lords. Why didn’t the majority of serfs overthrow the minority of feudal lords? A huge myth was created to generate a belief that this system was just. The kind and gentle feudal lords reinforced the myth. At the risk of quoting a politically controversial philosophical concept, let me mention a term used for this phenomenon: false consciousness. According to Daniel Little, Chancellor Emeritus and Professor of Philosophy at University of Michigan-Dearborn, “false consciousness” is a concept derived from Marxist theory of social class. […] Members of a subordinate class (workers, peasants, serfs) suffer from false consciousness in that their mental representations of the social relations around them systematically conceal or obscure the realities of subordination, exploitation, and domination those relations embody. Marx asserts that social mechanisms emerge in class society that systematically create distortions, errors, and blind spots in the consciousness of the underclass. If these consciousness-shaping mechanisms did not exist, then the underclass, always a majority, would quickly overthrow the system of their domination.

Yet, even if contemporary Americans were to accept that there was “false consciousness” in the feudal era, they would contest the possibility of it emerging in modern American society, where the unique combination of the world’s freest and fiercely independent media, the best universities, the best-funded think tanks and the spirit of open and critical enquiry would expose any big “myth” that enveloped American society. Many Americans would assert no myths can survive in the robustly open environment of American society. Only facts survive.

To be fair, many American writers have written about the several dimensions of plutocracy in American society. In addition to Giridharadas, who was cited earlier, distinguished American writers like Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Robert Reich have documented, for example, the growing inequality in America. In his brilliant May 2011 Vanity Fair article entitled, “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%,” Stiglitz opines that it’s no use pretending that what has obviously happened has not in fact happened. The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent.

Yet what most of these articles emphasize is the growing “inequality” in America. And if the problem is “inequality,” then fortunately the problem can be solved. As America has the world’s most robust democratic system, where the broad masses elect the leaders who in turn take care of the interests of the broad masses, any problem of “inequality” could eventually be fixed. In short, if America has a problem, it also has a solution: democracy.

This brings us to the heart of the argument of this essay. To put it simply, the solution has become part of the problem. While all the democratic processes remain in place, with Americans going to the polls every two or four years (depending on the elected office) to select their leaders (who will in theory take care of them), the results of all those processes is that Americans elect leaders who will take care of the 1 percent, not the 99 percent.

How did this happen? How did America, which on the surface still functions as a democracy, become a plutocracy, which takes care of the interest of the 1 percent? [Note: the term 1 percent is used metaphorically here. The real reference is to a tiny elite that benefits from a non-level playing field]

There was one great American who anticipated the effective hijacking of the American democratic system by the very affluent. He is America’s greatest political philosopher of recent times, John Rawls. Rawls warned that “if those who have greater private means are permitted to use their advantages to control the course of public debate,” this would be the corrupting result:

Eventually, these inequalities will enable those better situated to exercise a larger influence over the development of legislation. In due time they are likely to acquire a preponderant weight in settling social questions, at least in regard to those matters upon which they normally agree, which is to say in regard to those things that support their favored circumstances.

This is precisely what has happened over the past few decades: the affluent have gained “preponderant weight […] in regard of those things that support their favored circumstances.” There has been a relative transfer of wealth and political power from the vast majority of America’s population to a privileged super minority.

The practical effect of transferring power to a super minority is that the political system responds to the needs and interest of the top 1 percent, not to the 99 percent. Fortunately, there have been strong, peer-reviewed academic studies that confirm this political reality. Two Princeton University professors have documented how ordinary American citizens have lost their political power and influence. Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page studied the relative influence that the views of average Americans and mass-based interest groups have on policy outcomes versus the views of the economic elite in 1,779 cases. They found that: economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. […] When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy. […] Furthermore, the preferences of economic elites (as measured by our proxy, the preferences of “affluent” citizens) have far more independent impact upon policy change than the preferences of average citizens do. […] In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. ]

They reach the following alarming conclusion:

Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.

In the past, the broad middle classes of America had a strong say in determining the fundamental direction of American society. Today, they no longer do. The decisions of the U.S. Congress are not determined by the voters; they are determined by the funders. As a result, America is becoming functionally less and less of a democracy, where all citizens have an equal voice. Instead, it looks more and more like a plutocracy, where a few rich people are disproportionately powerful.

These conclusions have been reinforced by other academic studies. A 2018 study by scholars Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, Theda Skocpol, and Jason Sclar of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University further argued that since the mid-2000s, newly formed conservative and progressive donor consortia—above all the Koch seminars [founded by brothers Charles and David Koch] and the DA [Democracy Alliance]—have magnified the impact of wealthy donors by raising and channeling ever more money not just into elections but also into full arrays of cooperating political organizations. […] The Koch seminars […] allowed donations to be channeled into building a virtual third political party organized around AFP [Americans for Prosperity], an overarching political network able not only to electorally support the Republican Party but also to push and pull its candidates and office holders in preferred ultra-free-market policy directions. […] To the degree that wealthy donor consortia have succeeded in building organizational infrastructures, they have shifted the resources available for developing policy proposals, pressing demands on lawmakers, and mobilizing ordinary Americans into politics. […] When plutocratic collectives impose new agendas on political organizations seeking to attract financial resources, the funders reshape routines, goals, and centers of power in U.S. politics well beyond the budgetary impact of particular grants.

To that end, Figure 1 illustrates (please see following page) the hundreds of millions of dollars that wealthy donors have raised annually within the donor consortia to finance their political interests. The authors thus conclude:

Our analysis of the Koch and DA consortia highlights that a great deal of big-money influence flows through mechanisms other than individual or business donations to the electoral and lobbying operations. […] To understand how the wealthy are reshaping U.S. politics, we need to look not just at their election and lobbying expenditures but also at their concerted investments in many kinds of political organizations operating across a variety of fields and functions. Only in this way can we account for the stark inequalities in government responsiveness documented by [various] researchers.

So what triggered this massive transfer of political power from the broad masses to a tiny elite in America? This question will be hotly debated by political scientists and historians for decades. Yet it is also clear that one seminal ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court made a huge difference. In a landmark ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) as well as in other decisions, many of the legislative restraints on the use of money to influence the political process were overturned.

A report by the Center for Public Integrity reported that: “The Citizens United ruling, released in January 2010, tossed out the corporate and union ban on making independent expenditures and financing electioneering communications. It gave corporations and unions the green light to spend unlimited sums on ads and other political tools, calling for the election or defeat of individual candidates.” The impact of this and other Supreme Court decisions was monumental. Effectively, they ended up transforming the American political system. Martin Wolf says that “the Supreme Court’s perverse 2010 Citizens United decision held that companies are persons and money is speech. That has proved a big step on the journey of the U.S. towards becoming a plutocracy.”

Now, Martin Wolf is one of the most influential columnists in the world. He also describes himself as being fiercely pro-American. In a column written in 2018, Wolf said “the U.S. was not just any great power. It embodied the causes of democracy, freedom, and the rule of law. This made [my father] fiercely pro-American. I inherited this attitude.” America is an open society. Therefore, when major voices like Martin Wolf and Joseph Stiglitz describe America as having become a “plutocracy,” the logical result should have been a major public debate on whether this claim is true.

Instead, the opposite happened. This comment by Martin Wolf was buried. The psychological resistance in America to use the term “plutocracy” is deep. Leading newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post do not use it. Leading columnists like Richard Cohen and Paul Krugman do not use it. Nor do distinguished historians like Simon Schama mention plutocracy. Certainly no American politician uses it.

So, what is in a name? Shakespeare once famously said “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” I sometimes doubt this piece of wisdom. If someone were to change the name of “rose” to “skunk-flower,” we might approach a rose with some caution. Choosing the right name makes a huge difference. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

The sad reality about the U.S. is that, functionally, there is absolutely no doubt that the political system has gone from functioning as a democracy (a government of the people, by the people, for the people) towards becoming a plutocracy (a government of the 1 percent, by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent). Yet, while this political reality is undeniable, it is also unspeakable.

Just and Unjust Inequality

What is the real danger that flows from this refusal to describe the American political system as a “plutocracy”? Many dangers! Firstly, it perpetuates the myth that American society has a “level playing field.” Anybody can succeed. Hence, if a person fails it is because of his individual defects. It is not because the social environment is rigged against the person. Secondly, by refusing to describe it as a plutocracy, the fundamental difference between “just inequality” and “unjust inequality” falls to the surface.

The term “just inequality” may seem to be an oxymoron. Yet, it was John Rawls who highlighted this difference. It was he who said that inequality was not the problem. The fundamental question was whether rising inequality resulted in an improvement or deterioration of the living conditions of the people living at the bottom. He states this clearly and categorically: “the higher expectations of those better situated are just if and only if they work as part of a scheme which improves the expectations of the least advantaged members of society.”

The best way to illustrate the difference between “just equality” and “unjust equality” is to compare concrete examples. Both the United States and China have about the same level of inequality. By the latest estimates, the gini coefficient in America is 0.41 and in China is 0.39. There is no significant difference here. However, there is a significant difference between how the bottom 50 percent have fared in America and China. America is the only major developed society where the average income of the bottom 50 percent has declined over a 30 year period from 1980 to 2010, as documented by my colleague of the National University of Singapore, Professor Danny Quah. By contrast, the bottom 50 percent of the Chinese population has seen the greatest improvements in their standard of living in recent decades. Indeed, the past 40 years of social and economic development that the Chinese people have enjoyed have been the best 40 years in four thousand years of Chinese history.

The story here is not just about economic failures and economic successes. These economic failures and successes have profound effects on the state of psychological and social well-being of societies. In America, this stagnation of income has also resulted in a lot of human pain and suffering, as documented by two Princeton University economists, Anne Case and Angus Deaton. The white working classes of America used to carry the American dream of getting a better life in their hearts and souls. Today, as Case says, there is a “sea of despair” among them. She and Deaton conclude: “Ultimately, we see our story as about the collapse of the white, high-school-educated working class after its heyday in the early 1970s, and the pathologies that accompany that decline.” The detailed study of Case and Deaton documents how poor economic prospects “compounds over time through family dysfunction, social isolation, addiction, obesity, and other pathologies.”

In China, the situation is almost exactly the opposite. A Chinese-American psychology research from Stanford University, Jean Fan, visited China in 2019. She observed that “China is changing in a deep and visceral way, and it is changing fast, in a way that is almost incomprehensible without seeing it in person. In contrast to America’s stagnation, China’s culture, self-concept, and morale are being transformed at a rapid pace—mostly for the better.”

One obvious counter-argument to the different social conditions of America and China is that the American people are still better off because they enjoy freedom while the Chinese people do not. It is true that the American people enjoy political freedom. This is undeniable. However, it is also true that a person from the bottom 50 percent of American society is more likely to lose their personal freedom and end up in jail. The chance of being incarcerated in America (if one is born in the bottom 10 percent, especially among the black population) is at least five times higher than China. America sends 0.655 percent (or 2.12 million) into jails. By contrast, China sends 0.118 percent (or 1.65 million) into jails. A 2019 study tried to understand which ethnic group in America had the greatest percentage of individuals with family members in jail or prison. The average figure for all Americans was 45 percent. The figure for whites was 42 percent, Hispanics 48 percent, and blacks 63 percent.

Any American who has doubts about the dangers posed by plutocracy should pause and reflect on these figures. Let’s repeat the figure: 45 percent of Americans have family members in jail or prison. These high levels of incarceration did not happen because the American people have psychological characteristics that make them more likely to become criminals. This is a result of the socio-economic conditions of the bottom 50 percent that have steadily deteriorated.

If it is manifestly obvious that the American political system is facing a crisis, why is there no consensus on the American body politic on what has gone wrong? Surely the best newspapers and universities, and the best-known students and professors in the world, should be able to arrive at a clear consensus on the real problems faced by American society?

In the year 2020, we can understand why there is no consensus. The liberal elites are distracted by one major issue: the reelection of Donald Trump. They believe that it would be a disaster if Donald Trump is reelected. They also believe that many of America’s problems would be solved if Joe Biden wins. I share the hope that Biden will win. Yet, even if he wins, the systemic issues that led to the development of a plutocracy in America will not go away. Money will still dominate the political system.

If anyone doubts this, the following data from an important 2018 study written by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman that appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Economics confirms this very clearly: First, our data show a sharp divergence in the growth experienced by the bottom 50 percent versus the rest of the economy. The average pretax income of the bottom 50 percent of adults has stagnated at about $16,000 per adult (in constant 2014 dollars, using the national income deflator) since 1980, while average national income per adult has grown by 60 percent to $64,500 in 2014. As a result, the bottom 50 percent income share has collapsed from about 20 percent in 1980 to 12 percent in 2014. In the meantime, the average pretax income of top 1 percent adults rose from $420,000 to about $1.3 million, and their income share increased from about 12 percent in the early 1980s to 20 percent in 2014. The two groups have essentially switched their income shares, with eight points of national income transferred from the bottom 50 percent to the top 1 percent. The top 1 percent income share is now almost twice as large as the bottom 50 percent share, a group that is by definition 50 times more numerous. In 1980, top 1 percent adults earned on average 27 times more than bottom 50 percent adults before tax, while they earn 81 times more today.

There are two ways of viewing this great divergence. It could be a result of the fact that the top 1 percent of Americans are becoming smarter and the bottom 50 percent of Americans are becoming less smart. Or it could be a result of the fact that America has become a plutocracy where there is no longer a level playing field. All the evidence points to the latter conclusion. Many Americans sense that the system does not work for them.

Deteriorating socio-economic conditions mean that people will suffer. All this is brought out by the latest Social Progress Index which was released in September 2020. Quite astonishingly, out of 163 countries assessed worldwide, America, Brazil, and Hungary are the only three countries where people have become worse off. The index collects several metrics of well-being, including nutrition, safety, freedom, the environment, health, education, and others to measure the quality of life in a country. America slipped from number 19 to number 28 in the world. Writing with reference to the aforementioned results, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof corroborates deteriorating quality of life with “rising distress and despair.” Quite shockingly, Kristof describes how one quarter of the children with whom he went to school on the same school bus are now dead from drugs, alcohol, and suicide. His personal experience mirrors what Case and Deaton have documented on the “sea of despair” among white working classes.

Tyranny of Money

Clearly something has gone fundamentally wrong with American society. Many Americans are also beginning to sense that the system isn’t working for them. Marvin Zonis, a University of Chicago economist has written an article which describes how “the American system is facing a crisis of legitimacy.” The level of confidence that American people have in their key institutions has been declining. Confidence in the U.S. presidency has fallen from 52 percent in 1975 to 37 percent in 2018. Confidence in the U.S. Congress has plummeted more sharply from 42 percent in 1973 to 11 percent in 2018. The explanation that Zonis gives for this declining confidence is credible. As he says, “the central factor in the growing lack of trust and confidence in our institutions has been the realization that our American democracy does not function commensurately with the ideals of the founders or the Constitution. Money has become the key to American political life.”

The key word he uses is “money.” If money dictates outcomes in politics, it means that a society has become a “plutocracy.” After documenting how the amount of money spent in a U.S. presidential election year has gone from $3 billion in 2010 to $6.5 billion in 2016, Zonis adds that the “contributors of those many billions expect a return on their investments—and they usually get it. Congressional action on gun legislation, sugar subsidies, policies towards Israel, drug pricing, and countless other issues is best explained by the financing of political campaigns and not by the political preferences of ordinary voters, or even of members of Congress.”

Please read the above paragraph again, carefully. It says clearly that the decisions of the U.S. Congress are decided by “contributors of billions” and not by the “political preference of ordinary voters.” This observation confirms what Gilens and Page documented earlier. In short, there is no doubt that functionally America has become a plutocracy. Yet, equally significantly, Zonis does not use the term “plutocracy” once in his article.

In Denial there is an old fashioned adage that says: one must call a spade a spade. Similarly, one must call a plutocracy a plutocracy. The reluctance to do so brings out the key problems facing American society. If America refuses to accept that it has functionally become a plutocracy, how can it possibly find a way out of this challenge? Just as no oncologist can cure a patient of cancer if he or she refuses to submit himself or herself to treatment, similarly America cannot be cured of its plutocracy problem if it remains in denial that such a problem exists.

All this means that there are two possible outcomes. The first is a revolution against the establishment in Washington, DC. Paradoxically this may have been what the working classes thought they were doing when they elected Trump in 2016. They wanted to elect someone outside the establishment and one who would shake up the establishment. When Hillary Clinton responded in 2016 by calling Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables” it showed that she, together with the rest of the Washington establishment did not understand what the broad masses of Americans were trying to convey. Unfortunately, in electing Trump, the working classes voted in a plutocrat. In office, Trump acted like a plutocrat. He cut taxes for the rich again. The conditions for the bottom 50 percent didn’t improve.

The second possible outcome is for the arrival of enlightenment. At some point in time, the top 1 percent in America must come to realize that if they are going to protect most of their personal economic gain in America, and not make an effort to improve the conditions of the bottom 50 percent, they will only damage the very body politic—American society—that is enabling them to become so wealthy.

Fortunately, many wealthy Americans are coming to realize this. Ray Dalio is one of them. Dalio runs the largest, most successful hedge fund in the world, which has succeeded through rigorous empirical research. Dalio has now applied this research to understanding poverty and inequality in America. On his LinkedIn page, Dalio spells out the dramatic decline in the living standards of the majority of Americans and points out that “most people in the bottom 60 percent are poor” and cites “a recent Federal Reserve study [that showed that] 40 percent of all Americans would struggle to raise $400 in the event of an emergency.” Worse, Dalio notes that “they are increasingly getting stuck being poor […]. [T]he odds of someone in the bottom quintile moving up to the middle quintile or higher in a 10-year period […] declined from about 23 percent in 1990 to only 14 percent as of 2011.”

The data on social deterioration in America is undeniable. It undercuts the claims that America is a society where hard work brings rewards. For most people, the rewards have dried up. The platitude that “virtue is its own reward” turns out to be grimly and limitingly true.

Five Hard Steps Forward

Yet, even if the top 1 percent in America, which includes Dalio, were to wish that American society return to its condition of the 1950s and 1960s, when the broad mass of American society was also lifted up as America’s economy grew, what should they do? Is there a magic button they can press? Is there a simple “silver bullet” solution to America’s problem with plutocracy? Sadly, there are no easy solutions. There are only painful solutions. This article will therefore conclude by suggesting what some of them might be. The first step would be for the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision to be reversed. As Martin Wolf said, this court decision started the slippery slope towards plutocracy in America.

The second step would be for America to emulate the example of its fellow democracies in the European Union and impose strict limits on the amount of money that can be spent on elections. Fortunately, the American people also want to limit the influence of money. A Pew Research Institute survey in 2018 found that “an overwhelming majority (77 percent) supports limits on the amount of money individuals and organizations can spend on political campaigns and issues. And nearly two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) say new laws could be effective in reducing the role of money in politics.”

The third step is to change American ideology in a fundamental way. It should go back to the wisdom of its founding fathers. The founding fathers of America were all disciples of great European philosophers of the Enlightenment period (including John Locke and Montesquieu) and emphasized both Freedom and Equality—as did the aforementioned Rawls. Of late, however, American politicians, starting with Ronald Reagan, have emphasized Freedom and not mentioned Equality in the same breath.

The fourth step is to acknowledge that market forces alone cannot create a level playing field for all Americans. Government must step in to redress major social and economic inequalities. Therefore, Americans should openly declare that Reagan was totally wrong when he said, “government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” Instead, Americans should accept the wisdom of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen who said that for societies to progress they need the “invisible hand” of the free market and the “visible hand” of good governance. Americans have not used the “visible hand” in recent decades, especially since the Reagan-Thatcher revolution.

Fifthly, the American government should declare that the main goal of American society is to go from being number 28 on the Social Progress Index towards becoming number one on this index. Hence, instead of trying to become the number one military power (and wasting trillions fighting unnecessary wars) America will spend its trillions improving the living conditions of Americans measured in the Social Progress Index.

The bottom line is that solutions are out there, and they’re available. But these solutions will only work if Americans agree on what the problem is. And the problem is, quite simply, plutocracy.

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China in Balkans from the EU Perspective


In the early 2000s, China started to take an active role around the world. On the other hand,
we see that it started to be active in the Balkans after Xi Jinping’s examination of the Belt
Road Project, which extends from Asia to the Balkans, was announced in 2013. Subsequently,
67% of the Greece-Piraeus Port, which is the second-largest port of the Mediterranean, was
acquired by China in 2016. With the acquisition of this port, China took the task of
transporting the goods coming to Piraeus to Europe via the Balkans.
Although China seems to be very active in trade in the Balkans, its share of trade with
Balkan countries is only 5%. Only half of this percentage is with Serbia. Also, although the
EU gets worried about this situation, China is not an opponent of the EU. However, the
president of the EU Commission Ursula Von der Layen defended that the Balkans are not a
stop on the Silk Road but a part of Europe, and she emphasized that China’s presence in the
Balkans causes three difficulties: making countries dependent on itself by confining them in
debt, preventing the environmental standards demanded by the EU, and the continuity of
If we examine the above-mentioned effects of China in the Balkans, it is firstly defended by
the EU that China has an active role in the region through borrowing. They explain this as
China’s fast and cheap meeting of infrastructure needs in the Balkans, providing loans to
Balkan states and thus increasing its political influence in the Balkans. An example is the
selection of a Chinese company for the highway project in Montenegro, and Montenegro’s
high debt to China. As a result of these situations, Montenegro, which has made many legal
regulations, has been under the influence of China and is also in a debtor position and has
difficulties in granting EU membership. Secondly, the environmental regulation conditions
signed as Energy Treaty are not applied. While the use of fossil fuels should be reduced and
the use of renewable energy sources should increase, China started investing in coal power
plants in the Balkans. Finally, the Anti-Corruption Reform was prepared in order to ensure the
democracy deemed necessary for the membership of the Balkans to the EU, to accept the rule
of law and to adopt respect for human rights; however, this reform is not implemented and it
is claimed that China also supports this situation. In addition, China’s biggest problem with
this issue is that it is not transparent in the Belt and Road Project.
In addition to the three main reasons mentioned above and defended by the EU, one of the
reasons why China is effective in the Balkans is the good use of its soft power. With the

Confucius Institutes opening, China provided cultural transfer for the public of the Balkans.
Besides, China’s ability to hold on so tightly in the region is that it uses its development model
with its capital and brings wealth to the Balkans. Accordingly, the public is against the
attitude of the EU towards China. On the other hand, if we look at it historically, the main
reason why China took its place in the Balkans so easily is the power vacuum created by the
EU in the Balkans by seeing the Balkans as inferior and inadequate. Combined with the
Euroskepticism that emerged in the 2010s, China took a step and made progress. However, all
these have not prevented the EU from giving up its fundamental interests in the Balkans
today, and the need for the unification of the Balkans and Europe was discussed.
In summary, China started to be active in the Balkans in the 2010s and started this with the
Belt and Road Project. Although China used trade afterward, its main point was that China
brought wealth to the Balkans by using its soft power and capital effectively and quickly.
However, China’s activism has emerged that three major shortcomings from the EU’s
perspective in the Balkans: borrowing and dependence on China, low environmental
standards, and the continuation of corruption. According to the EU, all these consequences
prevent the Balkans from joining the EU, on the other hand, the EU does not want to give up
its fundamental interests in the Balkans. The President of the EU Commission and the
presidents of the EU Commission member states made statements and expressed that they
want the Balkans to join the EU fully and to reduce the influence of China due to the
problems created in the region. But how likely is this to happen?


“AB Komisyonu Başkanı von Der Leyen: Batı Balkanlar’ın Yeri AB’dir, Bununla Ilgili Hiçbir

Şüphe Yok,” Euronews, May 6, 2020,

“Von Der Leyen: Western Balkans Are Part of Europe, Not Just a Stopover on the Silk Road,”
European Western Balkans, September 16, 2020,

Gamze Ayan Çakmak, “Batı Balkanlar’da Çin-AB Rekabeti,” Diplomasi ve Strateji Dergisi The
Journal of Diplomacy and Strategy, n.d.,
Robin Emmott Aleksandar Vasovic, “EU Aims to Counter Chinese, Russian Influence at Balkan

Summit,” Reuters, May 6, 2020,

This article is written by Buse Bakkaloğlu

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Statement of European Union Foreign Policy Chief, Josep Borrell: The Old Empires Are Coming Back

High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep
Borrell Frontelles made a speech at the European Parliament on 15 September. The EU’s

Foreign affairs chief, Mr.Borrell made a statement concerning the Eastern Mediterranean and
Turkey’s foreign relations at the meeting of the European Parliament. In his speech, he said,
“The old empires are coming back. Three of them are Russia, China and Turkey. These are
the great empires of the past. And Turkey is one of these elements. This situation offers a new
environment for us … ”
In recent months, Turkey has increased oil and gas exploration activities in the Aegean-
Eastern Mediterranean. This case has led to strong reactions especially  from Greece and
Cyprus. EU foreign affairs chief, Borrell, reported that Turkey has been attempting to revive
the empire considering Turkey’s policy towards Libya and Syria.
Mr. Josep Borrell’s other relevant remarks regarding Turkey are as follows: “Turkey is an
important neighbor for EU. We can’t change the geography and Turkey will continue to be
partners on many important issues, including immigration. For example, we know that
immigration flow is difficult without the help of Turkey. However, Turkey’s actions create a
question mark for the future of our relations and the urgent need to find answers to these

This article is written by Hülya Yıldırım

Visits: 1264

China and the World Economy

The People’s Republic of China is a unitary sovereign state in East Asia ruled by the
Communist Party of China with a one-party regime. It is the world’s most populous country
with approximately 1,400 billion and the second-largest country in terms of land area with 9.6
million km2. When we look at the structure of the country, we see twenty-two states, five
autonomous regions, four directly governed cities, and the special administrative regions of
Hong Kong and Macau. China also claims sovereignty over Taiwan. In this article, we will
talk about China’s place in the world economy.
Up to the Deng Xiaoping term, The People’s Republic of China did not have an open
economy. Considering the year 1977, although it brought a lot of restrictions to the Chinese
people, it became the 30th largest economy, and this situation brought limited freedom and
controlled liberalism with Deng Xiaoping, who came to power in 1978. This was the first step
of openness which can be seen as a critical tool in a strategy for getting development. China
got 2 percent growth after this, and before liberalization, China got just 0.7 percent growth.
Namely, openness provided adding double growth. So, how did openness reveal that
situation? Because openness has four important positive effects: domestic monopolies’ market
power can be limited, opportunities to seek rent are reduced, technologies and organizational
methods are learned, and production scales become large. (Of course, there are disadvantages
which are living destabilizing shocks and getting economic sanctions from trading partners;
but we do not see for China these so much clearly).
With the openness strategy that has been used, there have been changes in the commercial
field. The rate of export materials increased, and the export rate became 14 percent which was
resulted in increasing the income of the export firms in China. This situation was the first
since the 1920s. Also, China got more money, began to manufacture and export to
manufactured goods, such as clothes, toys, machines. In line with all these results, China has
shown very rapid development. Looking at China’s trade with the USA in 1998, while the
USA had a trade deficit, China had a surplus. In addition to all these, China became the 4th
the country in world trade in 2009.
The worldwide financial panic experienced in 1997-1998 did not affect China much due to
its closed economy yet; However, as the measures to be taken in the transition to an open
economy were not paid attention to, some problems arose later. Foreign investors
concentrated in the south of China have also preferred Taiwan, Hong Kong (the former

British colony can be seen as a financial center), and Singapore. While the people living in the
south earned the negative effect in the factories opened as a result of the investments, the
people living in the north made a living from agriculture, which led to in-country migration
after income inequality. There have been many developments in technology and business
management as a positive effect on foreign investment.
China joined the World Trade Organization, which was established in 1995, in 2001. With
this participation, foreign investors’ access to China’s market would be easier and more
secure, and China would make it easier for foreigners to find a business environment, and
reduce customs taxes. Although these things may seem like a burden for China, they actually
contributed to China’s income at first. Because with the formation of the free market, growth
and prosperity have been realized in the economy. The only problematic situation is the
increase in the unemployment rate after the privatization reforms were postponed. However,
these were easily overcome and China is now the second-largest economy in the world.
Today, China is very advanced in technological terms both in civilian and military are.
Because China provides a contribution to its engineers with opening institutes.
Consequently, when we look at the history of the state, which was named the People’s
The Republic of China in 1948, the increase in the country’s earnings with the open economy and
foreign investment can be seen quite clearly. In addition, we see with the example of Hong
Kong that there are certain criteria in the selection of the cities where investment is made.
This region, which was a financial center during the British colonization, was also chosen by
the People’s Republic of China. In addition to these, China, which joined the World Trade
Organization in 2001, has had a lot of duties (reducing customs tax, supporting foreign
investors, etc.) and as a result, it got very good results. Today, it is the second-largest
the economy in the world and is highly developed technologically.

This article is written by Buse Bakkaloğlu

Visits: 262

"Enrich the Country, Strengthen the Armed Forces’’

In his article, ‘’Enrich the Country, Strengthen the Armed Forces’’ 1, Hasan Kösebalaban opens
up the discussion of Shinzo Abe’s legacy by mentioning his grandfather, Kishi who came to
power by the support of the USA in order to counter the Yoshida’s doctrine; anti-military stance
while building the economy. He then mentions what happened in the cold war briefly then jumps
to Abe’s one the biggest dreams that are building a strong military power and use of force by
interpreting the article 9 of the constitution, which declares that the Japanese people renounce
war as a sovereign right of the nation and to accomplish this Japan will never maintain land, sea
or air forces. While Yoshida’s doctrine worked during the Cold War, the consensus among the
Japanese elite has begun to change by raising security threats, such as the North Korea's long-range
missile and nuclear testing, China’s military and economic rise, and the fact that the peace accord
with Russia has not been signed were factors that added to the feeling of insecurity of the
Japanese political elite.
The idea that the country should move out of its shadowed position and become a respectable
economic and military power has gradually ceased to be a taboo and became the dominant view
within the LDP. One of the first acts of Shinzo Abe, one of the keenest representatives of this
trend of thought, in his post of prime minister was to increase his country's defense budget at a
record level which is about 5.31 trillion yen. But Abe could not find the popular support needed
for sweeping constitutional change. Instead, as in 2014, the Japanese cabinet prefers to
circumvent legal obstacles, explaining how it interprets the constitution.
He then concludes the article by writing that Abe hands over the unfinished mission on
constitutional change to the new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. If Suga can persuade the
Japanese people, he can take action to ensure that the country has a military power
commensurate with its economic strength. This means a new era in which new alliance lines will
shape not only in Asia but also in world politics.
I think from this point Suga can benefit from the changes Abe made. First of which is The
National Security Council which established in 2013 by the initiation of Shinzo Abe. The institution coordinates the security policy of Japan with the Prime Minister. Parallel to the establishment, Japan also adopted a National Security Strategy in December 2013 to outline Japan’s security and defense policies. By using the National Security Strategy, Yoshihide Suga can
understand and follow the legacy of Shinzo Abe and implement it by using the National Security Council.
The second one is FOIP – Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’’. 2 This is a strategy
created by Japan and supported by QUAD members (India, the USA and Australia) to contain
China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific region. The strategy plays a crucial role in shaping Japan’s
engagement with other actors in the region and specifically China. Yoshihide Suga can follow
this strategy to shape Japan’s international relations with actors within the region.
But he also should traverse carefully. Where Abe failed to make progression, he must be
cautious. Abe failed to amend the constitution because of the reluctance of Komeito 3, LDP’s
coalition ally, and support from the public. He also failed to resolve the North Korean abduction of
Japanese citizens 4, peace treaty with Russia 5, and resolve the WW2-era comfort women 6 problem
that damages relations with South Korea to this day.
Can Suga convince the people of Japan and its coalition ally Komeito to amend the constitution?
Can he carry the legacy of Abe and success where he has failed? For now, it remains to be seen.

This article is written by Taha Acar


Visits: 219

Russia and the Conflict Between China and the United States

For Russia, the question now is not how it will deal with China in the future, but how threatening Beijing’s confrontation with the United States is for its survival right now. If Russia assesses its neighbour’s confrontation with the United States as a systemic one, the task of breaking this Western adversary looks paramount for the survival of the country and its political system, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev. So paramount, that it will be necessary to think about how to arrange relations with China, should it theoretically win a new Cold War. This is to say little of the short-term consequences of such a choice. They are generally of little importance for the development of Russia.

The rivalry of great powers is a common phenomenon in international politics, which has determined its development over several millennia, as war is the main way to resolve interstate conflicts. It can be caused by the revolutionary behaviour of one of the most powerful states, or simply by the objective growth of its power, which causes fear among others. In this sense, the growth of China’s opportunities in the international arena provokes fear in, for example, Russia or Europe, no less than the indignation and desire to stop this growth on the part of the United States. In Thucydides’ formula, “the growth of the power of one increases the fear of the other” the names of specific states are not at all important — the rule is the same for everyone.

When we witness an American offensive against China, we must be aware that it is based on the same emotions that every member of the international community can feel. The difference is that for the United States, the strengthening of China poses a threat to the American way of life and its role in world politics since World War II. For Russia, Europe or India, the rise of China only provokes a natural desire to hedge against the consequences of uncertainty in the foreign policy of states. In modern conditions, a nation has two options: building up its own power capabilities, and/or including relations with China in a complex balance of power.

The growing confrontation between China and the United States is gradually pushing out all other issues from the international agenda, directly or indirectly subordinating them. It is not surprising, in this regard, that other states throughout the world are increasingly thinking about their role in the context of this conflict, and Russia cannot be an exception. So far, most of the US declarations and practical activity in this conflict look like manifestations of internal American confusion, or, at best, an active search for sources of strength to combat Chinese pressure. Even amid conditions where the United States itself has come very close to the brink of an internal civil conflict, most observers are still confident that the US will somehow succeed in defeating China in a new Cold War.

The colossal opportunity that the United States has created over the past 100 years is a fantastic example of “structural strength”, to use Susan Strange’s definition. These opportunities cover not only the military or economic fields, but also the information, ideological, cultural and many other areas. An important source of them is the current political system in the United States. It not only provides the administration with a flow of fresh blood, in which many other states are limited, but also promotes the aggressiveness which is, in principle, inherent in democratic states. China, in turn, has not yet shown a similar willingness to fight; a significant part of its elite is closely integrated with the West and its positions are still strong.

However, even the combination of these factors is not enough to argue decisively, albeit on a purely hypothetical level, that there is no possibility the People’s Republic will survive. And, moreover, to “win” in this confrontation, it will only need only the support of another great power. The question seems to be quite reasonable: how much should such a power be wary of partnership, in order to be successful in achieving its main goals, in the long term? For Russia, this question is no longer purely theoretical. From the moment the tensions between China and the United States became irreversible, the pressure on Russia from both has been considered, among other things, in the context of attempts to secure Russian support in the longer term. 45 years ago, the fact that China sided with the United States in the Cold War became one of the most important external factors in the defeat of the USSR. A partnership with China would alter the dynamic along Russia’s longest border; Moscow would not need to be so concerned about its security.

For more than 10 years, Russia has been actively developing cooperation with other Asian countries. They may be more restrained if Moscow becomes more active on the side of China. The partnership with Japan, for example, is hindered by the question of the Kuril Islands, whose affiliation to Russia is now indirectly enshrined in the Constitution. In the case of South Korea or the ASEAN countries, common wishes over the past 10 years have not led to serious joint projects or investments in the Far East. Assessing the scale of Japanese or Korean investments in Russia, it is difficult to say that even greater restraint on the part of these partners is possible. So, in the case of other Asian countries, Russia is still looking at castles in the sky. Despite all the calls and ideal conditions for doing business, 80 percent of total investments in the Far East are of domestic Russian origin, and of the remaining 20 percent, China accounts for half.

Therefore, in the discussion about Russia’s position in the Sino-American conflict, fears related to the reaction of other countries to deepening cooperation between Moscow and Beijing may not come to the fore. Much more important are the strategic goals of Russia itself and how much China can help achieve them. Let us make a caveat that, in the framework of this analysis, we take Russia’s ability to ensure its own freedom of foreign policy by force as an axiom. Because, if this is not the case, then there is not much to talk about.

In the 1970s, it was so important for the United States to defeat the USSR that it created a significant part of the Chinese economic miracle itself. The author of American policy at the time was Henry Kissinger, one of the best-known realists in international relations. This gives reason to believe that the alliance with Beijing against Moscow was not then viewed in the United States as a guarantee against the fact that in the future they would have to deal with China itself. However, the success in the Cold War was worth creating the “monster” of the Chinese economy, integrated into the liberal economic order, where the norms and customs were determined by the United States. There were those in America who believed that as a result of the policy of reform and openness, China would become part of the liberal order led by the United States. But, as the most serious experts can confirm, such hopes have never been dominant.

Therefore, for Russia the question now is not how it will deal with China sometime in the future, but how threatening its confrontation with the United States is now? If Russia assesses Beijing’s conflict with the United States as a systemic one, the task of breaking this Western adversary looks paramount for the survival of the country and its political system. So paramount, that it will be necessary to think about how to arrange relations with China, should it theoretically win a new Cold War. This is to say little of the short-term consequences of such a choice. They are generally of little importance for the development of Russia.

It is important that Beijing is not the leader of any sufficiently powerful group of states and it is unlikely to become such even if it achieves convincing success in its relations with Washington. For this, China does not have the main thing it would need — a socio-economic model and development ideology that could claim universality. For the United States, the use of globalisation in order to satisfy its selfish interests became possible precisely because it initially represented a revolutionary ideology and was ready to see it “dissolved” in the world around it. China continues to maintain a conservative idea of sovereignty, which is based on its own national interests.

Even if relations between the United States and its allies are not very good now, with the most important of them — the Europeans — America is united by a political structure and basic foreign policy interests. China cannot yet boast of such allies “in blood and spirit” and there is no reason to believe that they will appear. But more importantly, since China is not part or the leader of a bloc, it will not act on the basis of collective interest. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has constantly encountered this interest in the West and had many opportunities to make sure that this interest is able to completely subjugate the individual mind and morals of individual members of the community. In this respect, China is clearly preferable to Europe as a partner, because the European countries will always place their collective interest above the need to think about Russia.

The question of how far support for China should go in these difficult times is not idle or momentary. The answer to it can determine whether its independence in international politics will be determined by its own forces, or will increasingly depend on external factors and the balance of power, taking into account the many opinions — Europe, the United States, or various Asian countries. Strengthening China and weakening the United States as much as possible will leave much more room for Russia’s security to depend only on itself.

This article is taken from

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Avoiding a new Cold War between the US and China

By Jeffrey A. Bader

With the November presidential election looming, many China watchers are focused on what the outcome could mean for relations between Washington and Beijing. That question is no doubt a crucial one. At the same time, many trends in that all-important relationship are of course longer-term than one presidential administration. What are the long-term prospects for U.S.-China relations at this stage?

The differences between the United States and China on political, economic, ideological, technological, and security issues are real. They can and must be managed through dialogue, but we can’t pretend that we simply have a communications problem. Both sides know better. The basic framework for the relationship going forward is likely to be strategic competition, with cooperation in discrete areas, hopefully covering many subjects. There could instead be strategic rivalry, which would be more adversarial and require cool heads to manage disputes. Or the relationship could degenerate into a cold war, which would be in the interest of neither the United States nor China.

A U.S.-China cold war would not be like the U.S.-Soviet one, which was largely military and ideological. A cold war would begin with radical decoupling and disengagement, which regrettably we are already seeing. It would descend and expand from there. It would fracture the international community on issues on which there should otherwise be widespread cooperation. It would build walls between economies, scientists, scholars, and ordinary people. It would likely foment ethnic stereotyping, discrimination, and hatred. It would prevent two great civilizations from benefiting from each other’s strengths and contributions. It would exacerbate an arms race that would crowd out domestic priorities. Above all, it would increase the risk of military conflict, even if neither side desires it.

How do we avoid such an outcome? There are fundamental questions the U.S. and China will need to answer.

For the United States: Is it willing to accept a peer competitor, particularly one with a different political system and ideology? In principle, the answer should be yes, but there is an action/reaction mechanism in U.S. politics. An administration that fully accepts China as a peer inevitably will have to endure and beat back harsh attacks from a nationalist opposition. So it will require long-term steadiness, not a one-off decision. The United States can sustain such a view if China accommodates to the traditional stabilizing role of the United States in East Asia rather than seeking to undermine it.
For China: Can it comfortably integrate and assimilate into a rules-based international order created and historically dominated by the United States, and characterized by certain norms, such as on trade, protection of intellectual property rights, privacy, digital freedoms, rule of law, due process, transparency, law of the sea, and human rights? (I would add that it is essential that the U.S. failure to show traditional respect for the rules-based international system over the last several years must be corrected, as well.)

Can China adjust to these norms, or will it simply demand that its national system be respected? Can China find ways to ensure that its activities in international affairs are consistent with these norms, or at least do not undercut them, while maintaining its own political, economic, and social system?

A lesson of the past few years is that, in a globalized world, it is difficult for the international system to function well if there is a large gap in attitudes and practices among major countries regarding these norms.

China made the fundamental decision 40 years ago to join the international system, from which it has derived great benefits and to which it has made important contributions. But the world’s accommodation of China’s unorthodox practices when it was a relatively minor player is a different matter entirely. Today, China has become a dominant actor. China, along with the United States, is now an elephant in the canoe. The elephants have to be careful, or they can swamp the canoe and everyone in it.

For understandable historical reasons, China is especially fierce in safeguarding its sovereignty and asserting the sovereignty of nations and non-interference as the foundational principles of international norms. No more than the United States can China be expected to renounce that position. But China will need to do more than invoke its sovereignty under Westphalian principles if it is to be a leader in the international system and enjoy its full benefits. The country has not yet completed the journey it began in 1978 toward full integration into the international rules-based system. For example, it needs to accept the full obligations of developed countries in the World Trade Organization, open its internet and level the information technology sector playing field for foreign participation on a reciprocal basis, and provide complete transparency to the World Health Organization and international health experts.

It will need to lead by example. It will be hard for China to make such changes. The United States can provide an example, and serve its own interests, by showing that it intends to adhere to the rules-based system that it played the key role in creating.

This article is taken from

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How Hegemony Ends

Multiple signs point to a crisis in global order. The uncoordinated international response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic downturns, the resurgence of nationalist politics, and the hardening of state borders all seem to herald the emergence of a less cooperative and more fragile international system. According to many observers, these developments underscore the dangers of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America first” policies and his retreat from global leadership.

Even before the pandemic, Trump routinely criticized the value of alliances and institutions such as NATO, supported the breakup of the European Union, withdrew from a host of international agreements and organizations, and pandered to autocrats such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He has questioned the merits of placing liberal values such as democracy and human rights at the heart of foreign policy. Trump’s clear preference for zero-sum, transactional politics further supports the notion that the United States is abandoning its commitment to promoting a liberal international order.

Some analysts believe that the United States can still turn this around, by restoring the strategies by which it, from the end of World War II to the aftermath of the Cold War, built and sustained a successful international order. If a post-Trump United States could reclaim the responsibilities of global power, then this era—including the pandemic that will define it—could stand as a temporary aberration rather than a step on the way to permanent disarray.

After all, predictions of American decline and a shift in international order are far from new—and they have been consistently wrong. In the middle of the 1980s, many analysts believed that U.S. leadership was on the way out. The Bretton Woods system had collapsed in the 1970s; the United States faced increasing competition from European and East Asian economies, notably West Germany and Japan; and the Soviet Union looked like an enduring feature of world politics. By the end of 1991, however, the Soviet Union had formally dissolved, Japan was entering its “lost decade” of economic stagnation, and the expensive task of integration consumed a reunified Germany. The United States experienced a decade of booming technological innovation and unexpectedly high economic growth. The result was what many hailed as a “unipolar moment” of American hegemony.

But this time really is different. The very forces that made U.S. hegemony so durable before are today driving its dissolution. Three developments enabled the post–Cold War U.S.-led order. First, with the defeat of communism, the United States faced no major global ideological project that could rival its own. Second, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its accompanying infrastructure of institutions and partnerships, weaker states lacked significant alternatives to the United States and its Western allies when it came to securing military, economic, and political support. And third, transnational activists and movements were spreading liberal values and norms that bolstered the liberal order.

Today, those same dynamics have turned against the United States: a vicious cycle that erodes U.S. power has replaced the virtuous cycles that once reinforced it. With the rise of great powers such as China and Russia, autocratic and illiberal projects rival the U.S.-led liberal international system. Developing countries—and even many developed ones—can seek alternative patrons rather than remain dependent on Western largess and support. And illiberal, often right-wing transnational networks are pressing against the norms and pieties of the liberal international order that once seemed so implacable. In short, U.S. global leadership is not simply in retreat; it is unraveling. And the decline is not cyclical but permanent.

It may seem strange to talk of permanent decline when the United States spends more on its military than its next seven rivals combined and maintains an unparalleled network of overseas military bases. Military power played an important role in creating and maintaining U.S. preeminence in the 1990s and early years of this century; no other country could extend credible security guarantees across the entire international system. But U.S. military dominance was less a function of defense budgets—in real terms, U.S. military spending decreased during the 1990s and only ballooned after the September 11 attacks—than of several other factors: the disappearance of the Soviet Union as a competitor, the growing technological advantage enjoyed by the U.S. military, and the willingness of most of the world’s second-tier powers to rely on the United States rather than build up their own military forces. If the emergence of the United States as a unipolar power was mostly contingent on the dissolution of the Soviet Union, then the continuation of that unipolarity through the subsequent decade stemmed from the fact that Asian and European allies were content to subscribe to U.S. hegemony.

Talk of the unipolar moment obscures crucial features of world politics that formed the basis of U.S. dominance. The breakup of the Soviet Union finally closed the door on the only project of global ordering that could rival capitalism. Marxism-Leninism (and its offshoots) mostly disappeared as a source of ideological competition. Its associated transnational infrastructure—its institutions, practices, and networks, including the Warsaw Pact, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, and the Soviet Union itself—all imploded. Without Soviet support, most Moscow-affiliated countries, insurgent groups, and political movements decided it was better to either throw in the towel or get on the U.S. bandwagon. By the middle of the 1990s, there existed only one dominant framework for international norms and rules: the liberal international system of alliances and institutions anchored in Washington.

The United States and its allies—referred to in breezy shorthand as “the West”—together enjoyed a de facto patronage monopoly during the period of unipolarity. With some limited exceptions, they offered the only significant source of security, economic goods, and political support and legitimacy. Developing countries could no longer exert leverage over Washington by threatening to turn to Moscow or point to the risk of a communist takeover to shield themselves from having to make domestic reforms. The sweep of Western power and influence was so untrammeled that many policymakers came to believe in the permanent triumph of liberalism. Most governments saw no viable alternative.

During the 1990s, most governments saw no viable alternative to Western sources of support.
With no other source of support, countries were more likely to adhere to the conditions of the Western aid they received. Autocrats faced severe international criticism and heavy demands from Western-controlled international organizations. Yes, democratic powers continued to protect certain autocratic states (such as oil-rich Saudi Arabia) from such demands for strategic and economic reasons. And leading democracies, including the United States, themselves violated international norms concerning human, civil, and political rights, most dramatically in the form of torture and extraordinary renditions during the so-called war on terror. But even these hypocritical exceptions reinforced the hegemony of the liberal order, because they sparked widespread condemnation that reaffirmed liberal principles and because U.S. officials continued to voice commitment to liberal norms.

Meanwhile, an expanding number of transnational networks—often dubbed “international civil society”—propped up the emerging architecture of the post–Cold War international order. These groups and individuals served as the foot soldiers of U.S. hegemony by spreading broadly liberal norms and practices. The collapse of centrally planned economies in the postcommunist world invited waves of Western consultants and contractors to help usher in market reforms—sometimes with disastrous consequences, as in Russia and Ukraine, where Western-backed shock therapy impoverished tens of millions while creating a class of wealthy oligarchs who turned former state assets into personal empires. International financial institutions, government regulators, central bankers, and economists worked to build an elite consensus in favor of free trade and the movement of capital across borders.

Civil society groups also sought to steer postcommunist and developing countries toward Western models of liberal democracy. Teams of Western experts advised governments on the design of new constitutions, legal reforms, and multiparty systems. International observers, most of them from Western democracies, monitored elections in far-flung countries. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) advocating the expansion of human rights, gender equality, and environmental protections forged alliances with sympathetic states and media outlets. The work of transnational activists, scholarly communities, and social movements helped build an overarching liberal project of economic and political integration. Throughout the 1990s, these forces helped produce an illusion of an unassailable liberal order resting on durable U.S. global hegemony. That illusion is now in tatters.

Today, other great powers offer rival conceptions of global order, often autocratic ones that appeal to many leaders of weaker states. The West no longer presides over a monopoly of patronage. New regional organizations and illiberal transnational networks contest U.S. influence. Long-term shifts in the global economy, particularly the rise of China, account for many of these developments. These changes have transformed the geopolitical landscape.

In April 1997, Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Russian President Boris Yeltsin pledged “to promote the multipolarization of the world and the establishment of a new international order.” For years, many Western scholars and policymakers downplayed or dismissed such challenges as wishful rhetoric. Beijing remained committed to the rules and norms of the U.S.-led order, they argued, pointing out that China continued to benefit from the current system. Even as Russia grew increasingly assertive in its condemnation of the United States in the first decade of this century and called for a more multipolar world, observers didn’t think that Moscow could muster support from any significant allies. Analysts in the West specifically doubted that Beijing and Moscow could overcome decades of mistrust and rivalry to cooperate against U.S. efforts to maintain and shape the international order.

Such skepticism made sense at the height of U.S. global hegemony in the 1990s and even remained plausible through much of the following decade. But the 1997 declaration now looks like a blueprint for how Beijing and Moscow have tried to reorder international politics in the last 20 years. China and Russia now directly contest liberal aspects of the international order from within that order’s institutions and forums; at the same time, they are building an alternative order through new institutions and venues in which they wield greater influence and can de-emphasize human rights and civil liberties.
At the United Nations, for example, the two countries routinely consult on votes and initiatives. As permanent members of the UN Security Council, they have coordinated their opposition to criticize Western interventions and calls for regime change; they have vetoed Western-sponsored proposals on Syria and efforts to impose sanctions on Venezuela and Yemen. In the UN General Assembly, between 2006 and 2018, China and Russia voted the same way 86 percent of the time, more frequently than during the 78 percent voting accord the two shared between 1991 and 2005. By contrast, since 2005, China and the United States have agreed only 21 percent of the time. Beijing and Moscow have also led UN initiatives to promote new norms, most notably in the arena of cyberspace, that privilege national sovereignty over individual rights, limit the doctrine of the responsibility to protect, and curtail the power of Western-sponsored human rights resolutions.

China and Russia have also been at the forefront of creating new international institutions and regional forums that exclude the United States and the West more broadly. Perhaps the most well known of these is the BRICS grouping, which includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Since 2006, the group has presented itself as a dynamic setting for the discussion of matters of international order and global leadership, including building alternatives to Western-controlled institutions in the areas of Internet governance, international payment systems, and development assistance. In 2016, the BRICS countries created the New Development Bank, which is dedicated to financing infrastructure projects in the developing world.

China and Russia have each also pushed a plethora of new regional security organizations—including the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism—and economic institutions, including the Chinese-run Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Russian-backed Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)—a security organization that promotes cooperation among security services and oversees biennial military exercises—was founded in 2001 at the initiative of both Beijing and Moscow. It added India and Pakistan as full members in 2017. The net result is the emergence of parallel structures of global governance that are dominated by authoritarian states and that compete with older, more liberal structures.

China and Russia have been at the forefront of creating new forums that exclude the United States.
Critics often dismiss the BRICS, the EAEU, and the SCO as “talk shops” in which member states do little to actually resolve problems or otherwise engage in meaningful cooperation. But most other international institutions are no different. Even when they prove unable to solve collective problems, regional organizations allow their members to affirm common values and boost the stature of the powers that convene these forums. They generate denser diplomatic ties among their members, which, in turn, make it easier for those members to build military and political coalitions. In short, these organizations constitute a critical part of the infrastructure of international order, an infrastructure that was dominated by Western democracies after the end of the Cold War. Indeed, this new array of non-Western organizations has brought transnational governance mechanisms into regions such as Central Asia, which were previously disconnected from many institutions of global governance. Since 2001, most Central Asian states have joined the SCO, the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, the EAEU, the AIIB, and the Chinese infrastructure investment project known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

China and Russia are also now pushing into areas traditionally dominated by the United States and its allies; for example, China convenes the 17+1 group with states in central and eastern Europe and the China-CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) Forum in Latin America. These groupings provide states in these regions with new arenas for partnership and support while also challenging the cohesion of traditional Western blocs; just days before the 16+1 group expanded to include the EU member Greece in April 2020, the European Commission moved to designate China a “systemic rival” amid concerns that BRI deals in Europe were undercutting EU regulations and standards.

Beijing and Moscow appear to be successfully managing their alliance of convenience, defying predictions that they would be unable to tolerate each other’s international projects. This has even been the case in areas in which their divergent interests could lead to significant tensions. Russia vocally supports China’s BRI, despite its inroads into Central Asia, which Moscow still considers its backyard. In fact, since 2017, the Kremlin’s rhetoric has shifted from talking about a clearly demarcated Russian “sphere of influence” in Eurasia to embracing a “Greater Eurasia” in which Chinese-led investment and integration dovetails with Russian efforts to shut out Western influence. Moscow followed a similar pattern when Beijing first proposed the formation of the AIIB in 2015. The Russian Ministry of Finance initially refused to back the bank, but the Kremlin changed course after seeing which way the wind was blowing; Russia formally joined the bank at the end of the year.

China has also proved willing to accommodate Russian concerns and sensitivities. China joined the other BRICS countries in abstaining from condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, even though doing so clearly contravened China’s long-standing opposition to separatism and violations of territorial integrity. Moreover, the Trump administration’s trade war with China has given Beijing additional incentives to support Russian efforts to develop alternatives to the Western-controlled SWIFT international payment system and dollar-denominated trade so as to undermine the global reach of U.S. sanctions regimes.

China and Russia are not the only states seeking to make world politics more favorable to nondemocratic regimes and less amenable to U.S. hegemony. As early as 2007, lending by “rogue donors” such as then oil-rich Venezuela raised the possibility that such no-strings-attached assistance might undermine Western aid initiatives designed to encourage governments to embrace liberal reforms.

Since then, Chinese state-affiliated lenders, such as the China Development Bank, have opened substantial lines of credit across Africa and the developing world. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, China became an important source of loans and emergency funding for countries that could not access, or were excluded from, Western financial institutions. During the financial crisis, China extended over $75 billion in loans for energy deals to countries in Latin America—Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela—and to Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan in Eurasia.

China is not the only alternative patron. After the Arab Spring, Gulf states such as Qatar lent money to Egypt, allowing Cairo to avoid turning to the International Monetary Fund during a turbulent time. But China has been by far the most ambitious country in this regard. An AidData study found that total Chinese foreign aid assistance between 2000 and 2014 reached $354 billion, nearing the U.S. total of $395 billion. China has since surpassed annual U.S. aid disbursals. Moreover, Chinese aid undermines Western efforts to spread liberal norms. Several studies suggest that although Chinese funds have fueled development in many countries, they also have stoked blatant corruption and habits of regime patronage. In countries emerging from war, such as Nepal, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and South Sudan, Chinese development and reconstruction aid flowed to victorious governments, insulating them from international pressure to accommodate their domestic foes and adopt more liberal models of peacemaking and reconciliation.

Chinese state-affiliated lenders have opened substantial lines of credit across the developing world.
The end of the West’s monopoly on patronage has seen the concurrent rise of fiery populist nationalists even in countries that were firmly embedded in the United States’ economic and security orbit. The likes of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte have painted themselves as guardians of domestic sovereignty against liberal subversion. They dismiss Western concerns about democratic backsliding in their countries and emphasize the growing importance of their economic and security relationships with China and Russia. In the case of the Philippines, Duterte recently terminated a two-decade-old military treaty with the United States after Washington canceled the visa of the former national chief of police, who is accused of human rights violations in the Philippines’ bloody and controversial war on drugs.

Of course, some of these specific challenges to U.S. leadership will wax and wane since they stem from shifting political circumstances and the dispositions of individual leaders. But the expansion of “exit options”—of alternative patrons, institutions, and political models—now seems a permanent feature of international politics. Governments have much more room to maneuver. Even when states do not actively switch patrons, the possibility that they could provides them with greater leverage. As a result, China and Russia have the latitude to contest U.S. hegemony and construct alternative orders.

Another important shift marks a break from the post–Cold War unipolar moment. The transnational civil society networks that stitched together the liberal international order no longer enjoy the power and influence they once had. Illiberal competitors now challenge them in many areas, including gender rights, multiculturalism, and the principles of liberal democratic governance. Some of these centrifugal forces have originated in the United States and western European countries themselves. For instance, the U.S. lobbying group the National Rifle Association worked transnationally to successfully defeat a proposed antigun referendum in Brazil in 2005, where it built an alliance with domestic right-wing political movements; over a decade later, the Brazilian political firebrand Jair Bolsonaro tapped into this same network to help propel himself to the presidency. The World Congress of Families, initially founded by U.S.-based Christian organizations in 1997, is now a transnational network, supported by Eurasian oligarchs, that convenes prominent social conservatives from dozens of countries to build global opposition to LGBTQ and reproductive rights.

Autocratic regimes have found ways to limit—or even eliminate—the influence of liberal transnational advocacy networks and reform-minded NGOs. The so-called color revolutions in the post-Soviet world in the first decade of this century and the 2010–11 Arab Spring in the Middle East played a key role in this process. They alarmed authoritarian and illiberal governments, which increasingly saw the protection of human rights and the promotion of democracy as threats to their survival. In response, such regimes curtailed the influence of NGOs with foreign connections. They imposed tight restrictions on receiving foreign funds, proscribed various political activities, and labeled certain activists “foreign agents.”

Some governments now sponsor their own NGOs both to suppress liberalizing pressures at home and to contest the liberal order abroad. For example, in response to Western support of young activists during the color revolutions, the Kremlin founded the youth group Nashi to mobilize young people in support of the state. The Red Cross Society of China, China’s oldest government-organized NGO, has delivered medical supplies to European countries in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic as part of a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign. These regimes also use digital platforms and social media to disrupt antigovernment mobilization and advocacy. Russia has likewise deployed such tools abroad in its information operations and electoral meddling in democratic states.

Some of the forces driving the unraveling of the liberal order have originated in the United States itself.
Two developments helped accelerate the illiberal turn in the West: the Great Recession of 2008 and the refugee crisis in Europe in 2015. Over the last decade, illiberal networks—generally but not exclusively on the right—have challenged the establishment consensus within the West. Some groups and figures question the merits of continued membership in major institutions of the liberal order, such as the European Union and NATO. Many right-wing movements in the West receive both financial and moral support from Moscow, which backs “dark money” operations that promote narrow oligarchic interests in the United States and far-right political parties in Europe with the hope of weakening democratic governments and cultivating future allies. In Italy, the anti-immigrant party Lega is currently the most popular party despite revelations of its attempt to win illegal financial support from Moscow. In France, the National Rally, which also has a history of Russian backing, remains a powerful force in domestic politics.

These developments echo the ways in which “counter-order” movements have helped precipitate the decline of hegemonic powers in the past. Transnational networks played crucial roles in both upholding and challenging prior international orders. For example, Protestant networks helped erode Spanish power in early modern Europe, most notably by supporting the Dutch Revolt in the sixteenth century. Liberal and republican movements, especially in the context of the revolutions across Europe in 1848, played a part in undermining the Concert of Europe, which tried to manage international order on the continent in the first half of the nineteenth century. The rise of fascist and communist transnational networks helped produce the global power struggle of World War II. Counter-order movements achieved political power in countries such as Germany, Italy, and Japan, leading those nations to break from or try to assail existing structures of international order. But even less successful counter-order movements can still undermine the cohesion of hegemonic powers and their allies.

Not every illiberal or right-wing movement that opposes the U.S.-led order seeks to challenge U.S. leadership or turns to Russia as an exemplar of strong cultural conservatism. Nonetheless, such movements are helping polarize politics in advanced industrial democracies and weaken support for the order’s institutions. One of them has even captured the White House: Trumpism, which is best understood as a counter-order movement with a transnational reach that targets the alliances and partnerships central to U.S. hegemony.

Great-power contestation, the end of the West’s monopoly on patronage, and the emergence of movements that oppose the liberal international system have all altered the global order over which Washington has presided since the end of the Cold War. In many respects, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be further accelerating the erosion of U.S. hegemony. China has increased its influence in the World Health Organization and other global institutions in the wake of the Trump administration’s attempts to defund and scapegoat the public health body. Beijing and Moscow are portraying themselves as providers of emergency goods and medical supplies, including to European countries such as Italy, Serbia, and Spain, and even to the United States. Illiberal governments worldwide are using the pandemic as cover for restricting media freedom and cracking down on political opposition and civil society. Although the United States still enjoys military supremacy, that dimension of U.S. dominance is especially ill suited to deal with this global crisis and its ripple effects.

Even if the core of the U.S. hegemonic system—which consists mostly of long-standing Asian and European allies and rests on norms and institutions developed during the Cold War—remains robust, and even if, as many champions of the liberal order suggest will happen, the United States and the European Union can leverage their combined economic and military might to their advantage, the fact is that Washington will have to get used to an increasingly contested and complex international order. There is no easy fix for this. No amount of military spending can reverse the processes driving the unraveling of U.S. hegemony. Even if Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, knocks out Trump in the presidential election later this year, or if the Republican Party repudiates Trumpism, the disintegration will continue.

The key questions now concern how far the unraveling will spread. Will core allies decouple from the U.S. hegemonic system? How long, and to what extent, can the United States maintain financial and monetary dominance? The most favorable outcome will require a clear repudiation of Trumpism in the United States and a commitment to rebuild liberal democratic institutions in the core. At both the domestic and the international level, such efforts will necessitate alliances among center-right, center-left, and progressive political parties and networks.

What U.S. policymakers can do is plan for the world after global hegemony. If they help preserve the core of the American system, U.S. officials can ensure that the United States leads the strongest military and economic coalition in a world of multiple centers of power, rather than finding itself on the losing side of most contests over the shape of the new international order. To this end, the United States should reinvigorate the beleaguered and understaffed State Department, rebuilding and more effectively using its diplomatic resources. Smart statecraft will allow a great power to navigate a world defined by competing interests and shifting alliances.

U.S. policymakers must plan for the world after global hegemony.
The United States lacks both the will and the resources to consistently outbid China and other emerging powers for the allegiance of governments. It will be impossible to secure the commitment of some countries to U.S. visions of international order. Many of those governments have come to view the U.S.-led order as a threat to their autonomy, if not their survival. And some governments that still welcome a U.S.-led liberal order now contend with populist and other illiberal movements that oppose it.

Even at the peak of the unipolar moment, Washington did not always get its way. Now, for the U.S. political and economic model to retain considerable appeal, the United States has to first get its own house in order. China will face its own obstacles in producing an alternative system; Beijing may irk partners and clients with its pressure tactics and its opaque and often corrupt deals. A reinvigorated U.S. foreign policy apparatus should be able to exercise significant influence on international order even in the absence of global hegemony. But to succeed, Washington must recognize that the world no longer resembles the historically anomalous period of the 1990s and the first decade of this century. The unipolar moment has passed, and it isn’t coming back.

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The Next Liberal Order

The Age of Contagion Demands More Internationalism, Not Less

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When future historians think of the moment that marked the end of the liberal world order, they may point to the spring of 2020—the moment when the United States and its allies, facing the gravest public health threat and economic catastrophe of the postwar era, could not even agree on a simple communiqué of common cause. But the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic engulfing the world these days is only exposing and accelerating what was already happening for years. On public health, trade, human rights, and the environment, governments seem to have lost faith in the value of working together. Not since the 1930s has the world been this bereft of even the most rudimentary forms of cooperation.

The liberal world order is collapsing because its leading patrons, starting with the United States, have given up on it. U.S. President Donald Trump, who declared in 2016 that “we will no longer surrender this country . . . to the false song of globalism,” is actively undermining 75 years of American leadership. Others in the U.S. foreign policy establishment have likewise packed their bags and moved on to the next global era: that of great-power competition. Washington is settling in for a protracted struggle for dominance with China, Russia, and other rival powers. This fractured world, the thinking goes, will offer little space for multilateralism and cooperation. Instead, U.S. grand strategy will be defined by what international relations theorists call “the problems of anarchy”: hegemonic struggles, power transitions, competition for security, spheres of influence, and reactionary nationalism.

But this future is not inevitable, and it is certainly not desirable. The United States may no longer be the world’s sole superpower, but its influence has never been premised on power alone. It also depends on an ability to offer others a set of ideas and institutional frameworks for mutual gain. If the United States abandons that role prematurely, it will be smaller and weaker as a result. A return to great-power competition would destroy what is left of the global institutions that governments rely on for tackling common problems. Liberal democracies would further descend into disunion and thereby lose their ability to shape global rules and norms. The world that would emerge on the other side would be less friendly to such Western values as openness, the rule of law, human rights, and liberal democracy.
A return to great-power competition is neither inevitable nor desirable.
In the short term, the new coronavirus (and the resulting economic and social wreckage) will accelerate the fragmentation and breakdown of global order, hastening the descent into nationalism, great-power rivalry, and strategic decoupling. But the pandemic also offers the United States an opportunity to reverse course and opt for a different path: a last-chance effort to reclaim the two-centuries-old liberal international project of building an order that is open, multilateral, and anchored in a coalition of leading liberal democracies.

For guidance, today’s leaders should look to the example of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. The collapse of the world economy and the rapid spread of fascism and totalitarianism in the 1930s showed that the fates of modern societies were tied to one another and that all were vulnerable to what Roosevelt, using a term that seems eerily prescient today, called “contagion.” The United States, Roosevelt and his contemporaries concluded, could not simply hide within its borders; it would need to build a global infrastructure of institutions and partnerships. The liberal order they went on to build was less about the triumphant march of liberal democracy than about pragmatic, cooperative solutions to the global dangers arising from interdependence. Internationalism was not a project of tearing down borders and globalizing the world; it was about managing the growing complexities of economic and security interdependence in the pursuit of national well-being. Today’s liberal democracies are the bankrupt heirs to this project, but with U.S. leadership, they can still turn it around.

The rivalry between the United States and China will preoccupy the world for decades, and the problems of anarchy cannot be wished away. But for the United States and its partners, a far greater challenge lies in what might be called “the problems of modernity”: the deep, worldwide transformations unleashed by the forces of science, technology, and industrialism, or what the sociologist Ernest Gellner once described as a “tidal wave” pushing and pulling modern societies into an increasingly complex and interconnected world system. Washington and its partners are threatened less by rival great powers than by emergent, interconnected, and cascading transnational dangers. Climate change, pandemic diseases, financial crises, failed states, nuclear proliferation—all reverberate far beyond any individual country. So do the effects of automation and global production chains on capitalist societies, the dangers of the coming revolution in artificial intelligence, and other, as-yet-unimagined upheavals.

The coronavirus is the poster child of these transnational dangers: it does not respect borders, and one cannot hide from it or defeat it in war. Countries facing a global outbreak are only as safe as the least safe among them. For better or worse, the United States and the rest of the world are in it together.

Past American leaders understood that the global problems of modernity called for a global solution and set about building a worldwide network of alliances and multilateral institutions. But for many observers, the result of these efforts—the liberal international order—has been a failure. For some, it is tied to the neoliberal policies that produced financial crises and rising economic inequality; for others, it evokes disastrous military interventions and endless wars. The bet that China would integrate as a “responsible stakeholder” into a U.S.-led liberal order is widely seen to have failed, too. Little wonder that the liberal vision has lost its appeal.
Liberal internationalists need to acknowledge these missteps and failures. Under the auspices of the liberal international order, the United States has intervened too much, regulated too little, and delivered less than it promised. But what do its detractors have to offer? Despite its faults, no other organizing principle currently under debate comes close to liberal internationalism in making the case for a decent and cooperative world order that encourages the enlightened pursuit of national interests. Ironically, the critics’ complaints make sense only within a system that embraces self-determination, individual rights, economic security, and the rule of law—the very cornerstones of liberal internationalism. The current order may not have realized these principles across the board, but flaws and failures are inherent in all political orders. What is unique about the postwar liberal order is its capacity for self-correction. Even a deeply flawed liberal system provides the institutions through which it can be brought closer to its founding ideals.

However serious the liberal order’s shortcomings may be, they pale in comparison to its achievements. Over seven decades, it has lifted more boats—manifest in economic growth and rising incomes—than any other order in world history. It provided a framework for struggling industrial societies in Europe and elsewhere to transform themselves into modern social democracies. Japan and West Germany were integrated into a common security community and went on to fashion distinctive national identities as peaceful great powers. Western Europe subdued old hatreds and launched a grand project of union. European colonial rule in Africa and Asia largely came to an end. The G-7 system of cooperation among Japan, Europe, and North America fostered growth and managed a sequence of trade and financial crises. Beginning in the 1980s, countries across East Asia, Latin America, and eastern Europe opened up their political and economic systems and joined the broader order. The United States experienced its greatest successes as a world power, culminating in the peaceful end to the Cold War, and countries around the globe wanted more, not less, U.S. leadership. This is not an order that one should eagerly escort off the stage.

To renew the spirit of liberal internationalism, its proponents should return to its core aim: creating an environment in which liberal democracies can cooperate for mutual gain, manage their shared vulnerabilities, and protect their way of life. In this system, rules and institutions facilitate cooperation among states. Properly regulated trade benefits all parties. Liberal democracies, in particular, have an incentive to work together—not only because their shared values reinforce trust but also because their status as open societies in an open system makes them more vulnerable to transnational threats. Gaining the benefits of interdependence while guarding against its dangers requires collective action.

This tradition of liberal internationalism is often traced to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, but the great revolution in liberal thinking actually occurred under Roosevelt in the 1930s. Wilson believed that modernity naturally favored liberal democracy, a view that, decades later, led some liberals to anticipate “the end of history.” In contrast, Roosevelt and his contemporaries saw a world threatened by violence, depravity, and despotism. The forces of modernity were not on the side of liberalism; science, technology, and industry could be harnessed equally for good and evil. For Roosevelt, the order-building project was not an idealistic attempt to spread democracy but a desperate effort to save the democratic way of life—a bulwark against an impending global calamity. His liberalism was a liberalism for hard times. And it is this vision that speaks most directly to today.

Roosevelt’s core impulse was to put the liberal democratic world on a more solid domestic footing. The idea was not just to establish peace but also to build an international order that would empower governments to deliver a better life for their citizens. As early as August 1941, when the United States had not yet entered World War II, Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill articulated this vision in the Atlantic Charter, writing that if the United States and other democracies vanquished the Nazi threat, a new international order would secure “improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security.” In the words of a Chicago journalist writing at the time, the New Deal at home was to lead to a “New Deal for the world.”

Roosevelt’s vision arose from the belief that interdependence generated new vulnerabilities. Financial crises, protectionism, arms races, and war could each spread like a contagion. “Economic diseases are highly communicable,” Roosevelt wrote in a letter to the Bretton Woods conference in 1944. “It follows, therefore, that the economic health of every country is a proper matter of concern to all its neighbors, near and distant.” To manage such interdependence, Roosevelt and his contemporaries envisioned permanent multilateral governance institutions. The idea was not new: since the nineteenth century, liberal internationalists had championed peace congresses, arbitration councils, and, later on, the League of Nations. But Roosevelt’s agenda was more ambitious. International agreements, institutions, and agencies would lie at the heart of the new order. On issue after issue—aviation, finance, agriculture, public health—multilateral institutions would provide a framework for international collaboration.

For better or worse, the United States and the rest of the world are in it together.
Another innovation was to redefine the concept of security. In the United States, the Great Depression and the New Deal brought into existence the notion of “social security,” and the violence and destruction of World War II did the same for “national security.” Both were more than terms of art. They reflected new ideas about the state’s role in ensuring the health, welfare, and safety of its people. “You and I agree that security is our greatest need,” Roosevelt told Americans in one of his fireside chats in 1938. “Therefore,” he added, “I am determined to do all in my power to help you attain that security.” Social security meant building a social safety net. National security meant shaping the external environment: planning ahead, coordinating policies with other states, and fostering alliances. From now on, national governments would need to do much more to accomplish the twin goals of social and national security—both at home and abroad.

What also made Roosevelt’s internationalism unique was that it was tied to a system of security cooperation among the big liberal democracies. The collapse of the post-1919 order had convinced internationalists on both sides of the Atlantic that liberal capitalist democracies would need to come together as a community for their common defense. Free societies and security partnerships were two sides of the same political coin. Even before U.S. President Harry Truman and his successors built on this template, Roosevelt-era internationalists envisaged a grouping of like-minded states with the United States as, in Roosevelt’s words, “the great arsenal of democracy.” With the rise of the Cold War, the United States and its fellow democracies formed alliances to check the Soviet threat. The United States took the lead in fashioning a world of international institutions, partnerships, client states, and regional orders—and it put itself at the center of it all.

In the face of today’s breakdown in world order, the United States and other liberal democracies must reclaim and update Roosevelt’s legacy. As a start, this means learning the right lessons about the failures of the liberal international order in the past three decades. Ironically, it was the success of the U.S.-led order that sowed the seeds of the current crisis. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the last clear alternative to liberalism disappeared. As the liberal order grew from being one-half of a bipolar system to a truly global order, it began to fragment, in part because it no longer resembled a club. Indeed, today’s liberal international order looks more like a sprawling shopping mall: states can wander in and pick and choose what institutions and regimes they want to join. Security cooperation, economic cooperation, and political cooperation have become unbundled, and their benefits can be obtained without buying into a suite of responsibilities, obligations, and shared values. These circumstances have allowed China and Russia to cooperate with the liberal system on an opportunistic, ad hoc basis. To name just one example, membership in the World Trade Organization has given China access to Western markets on favorable terms, but Beijing has not implemented significant measures to protect intellectual property rights, strengthen the rule of law, or level the playing field for foreign companies in its own economy.

To prevent this sort of behavior, the United States and other liberal democracies need to reconstitute themselves as a more coherent and functional coalition. The next U.S. president should call a gathering of the world’s liberal democracies, and in the spirit of the Atlantic Charter, these states should issue their own joint statement, outlining broad principles for strengthening liberal democracy and reforming global governance institutions. The United States could work with its G-7 partners to expand that group’s activities and membership, adding countries such as Australia and South Korea. It could even turn the G-7 into a D-10, a sort of steering committee of the world’s ten leading democracies that would guide the return to multilateralism and rebuild a global order that protects liberal principles. The leaders of this new group could begin by forging a set of common rules and norms for a restructured trading system. They could also establish an agenda for relaunching global cooperation on climate change and confer about preparing for the next viral pandemic. And they should better monitor and respond to China’s efforts to use international organizations to advance its national economic champions and promote its authoritarian mode of governance.
This club of democracies would coexist with larger multilateral organizations, chief among them the United Nations, whose only entry requirement is to be a sovereign state, regardless of whether it is a democracy or a dictatorship. That inclusive approach has its merits, because in many realms of international relations—including arms control, environmental regulation, management of the global commons, and combating pandemic diseases—regime type is not relevant. But in the areas of security, human rights, and the political economy, today’s liberal democracies have relevant interests and values that illiberal states do not. On these fronts, a more cohesive club of democracies, united by shared values, tied together through alliances, and oriented toward managing interdependence, could reclaim the liberal internationalist vision.

A key element of this effort will be to reconnect international cooperation with domestic well-being. Put simply, “liberal internationalism” should not be just another word for “globalization.” Globalization is about reducing barriers and integrating economies and societies. Liberal internationalism, by contrast, is about managing interdependence. States once valued the liberal international order because its rules tamed the disruptive effects of open markets without eliminating the efficiency gains that came from them. In giving governments the space and tools they needed to stabilize their economies, the order’s architects tried to reconcile free trade and free-market capitalism with social protections and economic security. The result was what the scholar John Ruggie has called the compromise of “embedded liberalism”: unlike the economic nationalism of the 1930s, the new system would be multilateral in nature, and unlike the nineteenth-century visions of global free trade, it would give countries some leeway to stabilize their economies if necessary. But by the end of the 1990s, this compromise had begun to break down as borderless trade and investment overran national systems of social protection, and the order became widely seen as a platform for global capitalist and financial transactions.

“Liberal internationalism” should not be just another word for “globalization.”
To counteract this perception, any new liberal international project must rebuild the bargains and promises that once allowed countries to reap the gains from trade while making good on their commitments to social welfare. Economic openness can last in liberal democracies only if its benefits are widely shared. Without sparking a new era of protectionism, liberal democracies need to work together to manage openness and closure, guided by liberal norms of multilateralism and nondiscrimination. “Democracies have a right to protect their social arrangements,” the economist Dani Rodrik has written, “and, when this right clashes with the requirements of the global economy, it is the latter that should give way.” If liberal democracies want to ensure that this right to protection does not trigger destructive trade wars, they should decide its exact reach collectively.

How, then, to deal with China and Russia? Both are geopolitical rivals of the United States, and both seek to undermine Western liberal democracies and the U.S.-led liberal order more generally. Their revisionism has put blunt questions of military power and economic influence back on the diplomatic agenda. But on a deeper level, the threat emanating from these states—particularly from China—only gives more urgency to the liberal international agenda and its focus on the problems of modernity. The struggle between the United States and China is ultimately over which country offers a better road to progress. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s great project is to define an alternative path, a model of capitalism without liberalism and democracy. The jury is out on whether a totalitarian regime can pull this off, and there is reason to be skeptical. But in the meantime, the best way to respond to this challenge is for liberal democracies to work together to reform and rebuild their own model.

It would be a grave mistake for the United States to give up any attempt to rescue the liberal order and instead reorient its grand strategy entirely toward great-power competition. The United States would be forfeiting its unique ideas and capacity for leadership. It would become like China and Russia: just another big, powerful state operating in a world of anarchy, nothing more and nothing less. But in its geography, history, institutions, and convictions, the United States is different from all other great powers. Unlike Asian and European states, it is an ocean away from other great powers. In the twentieth century, it alone among the great powers articulated a vision of an open, postimperial world system. More than any other state, it has seen its national interest advanced by promulgating multilateral rules and norms, which amplified and legitimized American power. Why throw all this away?

There simply is no other major state—rising, falling, or muddling through—that can galvanize the world around a vision of open, rules-based multilateral cooperation. China will be powerful, but it will tilt the world away from democratic values and the rule of law. The United States, for its part, needed the partnership of other liberal states even in earlier decades, when it was more capable. Now, as rival states grow more powerful, Washington needs these partnerships more than ever. If it continues to disengage from the world or engages in it only as a classic great power, the last vestiges of the liberal order will disappear.

And so it is left to the United States to lead the way in reclaiming the core premise of the liberal international project: building the international institutions and norms to protect societies from themselves, from one another, and from the violent storms of modernity. It is precisely at a moment of global crisis that great debates about world order open up and new possibilities emerge. This is such a moment, and the liberal democracies should regain their self-confidence and prepare for the future. As Virgil has Aeneas say to his shipwrecked companions, “Brace up, and save yourself for better times.”

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Three Kinds of Power


What the U.S. can — and can’t — actually do about China.

Donald Trump on the campaign trail was a big man when it came to China. Beijing, he promised, would quickly be brought to heel under a Trump administration. Trump failed to accomplish his China goals, but he is not alone in that: Barack Obama failed in much the same way, as did George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, among others.

The last president to get what he wanted out of China policy was Richard Nixon, who understood that China was a threat and an annoyance to the Soviet Union and wanted to make it a bigger threat and a bigger annoyance, which he did.

One of the problems with U.S. China policy is that Washington does not seem to understand what kind of power it actually has when it comes to China.

There are, broadly speaking, three kinds of power in international relations.

The first is pure power, or hostile power. That is how international relations were largely conducted for much of human history: Henry II rules the Vexin because he has an army there, and the French can’t beat it. The flat assertion of pure power is a primitive and backward way of doing business except in extreme circumstances — but, more to the point, it is an option available to the United States on only a very limited basis. Under a variety of different administrations representing both parties and several different ideological orientations, the U.S. government has found that it can effectively execute only narrow and short-term military programs, because the American people consistently are unwilling to “pay any price and bear any burden” and turn against formerly popular wars once the bills start coming due and the body bags start coming home. From Vietnam to Afghanistan, the United States has repeatedly failed to meet its objective through military action except when those objectives are narrowly tailored military outcomes, as with George H. W. Bush’s masterly performance in Desert Storm. But after a few months, Americans start talking about “nation-building at home” and demand that the money we are spending on military campaigns in faraway lands be redirected toward filling potholes in Peoria.
China Hits US with New Media Restrictions
We failed to achieve our goals in Afghanistan and Iraq. Washington knows this, and Beijing knows this. Our mighty military deterrent deters military action against us (the occasional Russian bounty on American heads notwithstanding) but does not do very much more.

The second kind of power is patron power, based on cultivating and exploiting patron-client relationships. Patron power works by offering foreign states and other overseas interests some benefit — cash aid, military guarantees, political support — and then using the threat of taking away that benefit to extort cooperation out of the client state. Here, too, the longstanding inclinations of the American people restrict the U.S. government’s real range of action. Americans are very hostile to foreign aid as such (it is a vanishingly small part of federal outlays but a political obsession among populists Right and Left) and are wary of those “entangling alliances” George Washington warned about. The U.S. government managed to exert real influence on Pakistan as a client state for much of the Cold War and got some benefit out of it, but that is more the exception than the rule. Efforts (mostly well-meaning) to make Israel into a client state have been politely declined by the Israelis, who value their relationship with the United States but do not wish to be dominated by it. In Central and South America, U.S. efforts to exert patron power have not amounted to very much, except in the case of Costa Rica and a few other bright spots.

U.S. policy toward China has gone wrong because Washington behaves as though our relationship with China were a patron-client relationship, in which the United States graciously grants Chinese firms access to U.S. markets in exchange for certain vaguely defined (and often conflicting) reforms: that China become more democratic, less aggressive, less mercantilist, etc. But countries do not trade — people do, and firms do. U.S. consumers do not buy certain Chinese goods because they believe they are doing Beijing a favor, and U.S. firms do not source goods or services from Chinese providers because they believe that they are participating in some sort of foreign-policy project. They make these choices voluntarily, for their own reasons. Trying to use tariffs or other trade restrictions to bludgeon Beijing into toeing Washington’s line fails because the U.S.–China trade relationship is not, however much the populists may insist otherwise, a gift to Beijing. Using trade policy to keep Apple or Google from effectively pursuing their corporate interests will not stop Beijing from pursuing its political interests. For decades, the U.S. government maintained a very effective blockade of Cuba, at very little cost or inconvenience to American consumers and American firms, and still failed to achieve the political outcomes Washington sought. China is much closer to being a peer than Cuba is, and what did not work on Fidel Castro is not going to work on Xi Jinping.

We do not have patron power in our relationship with China, but we do have (if we would use it) the third kind of power: peer power. This is the mortar of real-world diplomacy. Countries have things they want and things they are willing to trade, and they negotiate. This is precisely the sort of thing that the Trump administration is, in theory, supposed to be good at: the art of the deal. But the United States is, intellectually and morally, in retreat, and the diplomatic failures of the Trump administration are more a symptom of that than a cause. In reality, the contest does not stop simply because the United States is sitting on the sidelines.
Our policy toward Beijing fails because our intellectual framework for understanding U.S.–China relations is missing two pieces: Washington lacks a useful understanding of what Beijing wants, and Washington lacks a useful understanding of what Washington wants.

Because of China’s relative poverty (it has a lower GDP per capita than does Mexico) and because China’s regime stakes its legitimacy on its ability to deliver steady economic growth, Beijing still is obliged to keep a watchful eye on the balance sheet. But it has long since moved past the nickel-and-dime stage of its foreign relations. Of course China wants income and wealth. But China also wants status, with the Chinese people and their leaders seeking a place in the world that reflects the actual strength and importance of the country as they estimate it. (The blustery exaggeration of China’s leaders should not seduce us into the error of believing their hype or of believing that they believe it, either. Chairman Xi et al. probably have a pretty realistic understanding of their vulnerabilities.) Beijing’s ham-fisted efforts at using the coronavirus epidemic as part of a public-relations campaign, for example, reflects China’s status anxiety, not its economic ambitions per se. China, so poor and so backward for so long, desires to be seen not merely as a normal self-sufficient modern country (which it is not) but as a great power.

Washington has opportunities in that, but it rarely makes good use of them. There are things that Beijing wants — and things that Beijing dreads — that are subject to American influence. For example, Japan and India would like to become permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Beijing opposes this, and Washington supports it — in a lukewarm and desultory way. Beijing is much more opposed to Japan’s U.N. ascent than it is to India’s and has in the past offered to back India’s bid if India will decouple its bid from Japan’s. The United States could lean harder into Japan’s cause or stand back from it. What’s more, Japan’s ambitions in the United Nations and around the world are complicated by the fact that it is a U.S. military protectorate, a situation that suits Beijing’s interests nicely. China does not want to see a rearmed Japan with robust conventional military forces and a nuclear arsenal, along with an amended constitution empowering Japan to conduct its military and defense affairs in a more normal way. Whether that happens or does not happen is more Washington’s decision than Tokyo’s — an American drawdown from Japan would change things in China’s neighborhood practically overnight. That is a lot of leverage for Washington.

And what does Washington want? Nobody really seems to know. Sometimes, the answer is “fewer Chinese imports,” which is plainly at odds with the revealed preferences of the American people. What Washington most often seems to want is a foreign enemy to blame for the economic conditions of declining former industrial centers in the heartland, and China does nicely in that role. Washington should want a thriving, stable, and engaged China for the same reason what it should want a thriving, stable, and engaged Mexico — because that suits American interests better than does a poor, unstable, and unpredictable country that we are not, despite our apparent wishes, in a position to ignore. The United States could, through bilateral efforts and robust engagement with international institutions, pursue a policy of using the considerable power it actually enjoys in its relationship with China to bargain not for vague commitments to liberalization or openness but for concrete deliverables, for birds in the hand. But that would require a set of national principles and commitments that can survive an election.
Continuity in foreign affairs requires some continuity and consensus in domestic affairs, which cannot be had when everything is up for radical renegotiation every two years or every four years. The pursuit of consensus, political buy-in, and bipartisanship is not a question of being nice, of being Mr. Milquetoast Moderate — it is a question of creating a political situation in which the American government can actually be put to the use of the American people at home and abroad. I have been listening to American presidential candidates promise to “get tough on China” since I was a child, to no end. And in 2020, it’s more of the same.

The alternating current of populist demagoguery is not the kind of power we can use to do the work that needs to be done. The effect of 325 million spoons banging on 325 million high chairs may be a terrific racket, but don’t try to tell me it is the marching music of the “national interest.

Visits: 296

China Versus the World

An Emboldened Beijing Seeks to Consolidate Its Power
Beijing is ruthlessly expanding its power. But resistance is growing around the world — and Germany will soon play a key role.

By Georg Fahrion, Christiane Hoffmann, Laura Höflinger, Peter Müller, Jörg Schindler und Bernhard Zand

The Galwan Valley in the Himalayas is located at an altitude of 4,000 meters (13,123 feet). It is a remote area where the slopes are covered in snow all year round. Last week, the valley made an appearance on the global political stage. China and India, the two most populous countries on the planet faced off along their — disputed — Himalayan border. The exact location of where one country ends and the next begins has long been unsettled. Indeed, the two countries went to war over it in 1962.

As the two nuclear-armed states clashed, at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed on the night of June 15. There were also reports of deaths on the Chinese side.

For the first time in almost half a century, the rivalry between the two neighbors has cost human lives. No shots are said to have been fired. Patrols in the area generally don’t carry firearms. Both governments are apparently aware that they could easily trigger a world war. The soldiers may have beaten each other to death with stones and clubs. Some are said to have fallen into a ravine during the fighting.

The incident shows how quickly the situation in Asia can escalate and how a cold war can turn into a hot one at any given moment, despite the high level of caution.

In the Galwan Valley, claims and interests collide. On the one side, there’s the People’s Republic of China, which is expanding its power in the region. In late April, while India was preoccupied with a worsening coronavirus crisis, the Chinese army is said to have moved troops into the border area and encroached on Indian territory in several places. At least that’s what the government in New Delhi says.

On the other side, there are countries like India that don’t want to put up with China’s expansionism.

It isn’t only the Chinese-Indian relationship that’s tense. Resistance against China is growing in many parts of the world. Conflicts sometimes take place openly, as in the case of India, and at others covertly.

“What we are seeing now is just the beginning of a global backlash,” says Indian geostrategist Brahma Chellaney.

Decoupling From China
Beijing’s growing strength is leading to a “fundamental shifting” of the global balance of power, says NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, adding that in the future, the Western military alliance should cooperate more closely with “like-minded countries,” such as Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. NATO must “stand up for a world built on freedom and democracy, not on bullying and coercion.” Stoltenberg didn’t have to mention China by name. Everyone knows who he meant.

At the center of the global struggle for power are the United States and China, an old superpower and a new one. Their rivalry has even spilled over into the search for a coronavirus vaccine.

Ever since Richard Nixon was president in the 1970s, Washington has pursued a policy of rapprochement with Beijing. The U.S. aimed to integrate the formerly isolated and impoverished empire into the international system, in the hope that China would align itself with the West. In economic terms, this formula is known as “change through trade.” Every successive U.S. administration has more or less adhered to this approach — until Donald Trump came along.

U.S. President Trump has opted for a policy of decoupling rather than rapprochement with China.
U.S. President Trump has opted for a policy of decoupling rather than rapprochement with China. JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS
In 2018, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivered a speech at the Hudson Institute in Washington that marked a departure from traditional politics. He accused China of expansionism, unscrupulousness and an uninhibited display of power. “We will not be intimidated and we will not stand down,” he said.

Today, Washington no longer speaks of rapprochement, but of “decoupling” from China.

The U.S.’ change of course was preceded by a shift in awareness on the Chinese side. For a long time, the country had followed the directive of the reformist politician, Deng Xiaoping. “Taoguang yanghui,” it went: “Hide your strength and wait and see.” But as early as the global financial crisis in 2007, the notion has been spreading in China that its own system is not only equal to the West’s, but perhaps even superior.

Provocative Acts
At a Communist Party conference in 2017, Chinese President and party leader Xi Jinping made it clear that he thought China’s moment had arrived. He proclaimed a “new era” in which the People’s Republic would move “to the center of the world stage.”

The American sinologist Orville Schell recently argued in an essay that Trump’s policy of “America First” and Xi’s “Chinese Dream” of re-emerging as a global power would be difficult to reconcile. Schell’s take is that a new Cold War is all but certain. At best, it could be limited, not prevented.

This antagonism has also forced other countries to pick a side. And even though many players may feel alienated by Trump’s misguided policies, hardly anyone is prepared to get behind China.

Many people in India have long felt threatened by their big neighbor, and not only since the conflict in the Galwan Valley.

In early June, India and Australia announced an agreement by which the two nations would grant one another use of their military bases. The U.S., Japan, Australia and India — known as the “Quad” in geopolitical parlance — could hold joint military exercises in the Indian Ocean for the first time in over 10 years.

The countries have been alarmed by developments in the South China Sea, where there has been a growing number of incidents in recent months. Within a short period of time, Beijing officially incorporated islands there into Chinese administrative districts, carried out geological exploration work in Malaysian waters, the Chinese coast guard rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat and a Chinese corvette aimed at a Filipino warship.

Hanoi, as well as the otherwise reserved governments in Manila and Kuala Lumpur, protested. The U.S. sent three aircraft carriers to the region. The last time the U.S. Navy displayed such strength in the Indo-Pacific was three years ago. Last week, a U.S. military aircraft also flew over Taiwan, a country that is critical of Beijing and with which Washington maintains exceptional relations. China, which considers Taiwan a part of its own territory, called the maneuver a “provocative act.”

It’s likely no coincidence that the conflict between China and the West is coming to a head when the world is distracted by the coronavirus, a disease that first broke out in China of all places.

Shi Yinhong, a professor of politics at Renmin University in Beijing, believes that on the one hand, China is feeling battered and oppressed by accusations of having caused the pandemic, and hit by the collapse of its economy. On the other hand, the leadership in Beijing also sees the crisis as an opportunity to expand its power. Their logic is such: We may be weak, but the others are currently much weaker.

The rhetoric of Chinese diplomacy has changed significantly. Back in the 1990s, some Communist Party members sniped at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, calling it the “Ministry of Traitors,” because its diplomats were supposedly so respectful toward the West. Today, the so-called “Wolf Warriors” call the shots there. This new generation of foreign policy makers gets its name from a patriotic blockbuster in which a cool Chinese fighter faces an American mercenary — with an impressive arsenal of weapons and catchy sayings.

One representative of the new line is Zhao Lijian, who was promoted to Foreign Ministry spokesman after distinguishing himself as a polemical Twitter user during a deployment in Pakistan. In January, China’s ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou, compared journalists who criticized China to lightweight boxers foolishly provoking a heavyweight.

Not all Chinese diplomats supported his confrontational style. But moderates like Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador in Washington, are being marginalized, or they’re on their way to retirement. “Almost all of our foreign relations are in a bad way,” says policy professor Shi Yinhong.

Sometimes things escalate beyond mere snappy comments. China at times also uses hard economic pressure to impose its will on its opponents. Australia, whose most important trading partner by far is China, is feeling the effects of this. The government in Canberra had demanded an independent investigation into the outbreak in Wuhan. As a result, Beijing banned the import of beef from four Australian slaughterhouses and imposed an 80-percent tariff on Australian barley. Chinese tourists were also warned against traveling to Australia due to an alleged threat of racist attack. Most recently, China’s Ministry of Education advised students not to study in Australia.

Canberra’s attitude toward China has tended to only cool relations further. “We are an open-trading nation,” said Prime Minister Scott Morrison, “but I’m never going to trade our values in response to coercion from wherever it comes.”

Political Headwinds
Nowhere is China’s determination to instrumentalize the coronavirus crisis for its own benefit more evident than in Hong Kong. In May, Beijing announced that it would impose a new security law on the former British crown colony. This would allow China’s Ministry of State Security to operate on Hong Kong territory for the first time.

Critics view this not only as an end to freedom of expression in Hong Kong, but also as a breach of the international treaty between China and Britain in which they agreed that the city should enjoy a “high degree of autonomy” until 2047.

On Wednesday, the foreign ministers of the G-7 expressed in a joint statement their “grave concern” about China’s actions.

Above all, it’s the former colonial power Britain that is under pressure. As late as 2015, then-Prime Minister David Cameron was still raving about an impending “golden era” of relations between Britain and China. Beautiful photos of Cameron and Xi were staged, showing them sipping lukewarm ale in a pub in the English countryside.

Cameron’s successor, Boris Johnson, describes himself as “sinophile” and went to great lengths as the mayor of London to attract Chinese investors. But now, he feels compelled to take a clear position.

If China follows through with its new security law, Johnson said London would have “no choice” but to offer 12-month visas to the nearly 3 million Hong Kong citizens who either hold or are entitled to a British overseas passport. It would offer those people a “route to citizenship.”

Other signs are also pointing to conflict. For one, there’s the fact that Britain is reviewing its January decision to involve the Chinese network equipment supplier Huawei in the expansion of the British 5G network. China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Liu Xiaoming, threatened that if the British were to exclude Huawei, Chinese companies could cancel the construction of a nuclear power plant and a new network of tracks for high-speed trains on the island.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo jumped at the news: If China backed out, he promised, the U.S. would happily pick up the slack.

From Competitor to Rival

China is encountering political headwinds not only from governments, but from parliaments as well. The Conservative member of parliament Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee, founded the China Research Group in the British parliament. Its members are critical of China and have been lobbying for months to push back Chinese influence in many spheres of British life. “China is challenging the rules-based international system,” says Tugendhat. “We must defend it.”

An international group of parliamentarians who banded together in early June as part of the so-called Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China wants to achieve a similar effect. Co-chairs include representatives from such diverse camps as Republican Senator Marco Rubio, an American, and Reinhard Bütikofer, a German member of the European Parliament with the Green Party.

“The Chancellery hasn’t heard the gong yet.”
Nils Schmid, German parliamentarian
“Of course, you have to work with China,” says his party colleague, Omid Nouripour, a member of the German parliament who is also involved. “Nevertheless, this initiative was overdue. The system question is no longer concealed, but clearly expressed from the Chinese side.”

Even the European Union, which has long been lenient toward China, is now showing a greater willingness to assert itself. In 2019, the European Commission for the first time stopped describing China merely as an economic competitor, but as a “systemic rival.” The EU’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, in May called for Europe to be “more robust” toward China.

This is already happening, too, at least in economic terms. After some spectacular takeovers of European companies by Chinese groups, over which there was substantial public outcry, new rules for reviewing investments designed to ensure greater transparency have been in force since April 2019.

Last Wednesday, EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager presented her new white paper. It contains proposals for how the EU intends to act in the future against companies from third countries, such as China, that use state subsidies to undermine the EU’s internal market.

Germany Steps Up
EU negotiators are also getting closer to their goal of reaching a long-planned investment protection agreement with Beijing. It is intended to provide EU companies in China with relatively fair market access and competitive conditions. One crucial thing the agreement calls for is an end to forced technology transfers, says EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan. Foreign companies that want to produce in China must show the Chinese their technology.

The agreement would be an important step. The EU often has a hard time sending powerful signals to China — whether over human rights or combating the pandemic.

That’s why German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to develop a unified European stance toward Beijing. She has declared Europe’s China policy to be one of the central themes of Germany’s EU Council presidency, which will begin July 1.

Merkel is toeing a fine line. Under no circumstances does she wish to follow the U.S. on its path toward decoupling. “A policy that attempts to isolate China is not in the German and European interest,” says Norbert Röttgen, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the German parliament.

At the same time, Germany is also becoming more critical of China and its ambitions for world power.

The question is whether the chancellor is the right person to lead the charge. Her critics consider her a silent advocate, arguing that her policies are one-sided and oriented toward the interests of German businesses.

Last week, the German government published its draft program for the EU Council presidency, which, compared with an earlier version, takes a somewhat sharper tone. Germany wants to demand “more reciprocity in all policy areas” from China. It also stresses the importance of European “values.” But what that will mean in concrete terms remains to be seen.

“Angela Merkel is trapped in an outdated perception of China,” says Nils Schmid, the foreign policy spokesperson for the Social Democrats in the German parliament. “The Chancellery hasn’t heard the gong yet.”


Visits: 134

To counter China’s rise, US still needs its Gulf allies

Gulf Arab states constitute a key part of the US quest to counter China’s military and economic footprint

Visits: 151

For the U.S. and China, Thucydides’ trap is closing

Intertwined domestic crises are adding pressure for Trump and Xi to seek out confrontation

JUN 16, 2020

LONDON – Long before Donald Trump, with his “America first” foreign policy agenda, took office as U.S. president, relations between Washington and Beijing were in a state of gradual decline. These developments have their roots in the dramatic rearrangement of the post-1989 world order, where the fall of the Soviet Union made Beijing’s position as a counterweight to Moscow redundant for Washington. Add in mounting trade tensions and increasing Chinese aggression in the South China Seas, among other factors, and ties were fraying before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now both Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping face dueling crises that could bring both powers to a head-on, domestically driven clash.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which originated in China, has killed over 110,000 Americans and sickened nearly 2 million. It has also rapidly sped up the deterioration in relations between the world’s top two economies. Now the United States faces interlinked public health, social and economic crises that have devastated vast swaths of the American economic landscape. Domestic developments are made only worse through urban unrest caused by the murder of an unarmed black man by a white police officer in Minnesota over a counterfeit $20 bill. As a result, Trump faces three crises providing headwinds to his re-election effort, which is just five months away. Amid domestic turmoil, he is now attempting to make opposition to China a centerpiece of his bid.

While the Biden campaign favors pre-2016 status quo attitudes toward Beijing, this is not held by all Democrats, including within the party’s leadership. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has long been a center-left China hawk, dating back to her criticism of Beijing for the Chinese Communist Party’s actions during the Tiananmen Square protests. Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer blames Chinese negligence for the severity of the opioid epidemic and encourages Trump to be even tougher on China. Likewise, the previously ascendant progressive wing of the party supports a tougher stance because of China’s trade practices, environmental policies, and human rights record.

In other words, even if Trump loses this November, there might be no change in political attitudes toward China, since a more confrontational stance toward Beijing seems to be shared by both Republicans and Democrats. And now, according to a poll by Morning Consult, a majority of American voters blame China for the spread of COVID-19.

On the other side of the Pacific, Xi is dealing with his own coronavirus-induced fallout, which is messing with his plans to further consolidate power within the CCP. Behind the scenes, he is facing criticism from influential stakeholders within the party structure, which he is trying to silence along with widespread skepticism within Chinese society.

At the same time, Beijing is trying to suppress potential Islamism in Muslim-majority Xinjiang by throwing by some estimates up to 1 million people into “re-education camps.”

Meanwhile protests are continuing in Hong Kong against Beijing’s efforts to impose a new national security law on the city, a move that Washington has warned justifies revoking Hong Kong’s autonomous status. The United Kingdom is opening the door to full British citizenship for BNO passport holders, posing a brain drain risk to one of China’s major cities. These events threaten the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy, since foreign investors are considering long-term exit strategies from the Chinese market with encouragement from Washington.

These problematic developments are playing on another emerging debate inside China, where the post-COVID-19 geopolitical landscape becomes scrambled for Beijing. Xi is opening a discussion on whether the country should take a semi-Stalinist cult of personality approach under his leadership, or retain the traditional post-Mao “Dengist” approach. These arguments within the CCP leadership have implications for Washington’s relations since they will dictate the tone of engagement between the two countries in the coming years.

The regional situation in Asia currently provides a match for the evolving tinderbox of relations between the U.S. and China, especially considering the domestic problems facing the two countries. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the social and economic havoc it is creating in the U.S. is providing an opening for Beijing to press its agenda throughout the region and the world. However, China’s assertiveness during this global crisis is coming at the cost of further tensions with regional rivals like Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan and India.

COVID-19’s origins in China are prompting the Japanese government to incentivize businesses to move supply chains back home. Vietnamese distrust of China’s intentions drove Hanoi’s successful COVID-19 strategy. At the same time, Beijing is increasingly aggressive toward Taiwan, while Washington is distracted by the crisis at home. There is now an ongoing standoff between Beijing and New Delhi (both armed with nuclear weapons) over territorial disputes along their border. An escalation of any of these standoffs — or if Xi overplays his hand with claims in the South China Sea — could easily drag Washington into a regional conflict.

Still, there is a reason for cautious hope considering the U.S. previously faced similarly difficult circumstances with the Soviet Union. From 1967 through 1970, Washington faced an intractable war in Vietnam, racial unrest at home and massive upheaval that changed social attitudes in American society. Internationally, the Vietnam War served as a potential flashpoint. Open conflict between Israel and the Arab World, war between India and Pakistan, left-wing terrorism, and the Prague Spring all posed heightened risks.

On the other side of the Berlin Wall, Moscow dealt with inter-socialist rivalry with Mao’s China, a massive military build-up, and aging leadership, among other issues. Still, despite these flashpoints and simmering tensions, Washington and Moscow refrained from coming to open blows.

The twin domestic crises impacting the U.S. and China carry repercussions that go beyond both powers. The unrest and discord currently happening in the U.S. are upping the stakes for American political leaders going into an election year where intertangled crises could easily spill over into the international sphere. With his re-election on the ropes, Trump could decide a show of force in Asia is an excellent option to bolster his campaign message. Mounting problems at home are also driving Xi’s decision-making calculus, and could similarly cause him to assert power in the near abroad, inducing a crisis with Washington. Rising instability among the elites and societies of both powers create numerous further risks for potential conflict between the U.S. and China.

All these domestically driven challenges play into Graham Allison’s famed “Thucydides Trap,” which predicts that a rising power will almost always come to blows with an established one. So far, the evolving nature of the U.S.-China relationship seems to be proving Allison’s theory well, considering the differences between the two are becoming more highlighted and tensions are rapidly ramping up due to domestic political rhetoric. Time will tell if the unrest currently plaguing both rival powers sees the Thucydides trap become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Adding to the stakes is the fact that a global pandemic, the source of the recent social and economic upheaval, originated in the U.S.’ rising rival.

Xi must prove himself to be a decisive leader considering the pressure he is under within the ruling Communist Party to provide clarity in the aftermath of COVID-19 and the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong. Trump, meanwhile, is eyeing a tough-on-China stance as a crucial pillar of his re-election bid. If neither man can provide stability in the relationship between the two powers, the similar challenges facing both could snowball into an even larger crisis.

Visits: 112

Sino-US ties at a crossroads

THE confrontation instigated by the United States with China continues to intensify. The pandemic has escalated tensions between them that were already at a record high before the Covid outbreak. This fraught situation has variously been described as a new Cold War, end of the post-1979 era, a geopolitical turning point and less seriously, a ‘scold war’.

What does this mean for the world’s most consequential relationship? Is this a transformative moment from where ties will have to be completely redefined rather than reset? Will the two global powers arrive at a modus vivendi or will their stand-off become an enduring feature of the international landscape? How much of China-bashing in the US reflects campaign politics in an election year? Is the friction an inevitable result of a global power’s response to the rise of another that can challenge its predominant position — a classic phenomenon witnessed throughout history when power dynamics shift fundamentally?

Is economic decoupling between the two inescapable? Or will present hostilities eventually give way to a restructuring of ties in which relations may end up being fiercely competitive and selectively cooperative but with overtones of hostility?

Clearer answers will emerge over time. But a key factor that could shape future relations will be the US presidential election in November when the next occupant of the White House will have to decide how to manage relations with China: to stabilise the relationship on new terms, or embark on a course of drawn-out confrontation. In both eventualities, a return to engagement that previously characterised relations with China is unlikely.

The future course of Sino-US ties will have far-reaching consequences for the world.

This is because the political consensus and public opinion that has emerged in the US — fanned by President Donald Trump’s actions and rhetoric — sees China as an adversary that has exploited the US on trade and poses a strategic challenge that needs to be countered and contained, not engaged. Many foreign policy advisers of the Democratic contender for the presidency, Joe Biden, also happen to be hawks on China. Therefore, whoever wins the election will likely follow a tough line on China.

Beijing’s interest lies in de-escalating tensions and steadying relations. But it is up against the weight of US-led Western opinion that has become increasingly sceptical and hostile towards China. The European Union which has strong economic equities in ties with China is being assiduously courted by Beijing to encourage it to follow an independent path from Washington. But developments in Hong Kong have added to European suspicions of China.

In the face of Trump’s provocative statements and actions during the pandemic, China has generally kept its cool, reacting sharply only when Washington crossed certain red lines or when Trump’s patently misleading narrative needed to be countered. But top US officials led by Trump have continued virulent criticism of China. This provoked China’s foreign minister Wang Yi to warn that the US was pushing China to the brink of a new Cold War. But he also stressed that both countries had a major responsibility for “world peace and development”, and that “China and the US stand to gain from cooperation, and lose from confrontation”.

There are limits though to China’s forbearance in the face of offensive US actions. There is fresh thinking in Beijing about how to deal with a more antagonistic Washington and growing nationalist sentiment that their country should push back against Western criticism and US bullying. This sentiment is already driving a more assertive Chinese policy in Asia.

China is expected to emerge as the world’s largest economy in a decade. This should itself persuade the US and its Western allies that engagement is necessary in their own interest with a country that will be pivotal to achieving post-pandemic global economic revival and addressing a host of other international challenges. However, this rational calculation and also the fact that China remains Washington’s biggest lender may not be enough to overcome US apprehensions about the challenge posed to America’s global position by China’s rise.

A report titled United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China, submitted by the White House to Congress last month, lays bare these wide-ranging concerns. It says that US National Security Strategy demands that Washington “rethink the failed policies of the past two decades — policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners”. The future approach should be based on “tolerance of greater bilateral friction”.

The report says that America is in strategic competition with China and enumerates the economic and security challenges posed by Beijing. The tone is of a power anxious to counter a strategic challenger whose economic strength and reach have already eroded America’s global pre-eminence. More explicitly, US Defence Secretary Mark Asper declared in February that China is top of the Pentagon’s list of potential adversaries.

In one of the most influential books on Sino-US relations published in 2017, Harvard scholar Graham Allison invoked the ancient Greek historian Thucydides’ depiction of the dangerous trap that emerges when one great power challenges or is poised to displace another. The historian had pointed to the inevitability of war when the fear of the rise of another power determined the established power’s actions. Allison recalled that in 12 of 16 cases in history this dynamic between the two led to conflict.

The need to avoid the Thucydides’ Trap has not only been Allison’s advice but that of several thinkers and policymakers, most notably Henry Kissinger. Allison often quotes Kissinger as saying, “The Thucydides’ Trap is the best lens for looking through the noise and news of the day to the underlying dynamic driving the relationship between the US and China.” Kissinger has also frequently warned of the devastating consequences of falling into this trap and urged the need to place relations on a stable and peaceful course.

The key question is whether the present era’s most significant bilateral relationship will be managed responsibly to avert a complete breakdown, even conflict. After all the future course of Sino-US relations will be a game changer for the world, with far-reaching consequences for the global economy and international peace and security.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

This article taken from

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Welcome Back to Kissinger’s World


Neoconservatism has died, and liberal internationalism is discredited. Perhaps it’s time to return to the ideas of one of the last century’s greatest realists.

You can hate Henry Kissinger and think him evil. What you can’t do is ignore him—especially now. So argues Barry Gewen in his incisive new intellectual history of Kissinger and his times, The Inevitability of Tragedy. Indeed, not only can we not ignore the old statesman, who turned 97 in May, but we need him more than ever. To be precise, we desperately need Kissinger’s ideas and instincts about how to muddle our way through a world that, we now realize, isn’t working very well—and probably never will.

The world, from Washington’s perspective especially, has gotten Kissingerian again. America’s crusades are over or at best are corroded and crumbling at their derelict foundations. The Wilsonian crusaderism that transformed sensible Cold War containment into a futile and delusional battle against the myth of monolithic communism, ending horribly in Vietnam; and then reawakened in the post-Cold War era as a neo-Reaganite call to end “evil” regimes, finishing tragically in Iraq, has all but exhausted itself. No one wants anything to do with transforming the world anymore—so much so that Americans put a frank neo-isolationist, Donald Trump, in the White House so that he could shut the country off from the world.

The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World, Barry Gewen, W.W. Norton, 452 pp., , April 2020
The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World, Barry Gewen, W.W. Norton, 452 pp., $30, April 2020
The coronavirus crisis has accelerated Trump’s agenda, inspiring a new wave of “America First” isolationism, as his trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, argued in a recent essay calling for a reversal of U.S. economic offshoring in response to China’s “predatory trade and economic policies” and deceptions over the origins of the pandemic. The Trump administration is even invoking the power blocs of previous eras, mulling the creation of an “Economic Prosperity Network” of like-minded countries that would detach themselves from China. With the 2020 presidential race in full swing, Democrats too are sounding more and more like Cold Warriors toward China, with the party’s presumptive nominee, Joe Biden, hammering Trump for his occasional praise for Chinese President Xi Jinping. And as a party, Democrats are questioning as never before liberal internationalist institutions that came out of their own tradition, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO)—largely because of a growing sense of grievance that China has exploited and violated WTO rules to rob middle-class Americans of their jobs.

The United States is not ready for any of this. Certainly, U.S. diplomats have not figured a way out of it. To be sure, the liberal international order and the system of alliances that emerged out of World War II three-quarters of a century ago still exist, thankfully, and we’ll continue to make use of them. But mistrust among allies is high, cooperation all but nonexistent, and each country seems inclined to go its own nationalist way. Global institutions like the United Nations and WTO have become meek poor relations at the table, pleading for policy scraps, while Washington, Beijing, and Moscow jostle for a seat at the head. Among nations the great ideological struggles are over—or at least in deep hibernation. Over the course of the past century or so, we have witnessed the debunking of monarchy, authoritarianism, fascism, communism, and totalitarianism, each of them tried and tested to destruction. And now, to a degree, we are also experiencing the failures of democracy, which in so many places seems polarized into paralysis, as in Washington, drowning in memes of misinformation and hacked by malign external forces like Russia. We have also seen how capitalism—though it bested Cold War communism in terms of ownership of the means of production—has proved grossly unequal to the test of producing social equity. The world’s chosen system is prone to continual collapse.
Just as significant, American prestige and power are as low as they’ve been in living memory, especially following Trump’s divisive, polarizing first term, which culminated most recently in international condemnation of his brutal approach to the protests that erupted following the killing of a black man in police custody in Minneapolis. Beyond that, the president’s puerile jingoism and fumbling coronavirus response have only completed the road to reputational ruin begun under President George W. Bush. It is difficult now to remember how high American prestige was less than two decades ago, as recently as Sept. 10, 2001—that post-Cold War unipolar moment when the Yale University historian Paul Kennedy observed that the lone superpower had surpassed even ancient Rome in economic and military dominance—and how quickly that went off course. In what was possibly the worst strategic misdirection in U.S. history, Bush and his neoconservative abettors (who are all in hiding now, conceptually speaking) turned what should have been a globally unifying struggle against the international community’s remaining criminal holdouts, Islamist terrorists, into an exhausting imperialist game of invasion and whack-a-mole, exposing in the process America’s worst vulnerabilities on the ground and in the air. Then Bush did commensurate damage to the U.S. economy, ending in the Wall Street crash and Great Recession. China, meanwhile, rose and spread its monied influence across the world, Vladimir Putin preened and plotted, and the Viktor Orbans, Narendra Modis, and Jair Bolsonaros went their own ways. And Americans, disgusted with how badly they’d been misled, responded first by electing a freshman senator (Barack Obama) who rose to prominence by calling Iraq a “dumb war” and who then vacillated for eight years over U.S. involvement overseas and finally by embracing America First populism.

All this brings us directly back to Kissinger, the great realist Hans Morgenthau (who was his mentor), and the fierce geopolitical urgency of now. Global anarchy beckons, and proliferating great-power rivalries demand savvy, hardheaded strategic diplomacy of the kind that Morgenthau conceived in theory and Kissinger mastered in practice. This appears to be the main message of Gewen’s book, which demands to be studied, especially at a moment when Sinophobia is surging and Beijing is giving back as good as it gets. For China today, Gewen writes, is “the Apatosaurus in the room.”
The answer to the future of U.S.-China relations—and the global peace and stability that largely depend on getting them right—may lie in the past, Gewen suggests. It’s no small coincidence that Kissinger and his philosophy had their moment in the sun at a time of U.S. weakness, during the Vietnam War, civil unrest, Watergate, and the stagflation of the 1970s, when diplomats had to find common ground and a balance among the major powers. Because a weakened and disordered Washington may be in an analogous place today vis-à-vis China, Kissinger’s favorite subject and the focus of his greatest diplomatic triumphs. In particular, Washington needs a reversion to tried and tested realpolitik that will be deft enough to turn great-power rivalry into a stable and peaceable modus vivendi. As former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a scholar of China who has watched Beijing’s rise up close, wrote in a recent essay about the coronavirus pandemic in Foreign Affairs: “The uncomfortable truth is that China and the United States are both likely to emerge from this crisis significantly diminished. Neither a new Pax Sinica nor a renewed Pax Americana will rise from the ruins. Rather, both powers will be weakened, at home and abroad. And the result will be a continued slow but steady drift toward international anarchy.”

Yet it is just this likelihood of mutual weakness between the two great world powers that may provide a way out. The answer begins by recognizing and accepting what we face today—which is a permanently gray world. This is hard to accept for Americans, who for several generations since World War II and in the triumphalist aftermath of the Cold War have grown used to unquestioned world dominance. But it is largely this chaotic 21st-century world that Morgenthau, though largely forgotten now except in academia, presciently described in the ur-text of modern realism more than 70 years ago, Politics Among Nations, and which Kissinger expanded on in his diplomatic career, as Gewen brilliantly documents in his book. Morgenthau anticipated the present breakdown in the belief about the progress of human society when he said that the rationalists who pined for perfection in human governance and society denied the “inevitability of tragedy,” to pick up Gewen’s main theme. That is what every great statesman has known—that the “choices he faced were not between good and evil … but between bad and less bad,” writes Gewen, a longtime editor at the New York Times Book Review (who, full disclosure, has occasionally assigned me reviews). This describes much of Kissinger’s career, including the opening to China, the 1973 truce in the Middle East, even the chaotic and bloody end to the Vietnam War and the thousands of lives lost Kissinger must have on his conscience.

Kissinger’s ideas have more resonance now because we are clearly in a place similar to the American weakness in the ’70s, when foreign-policy elites weren’t thinking of triumph but just survival.

Kissinger, it is true, is not an easy man to restore to good public opinion, as Gewen notes in considerable detail. Kissinger and Richard Nixon oversaw the brutal campaign to force Hanoi to the table, dropping more bombs on Cambodia than all the bombs Allies dropped in World War II, ultimately leading to hundreds of thousands of innocent deaths; that policy, along with their indifference to the 1971 genocide in Bangladesh and apparent support of the coup in Chile, helped provoke a generation of prominent liberals from Seymour Hersh to Christopher Hitchens to label Kissinger a paranoiac and a war criminal. There was always a duplicity about his beliefs and shrouding of his motives—he knew that Americans weren’t going to fight to, in his words, “preserve the balance of power.” (Gewen notes that Kissinger had concluded as early as 1965, after a visit, that Vietnam was unwinnable but still supported the war.) Gewen tries to place Kissinger in the lineage of German Jewish thinkers who escaped the Holocaust and were haunted by the failures of Weimar democracy, along with Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt—though he’s not entirely persuasive here, given that some of Strauss’s often-obscure ideas later inspired the neocons and another such European refugee from Hitler, Madeleine Albright (nee Korbel), ended up a passionate hard-power Wilsonian.

But Kissinger’s ideas have more resonance now because we are clearly in a place similar to the American weakness in the ’70s, when foreign-policy elites weren’t thinking of triumph but just survival, as they should be now, especially when America’s internal problems are arguably as enervating as they were back then. Perhaps the biggest disappointment of Gewen’s book is that after spending hundreds of pages delving into the biographical and historical sources of Kissinger’s nuanced, Hitler-haunted realism, the author doesn’t apply it much to the present—and only fleetingly to China. Because there is no greater vindication of Kissingerian realism than what has happened in China during the first decades of the 21st century. After a quarter century in which it became fashionable in Washington to think that co-opting China into the post-Cold War system of global markets and emerging democracies would gradually nudge that country toward Enlightenment norms—what Kissinger once archly called “the age-old American dream of a peace achieved by the conversion of the adversary” —such illusions have faded away. All we have left is an emerging superpower that fits Kissinger’s hardheaded view of a country he visited some 100 times, dating back to his first talks with Mao Zedong. And if Kissinger’s analysis is correct—as it probably is—the United States and China can find accommodation if they work at it, with preaching kept to a minimum.
What the post-Cold War triumphalists didn’t understand, Gewen writes, is that after the collapse of the Soviet Union we confronted “a world without ideology, in which transcendent prescriptions for democracy were no answers to the problems at hand.”

Indeed, it has become far worse than that. We should frankly confront the postmodern reality that all hopes for the perfectibility of society and governance have fallen short; there is no longer any Great Cause to launch a revolution over. Thomas Jefferson’s “ball of liberty,” which Americans once expected to roll unfailingly across the globe, has ended up in a gutter. The recent Nations in Transit report from Freedom House documents a “stunning democratic breakdown”—in particular pointing to failures in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, saying that there are “fewer democracies in the region today than at any point since the annual report was launched in 1995.” History will trundle on, weak Afghan-like states will continue to fail, and democracies and autocracies like the United States and China will remain in contention with each other. But no one should delude themselves any longer that this clash of wills will yield some Great Teleological Outcome—a resolution in favor of one form of social and political organization over another.

For decades, the country managed to avoid most problems suffered by dictatorships. Now Xi Jinping’s personal power play risks undermining everything that made China exceptional.

As a result, as Kissinger once explained, “Almost every situation is a special case.” The new rise of nationalism, he wrote, might seek “national or regional identity by confronting the United States.” This is what Xi’s China has done. Indeed, many of today’s nationalists are responding to Washington as the Soviets once did, consolidating national control by playing up the threat from foreign enemies. And neonationalism across the globe should be dealt with in the same jujitsu manner George Kennan recommended against the Soviet Union: Reduce the perceived threat from the United States, and authoritarian systems like China’s are more likely to wither on their own. (Even now Xi may be facing a serious internal challenge; Rudd, in his Foreign Affairs essay, writes that Xi’s coronavirus response “has opened up significant political dissension within the Chinese Communist Party, even prompting thinly veiled criticism” of his “highly centralized leadership style.”) As Gewen notes, Kissinger observed in his 2011 book, On China, that even Mao, the Marxist revolutionary responsible for the deaths of millions of Chinese, was no ideologue like Lenin but a “China-first” nationalist and represented a country that had its own sense of exceptionalist insularity—like the United States—but unlike the Americans the Chinese regime saw little need for missionary zeal and proselytizing abroad. China today is buying influence everywhere. But creating so-called debt colonies around the globe is a lot less threatening than outright conquest.

The key is not to overreact. And the choice is stark for both countries, Gewen writes. “One way or another, either through an intellectual evolution that accepts limits and diplomatic compromise or through the wholesale shedding of blood, they will have to give up their cherished exceptionalism for a Westphalian system of international diversity and a more modest, if uncomfortable, equilibrium.” Moreover, Washington and Beijing will need to bring in other major world powers to accept this new balance of power.

In particular, Kissinger—perhaps the most profound student of the centurylong peace that began with the Congress of Vienna and ended in August 1914—worries about the pre-World War I descent into aggression, an especially scary prospect in a nuclear age.

Kissinger anticipated much of this outcome, Gewen writes. Decades ago he foresaw that the Reagan era and the Cold War’s end would not prove a new beginning for American-style liberal democratic capitalism, as the neocons believed and liberal internationalists hoped, but was more “in the nature of a brilliant sunset.” While Kissinger conceded, as always, that Wilsonian idealism would continue to define the heart of U.S. foreign policy, he wrote that even in the triumph of the Cold War—which he admits was partly won by the primacy of human rights in the debate (especially its role inside the Soviet bloc)—U.S. leaders would have to articulate a new balance of power “to preserve equilibrium in several regions of the world, and these partners can not always be chosen on the basis of moral considerations alone.”

China too is engaged today in a self-searching debate about how far it can go in global dominance, and the country’s long history of geopolitical caution (in deed if not always in word) is encouraging. Amid all this self-doubt and mutual probing of “limits”—one of Kissinger’s favorite words—lies the possibility of common ground, even if the two economies decouple in terms of supply chains and financial codependence. For without smart, aggressive diplomacy to find a new balance of power, there is the possibility of a catastrophic, even world-ending misstep. In particular, Kissinger—perhaps the most profound student of the centurylong peace that began with the Congress of Vienna and ended in August 1914—worries about the pre-World War I descent into aggression, an especially scary prospect in a nuclear age. Like many in Washington and Beijing today, Europe’s leaders back then blithely thought “risk taking was an effective diplomatic tool,” Kissinger wrote.

Now Beijing is lining up armies of bots and billions of dollars against U.S. democracy, and many in Washington are recklessly calling for a new cold war to confront “the imperialists in Beijing” who are “a menace to all free peoples,” in the words of Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, a rising star in the Republican Party. First task of this dangerous new agenda: withdraw from the WTO, under which China has “bent and abused and broken the rules of the international economic system to its own benefit” and cost 3 million American jobs, Hawley said in a May 20 speech.

Left: Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with Kissinger at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 8, 2018. Right: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Kissinger in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Oct. 10, 2017.

The stakes for solving the issues between Washington and Beijing are hard for Americans to digest but in their essentials fairly simple: The two sides need to agree to disagree about certain fundamental beliefs, Kissinger says. The Americans will never give up their commitment to human rights and personal freedom, and the Chinese will never stop being mostly focused on maintaining stability in their vast populace, thus giving short shrift to human rights and freedom. On moral and cultural grounds, this is an irreconcilable stalemate. On economic grounds too, there is only the prospect of diplomatic compromise. China has flagrantly stolen U.S. intellectual property and exploited open U.S. markets by flooding them with state-subsidized cheap products—another great failure of the George W. Bush administration was neglecting to invoke WTO “anti-surge” rules to blunt this—and Trump’s trade war has made no headway against such practices. The way forward? Muddle through. Or, as Kissinger put it, find a “pragmatic concept of coexistence” not unlike Cold War-era detente, when a Vietnam-embogged and stagflation-encumbered America was also in no shape to conduct ideological crusades and instead got into bed with Beijing while negotiating arms restraint with Moscow. Keep the pressure on diplomatically but fudge the fundamental issues, as smart diplomats have always done. Because the alternative—constant conflict and war in the South China Sea that could potentially go nuclear—is unthinkable. “Ambiguity,” Kissinger said, “is sometimes the lifeblood of diplomacy.”

Another issue that both Kissinger and Morgenthau foresaw is that the more populist democracy becomes, the less able it is to conduct reliable foreign policy. Morgenthau, who later broke with Kissinger over his opposition to the Vietnam War, especially saw the effect popular democracy would have on professional diplomacy—an impact that is all too apparent in the Trump administration but also affected the ever dithering Obama and Bush administrations. Kissinger picked up this theme in his 2001 book, Does America Need a Foreign Policy?, and in a 2018 article in the Atlantic that Gewen describes as his “final lesson as a self-appointed educator of the American public.” In the growth of cyberspace, Kissinger perceived a “growing anarchy, which he equated with a Hobbesian state of nature in which the prospect of world order receded ever further from view … and in his mind the computerization of the world encouraged a kind of irresponsible thinking that was deleterious to rational judgment at best, disastrous at worst.”
In making this assessment, Gewen writes, Kissinger revealed a side of himself that his many detractors would find hard to believe: Kissinger the humanist. The algorithms and amassing of data in cyberspace—some of it sound, much of it not—threatened to undermine or even destroy good common sense. “[T]he successful conduct of foreign policy demands, above all, the intuitive ability to sense the future and thereby to master it,” Kissinger argued. Anticipating future pitfalls, and relying more on pragmatic common sense than providence, is something Americans have to keep relearning. Even the deistic Founders saw Providence on their side, and later American leaders like Ronald Reagan believed themselves to be doing the will of God. Kissinger admired Reagan for his principled stand against the Soviets, but he also ironically referred back to a quote from the proto-realist he so admired, Otto von Bismarck, who said, “The best a statesman can do is to listen to the footsteps of God, get hold of the hem of his cloak, and walk with Him a few steps of the way.” Kissinger appealed not to God but instead to a “metaphysical humility,” Gewen writes, “an understanding that mere humans would never know all they needed to know as they engaged in the dangerous game of international affairs.”

That lack of certainty sounds squishy, but what is worse is to be too hard and unyielding—in a word, arrogant. Hubris, a lack of humility, and an excess of moralizing led to the worst disasters in modern U.S. foreign-policy history, the invasions of Vietnam and Iraq. A close review of the debates leading up to Vietnam, which Gewen delivers in some detail, and the Iraq invasion reveals the lamentable extent of overconfidence among U.S. policymakers in the God-given righteousness of America’s cause. (The infamous phrase with which Bush made his final case for the Iraq invasion was, “The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.”) Did Reagan win the Cold War, as many conservatives believe? Even Kissinger has acknowledged that Reagan’s confrontational approach, as opposed to detente, “had much to recommend it.” But mainly Reagan was lucky; he was the man who was in the room when 40 years of strategic patience—the policy of containment—paid off. (Reagan himself must have known how lucky he was, since he was still desperately trying to negotiate arms reduction with Moscow, much to the consternation of the hard-liners in his own second term, even as the Soviet system was collapsing internally.) Kissinger himself foresaw as well as anyone that slow and steady would eventually win the Cold War race, and even Kennan, the father of containment, once remarked that Kissinger “understands my views better than anyone at [the State Department] ever has.”

In the end, the choice in front of us is not as difficult as we may think. Kissinger lamented Wilsonianism’s excesses but conceded that it still formed the bedrock of American foreign policy. And a consensus is possible if the Wilsonians accept that American sovereignty and hard power will always be sacrosanct and the America Firsters accept that the liberal international order the United States created, flawed as it is, will remain far more a protector than an antagonist, not least because it has gained majority consensus in the world and helps take the raw edge off Washington’s still dominant military power, preventing would-be rivals like Beijing and Moscow from forming alternative power blocs. Striving openly for U.S. hegemony just won’t work, Kissinger has written, because no international order can survive if it isn’t viewed as just: “The dominant trend in American foreign policy thinking must be to transform power into consensus so that the international order is based on agreement rather than reluctant acquiescence.” Ragged though its dominance is, the United States, as chief author of this international order, still has the upper hand here. Or as Kissinger wrote: “Our goal should be to build a moral consensus which can make a pluralistic world creative rather than destructive.” The task is all the greater today.

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