Washington hardly agrees on anything these days, with political trench warfare being the new normal. The exception, however, is on China. Politicians as well as foreign policy elites across the ideological spectrum argue that rapprochement has failed, and that it is high time to get tough on the People’s Republic (PRC). In their view, the United States has stood aside for too long, watching the rising dragon undermine international norms, cheat its way to economic success, and ultimately threaten American supremacy. Proposals range from manageable competition to economic decoupling, with some even arguing for military action before it is too late.
The story, of course, is more complex than that. For decades, multinational corporations have used Chinese cheap labor to boost their profit margins, accepted intellectual property theft by the Chinese state in order to gain market access, and benefited from global supply chains that drove down prices altogether. It was only when Chinese companies became competitive on the global stage that the perception changed significantly. The speed of China’s growth combined with the fact that modern technologies are no longer an American monopoly caused U.S. decision makers to worry about declining American power. China’s growing assertiveness in its own neighborhood, as well as its expanding influence globally, compounded this change in perspective.
The perception across the Pacific could not be more different: Chinese leaders as well as the public see their country’s rise as a restoration to the place it should have occupied all along, if it were not for Western predatory colonialism. Following a century of humiliation, they argue that the People’s Republic must finally be treated as a great power with the same privileges as the United States, instead of suffering through constant reminders of Western supremacy. To put it bluntly, decision makers in Beijing hold the opinion that China deserves to be a rule maker, not just a rule taker.
Foreign policy in a world as it is
Instead of emphasizing the fact that the original U.S.-designed open, global order succeeded in lifting others up, many in Washington would now like to go back to the 1990s. They embrace this period as the height of U.S. power and engage in futile, nostalgic efforts to return to what became known as the unipolar moment. At the core of every strategy, though, is the need to look forward, not to rest on past laurels. This is why the United States, first and foremost, must confront its problems at home. In today’s world, domestic deterioration of trust in democratic institutions poses a far greater threat to the liberal international order than any rising power abroad. To recall Abraham Lincoln’s words, a house divided cannot stand, let alone lead. In order to reinvent its global status and model for the world, the emphasis must now be on how to remake America’s society and restore the country’s liberal democracy.
Today’s foreign policy debate in Washington is much more muddled. Whether it is the obsession with great power competition, the increased focus on the Chinese Communist Party, or the hopes of an alliance of democracies, discussions have only touched sporadically on rebuilding the domestic underpinning of U.S. power. Despite rhetorical avowals from the new administration, one could go even a step further and argue that the foreign policy elite is still largely insulated from the heartland. It operates under the assumption that there is no need for humility in American grand strategy and that the United States has the strongest fundamentals of any country all the same, from venerable public institutions to maintaining its position as the world’s largest economy. Hawkish voices, who double down on sticking with the status quo, including Western supremacy and American leadership, dominate the discussion. In such thinking, there is little room for a peer competitor that has rejected notions for a subordinate role and is on the verge of surpassing the United States economically.
In order to avoid the Thucydides Trap, however, we must accept that the world today is radically different from the one twenty years ago. While Western countries continue to suffer from the pandemic, China has already surpassed America as the recipient of most Foreign Direct Investment. Additionally, more than 128 countries are economically more dependent on the PRC than they are on the United States. Traditional American allies in Europe and Asia can no longer choose sides without endangering their economies. And China appears to be only at the beginning of its rise — its GDP is forecast to dwarf those of the United States and Europe put together by 2050.
The hard truth is that the United States has lost its ability to impose a global order on others. Trying to maintain its unipolar position will only lead to catastrophe, with the potential to resemble the 1920s and 1930s in Europe. Back then, isolated countries like Germany and the Soviet Union had every incentive to break with the preexisting order. The Trump administration’s unilateralist trade war was already a full blown disaster, curbing potential growth and costing the Unites States more than 200,000 jobs. Moreover, it drove additional countries into the Chinese orbit, doing everything but level the playing field. Irresponsible stunts like these will hurt American interests in the short, medium, and long run.
Win-win vs. zero-sum
It is high time to understand that by any measure, from demographics to economics, the world is no longer Western centric. China has its own idea of how the world should be run and does not care to be bound by U.S. strictures. The United States has the chance to remain a leading power, but only if it prepares itself for a world in which its democratic values are not likely to be universal, even if human desires largely converge on wanting peace, security, and prosperity.
To be clear, such political realism does not suggest that we should be indifferent to violations of political ideals and moral principles. But as Hans J. Morgenthau pointed out 70 years ago, political realism requires a sharp distinction between the desirable and the possible — a differentiation between what is desirable everywhere and at all times, and what is possible under the concrete circumstances of time and place.
Instead of think tank-authored China strategies, based on bygone ideas of hegemony and zero-sum calculations, reimagining America’s global role should involve proposals on how all nations can work together to solve the existential challenges facing humanity today — from climate change to global diseases, emerging technologies, and future conflict over resources. Trust-building measures and a potential reform of multilateral institutions would be a promising start. Once a central core of the U.S. post-WWII order, these institutions no longer represent today’s balance of power and suffer from dramatic inefficiency. President Biden’s reengagement is promising, and one can only hope that his administration realizes the importance of working with others, including China, to ensure buy-in from the rest of the world. As a trading country like the United States, the PRC has every interest in participating, engaging in the give and take consensus building.
Over and above, Beijing and Washington should seek mutual interests, define red lines for technology competition, and refrain from interfering in each other’s domestic affairs. The goal of U.S. foreign policy towards China should thereby be the enhancement of peace, prosperity, and good global governance. And it must avoid as much as possible from making it into a zero-sum power struggle, countering the ever-increasing likelihood of military conflict.
Mathew Burrows, PhD, is director of the Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative at the Atlantic Council and served as counselor and director of the analysis and productions staff at the National Intelligence Council (NIC) before retirement.
Julian Mueller-Kaler is a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center and a senior fellow in the Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative where he researches global trends and the future of the international order. He is an alumnus of ISD’ Certificate in Diplomatic Studies.
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