The Race to Consolidate Power and Stave Off Disaster
Xi Jinping is a man on a mission. After coming to power in late 2012, he moved rapidly to consolidate his political authority, purge the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of rampant corruption, sideline his enemies, tame China’s once highflying technology and financial conglomerates, crush internal dissent, and forcefully assert China’s influence on the international stage. In the name of protecting China’s “core interests,” Xi has picked fights with many of his neighbors and antagonized countries farther away—especially the United States. Whereas his immediate predecessors believed China must continue to bide its time by overseeing rapid economic growth and the steady expansion of China’s influence through tactical integration into the existing global order, Xi is impatient with the status quo, possesses a high tolerance for risk, and seems to feel a pronounced sense of urgency in challenging the international order.
Why is he in such a rush? Most observers have settled on one of two diametrically opposite hypotheses. The first holds that Xi is driving a wide range of policy initiatives aimed at nothing less than the remaking of the global order on terms favorable to the CCP. The other view asserts that he is the anxious overseer of a creaky and outdated Leninist political system that is struggling to keep its grip on power. Both narratives contain elements of truth, but neither satisfactorily explains the source of Xi’s sense of urgency.
A more accurate explanation is that Xi’s calculations are determined not by his aspirations or fears but by his timeline. Put simply, Xi has consolidated so much power and upset the status quo with such force because he sees a narrow window of ten to 15 years during which Beijing can take advantage of a set of important technological and geopolitical transformations, which will also help it overcome significant internal challenges. Xi sees the convergence of strong demographic headwinds, a structural economic slowdown, rapid advances in digital technologies, and a perceived shift in the global balance of power away from the United States as what he has called “profound changes unseen in a century,” demanding a bold set of immediate responses.
By narrowing his vision to the coming ten to 15 years, Xi has instilled a sense of focus and determination in the Chinese political system that may well enable China to overcome long-standing domestic challenges and achieve a new level of global centrality. If Xi succeeds, China will position itself as an architect of an emerging era of multipolarity, its economy will escape the so-called middle-income trap, and the technological capabilities of its manufacturing sector and military will rival those of more developed countries.
Yet ambition and execution are not the same thing, and Xi has now placed China on a risky trajectory, one that threatens the achievements his predecessors secured in the post-Mao era. His belief that the CCP must guide the economy and that Beijing should rein in the private sector will constrain the country’s future economic growth. His demand that party cadres adhere to ideological orthodoxy and demonstrate personal loyalty to him will undermine the governance system’s flexibility and competency. His emphasis on an expansive definition of national security will steer the country in a more inward and paranoid direction. His unleashing of “Wolf Warrior” nationalism will produce a more aggressive and isolated China. Finally, Xi’s increasingly singular position within China’s political system will forestall policy alternatives and course corrections, a problem made worse by his removal of term limits and the prospect of his indefinite rule.
Xi believes he can mold China’s future as did the emperors of the country’s storied past. He mistakes this hubris for confidence—and no one dares tell him otherwise. An environment in which an all-powerful leader with a single-minded focus cannot hear uncomfortable truths is a recipe for disaster, as China’s modern history has demonstrated all too well.
A MAN IN A HURRY
In retrospect, Xi’s compressed timeline was clear from the start of his tenure. China had become accustomed to the pace of his predecessor, the slow and staid Hu Jintao, and many expected Xi to follow suit, albeit with a greater emphasis on economic reform. Yet within months of taking the reins in 2012, Xi began to reorder the domestic political and economic landscape. First came a top-to-bottom housecleaning of the CCP. The party had repeatedly demonstrated its ability to weather domestic storms, but pressures were building within the system. Corruption had become endemic, leading to popular dissatisfaction and the breakdown of organizational discipline. The party’s ranks were growing rapidly but were increasingly filled with individuals who didn’t share Xi’s belief in the CCP’s exceptionalism. Party cells in state-owned enterprises, private companies, and nongovernmental organizations were dormant and disorganized. Senior-level decision-making had become uncoordinated and siloed. The party’s propaganda organs struggled to project their messages to an increasingly cynical and tech-savvy citizenry.
Xi took on all these problems simultaneously. In 2013 alone, he initiated a sweeping anticorruption drive, launched a “mass line” campaign to eliminate political pluralism and liberal ideologies from public discourse, announced new guidelines restricting the growth of the party’s membership, and added new ideological requirements for would-be party members. The size of the party mattered little, he believed, if it was not made up of true believers. After all, he noted, when the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse in the early 1990s, “proportionally, the Soviet Communist Party had more members than [the CCP], but nobody was man enough to stand up and resist.”
Next on Xi’s agenda was the need to assert China’s interests on the global stage. Xi quickly began land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea, established an air defense identification zone over disputed territory in the East China Sea, helped launch the New Development Bank (sometimes called the BRICS Bank), unveiled the massive international infrastructure project that came to be known as the Belt and Road Initiative, and proposed the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Xi continued to slash his way through the status quo for the remainder of his first term and shows no signs of abating as he approaches the end of his second. His consolidation of power continues uninterrupted: he faces no genuine political rivals, has removed term limits on his tenure in office, and has installed allies and loyalists in key positions. New research centers are dedicated to studying his writings and speeches, party officials publicly extol his wisdom and virtue, and party regulations and government planning documents increasingly claim to be based on “Xi Jinping Thought.” He has asserted the CCP’s dominance over vast swaths of Chinese society and economic life, even forcing influential business and technology titans to beg forgiveness for their insufficient loyalty to the party. Meanwhile, he continues to expand China’s international sphere of influence through the exercise of hard power, economic coercion, and deep integration into international and multilateral bodies.
Many outside observers, myself included, initially believed that the party’s inability to contain the outbreak of COVID-19 highlighted the weaknesses of China’s system. By the summer of 2020, however, Xi was able to extol the virtues of centralized control in checking the pandemic’s domestic spread. Far from undermining his political authority, Beijing’s iron-fisted approach to combating the virus has now become a point of national pride.
A UNIQUE MOMENT
Xi’s fast pace was provoked by a convergence of geopolitical, demographic, economic, environmental, and technological changes. The risks they pose are daunting, but not yet existential; Beijing has a window of opportunity to address them before they become fatal. And the potential rewards they offer are considerable.
The first major change is Beijing’s assessment that the power and influence of the West have entered a phase of accelerated decline, and as a result, a new era of multipolarity has begun, one that China could shape more to its liking. This view took hold as the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq became quagmires, and it solidified in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which the Chinese leadership saw as the death knell for U.S. global prestige. In 2016, the British vote to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump as president in the United States fortified the consensus view that the United States, and the West more generally, was in decline. This might suggest that China could opt for strategic patience and simply allow American power to wane. But the possibility of a renewal of U.S. leadership brought about by the advent of the Biden administration—and concerns about Xi’s mortality (he will be 82 in 2035)—means that Beijing is unwilling to wait and see how long this phase of Western decline will last.
The second important force confronting Xi is China’s deteriorating demographic and economic outlook. By the time he assumed office, China’s population was simultaneously aging and shrinking, and the country was facing an imminent surge of retirees that would stress the country’s relatively weak health-care and pension systems. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences now expects China’s population to peak in 2029, and a recent study in The Lancet forecast that it will shrink by nearly 50 percent by the end of the century. Although Beijing ended its draconian one-child policy in 2016, the country has still recorded a 15 percent decline in births during the past 12 months. Meanwhile, the government estimates that by 2033, nearly one-third of the population will be over the age of 60.
Contributing to these woes is China’s shrinking workforce and rising wages, which have increased by ten percent, on average, since 2005. Larger paychecks are good for workers, but global manufacturers are increasingly moving their operations out of China and to lower-cost countries, leaving a rising number of low-skilled workers in China unemployed or underemployed. And because only 12.5 percent of China’s labor force has graduated from college (compared with 24 percent in the United States), positioning the bulk of the country’s workforce to compete for the high-skilled jobs of the future will be an uphill battle.
Directly related to this worrying demographic picture is the slowdown of China’s economy. With annual GDP growth having dropped from a high of 14 percent in 2007 to the mid-single digits today, many of the long-standing problems Beijing had been able to sweep under the rug now require attention and a willingness to accept economic and political pain, from unwinding the vast sea of indebted companies to demanding that firms and individuals pay more into the country’s tax coffers. At the heart of China’s growth woes is flagging productivity. Throughout the first several decades of the post-Mao reform period, realizing productivity gains was relatively straightforward, as the planned economy was dissolved in favor of market forces and droves of citizens voluntarily fled the countryside for urban and coastal areas and the promise of higher-wage jobs. Later, as foreign companies brought investment, technology, and know-how to the country, industrial efficiency continued to improve. Finally, the massive amounts spent on infrastructure, especially roads and rail, boosted connectivity and thus productivity. All of this helped a poor and primarily agricultural economy rapidly catch up with more advanced economies.
Yet by the time Xi assumed power, policymakers were finding it increasingly difficult to maintain momentum without creating unsustainable levels of debt, just as they had done in response to the 2008 global financial crisis. What is more, the country was already saturated with transportation infrastructure, so an additional mile of road or high-speed rail wasn’t going to add much to growth. And because almost all able-bodied workers had already moved from the countryside to urban areas, relocating labor wouldn’t arrest the decline in productivity, either. Finally, the social and environmental costs of China’s previous growth paradigm had become both unsustainable and destabilizing, as staggering air pollution and environmental devastation provoked acute anger among Chinese citizens.
Perhaps the most consequential shifts to have occurred on Xi’s watch are advances in new technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and biomedical engineering, among others. Xi believes that dominating the “commanding heights” of these new tools will play a critical role in China’s economic, military, and geopolitical fate, and he has mobilized the party to transform the country into a high-tech powerhouse. This includes expending vast sums to develop the country’s R & D and production capabilities in technologies deemed critical to national security, from semiconductors to batteries. As Xi stated in 2014, first-mover advantage will go to “whoever holds the nose of the ox of science and technology innovation.”
Xi also hopes that new technologies can help the CCP overcome, or at least circumvent, nearly all of China’s domestic challenges. The negative impacts of a shrinking workforce, he believes, can be blunted by an aggressive push toward automation, and job losses in traditional industries can be offset by opportunities in newer, high-tech sectors. “Whether we can stiffen our back in the international arena and cross the ‘middle-income trap’ depends to a large extent on the improvement of science and technology innovation capability,” Xi said in 2014.
New technologies serve other purposes, as well. Facial recognition tools and artificial intelligence give China’s internal security organs new ways to surveil citizens and suppress dissent. The party’s “military-civil fusion” strategy strives to harness these new technologies to significantly bolster the Chinese military’s warfighting capabilities. And advances in green technology offer the prospect of simultaneously pursuing economic growth and pollution abatement, two goals Beijing has generally seen as being in tension.
THE PARANOID STYLE IN CHINESE POLITICS
This convergence of changes and developments would have occurred regardless of who assumed power in China in 2012. Perhaps another leader would have undertaken a similarly bold agenda. Yet among contemporary Chinese political figures, Xi has demonstrated an unrivaled skill for bureaucratic infighting. And he clearly believes that he is a figure of historical significance, on whom the CCP’s fate rests.
In order to push forward significant change, Xi has overseen the construction of a new political order, one underpinned by a massive increase in the power and authority of the CCP. Yet beyond this elevation of party power, perhaps Xi’s most critical legacy will be his expansive redefinition of national security. His advocacy of a “comprehensive national security concept” emerged in early 2014, and in a speech that April, he announced that China faced “the most complicated internal and external factors in its history.” Although this was clearly hyperbole—war with the United States in Korea and the nationwide famine of the late 1950s were more complicated—Xi’s message to the political system was clear: a new era of risk and uncertainty confronts the party.
The CCP’s long experience of defections, attempted coups, and subversion by outside actors predisposes it to acute paranoia, something that reached a fever pitch in the Mao era. Xi risks institutionalizing this paranoid style. One result of blurring the line between internal and external security has been threat inflation: party cadres in low-crime, low-risk areas now issue warnings of terrorism, “color revolutions,” and “Christian infiltration.” In Xinjiang, fears of separatism have been used to justify turning the entire region into a dystopian high-tech prison. And in Hong Kong, Xi has established a “national security” bureaucracy that can ignore local laws and operate in total secrecy as it weeds out perceived threats to Beijing’s iron-fisted rule. In both places, Xi has demonstrated that he is willing to accept international opprobrium when he feels that the party’s core interests are at stake.
At home, Xi stokes nationalist sentiment by framing China as surrounded and besieged by enemies, exploiting a deeply emotional (and highly distorted) view of the past, and romanticizing China’s battles against the Japanese in World War II and its “victory” over the United States in the Korean War. By warning that China has entered a period of heightened risk from “hostile foreign forces,” Xi is attempting to accommodate Chinese citizens to the idea of more difficult times ahead and ensure that the party and he himself are viewed as stabilizing forces.
Xi has placed China on a risky trajectory, one that threatens the achievements his predecessors secured.
Meanwhile, to exploit a perceived window of opportunity during an American retreat from global affairs, Beijing has advanced aggressively on multiple foreign policy fronts. These include the use of “gray zone” tactics, such as employing commercial fishing boats to assert territorial interests in the South China Sea and establishing China’s first overseas military base, in Djibouti. China’s vast domestic market has allowed Xi to threaten countries that don’t demonstrate political and diplomatic obedience, as evidenced by Beijing’s recent campaign of economic coercion against Australia in response to Canberra’s call for an independent investigation into the origins of the virus that causes COVID-19. Similarly, Xi has encouraged Chinese “Wolf Warrior” diplomats to intimidate and harass host countries that criticize or otherwise antagonize China. Earlier this year, Beijing levied sanctions against Jo Smith Finley, a British anthropologist and political scientist who studies Xinjiang, and the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a German think tank, whose work the CCP claimed had “severely harm[ed] China’s sovereignty and interests.”
Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping demonstrated strategic patience in asserting China’s interests on the global stage. Indeed, Mao told U.S. President Richard Nixon that China could wait 100 years to reclaim Taiwan, and Deng negotiated the return of Hong Kong under the promise (since broken by Xi) of a 50-year period of local autonomy. Both leaders had a profound sense of China’s relative fragility and the importance of careful, nuanced statesmanship. Xi does not share their equanimity, or their confidence in long-term solutions.
That has sparked concerns that Xi will attempt an extraordinarily risky gambit to take Taiwan by force by 2027, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army. It seems doubtful, however, that he would invite a possible military conflict with the United States just 110 miles from China’s shoreline. Assuming the PLA were successful in overcoming Taiwan’s defenses, to say nothing of surmounting possible U.S. involvement, Xi would then have to carry out a military occupation against sustained resistance for an indeterminate length of time. An attempted takeover of Taiwan would undermine nearly all of Xi’s other global and domestic ambitions. Nevertheless, although the more extreme scenarios might remain unlikely for the time being, Xi will continue to have China flaunt its strength in its neighborhood and push outward in pursuit of its interests. On many issues, he appears to want final resolution on his watch.
THE MAN OF THE SYSTEM
Xi’s tendency to believe he can shape the precise course of China’s trajectory calls to mind the economist Adam Smith’s description of “the man of system”: a leader “so enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.” In order to realize his near-term goals, Xi has abandoned the invisible hand of the market and forged an economic system that relies on state actors to reach predetermined objectives.
Critical to this shift has been Xi’s reliance on industrial policy, a tool of economic statecraft that had fallen out of favor until near the end of the tenure of Xi’s predecessor, Hu, when it began to shape Beijing’s approach to technological innovation. The year 2015 marked an important inflection point, with the introduction of supersized industrial policy programs that sought not just to advance a given technology or industry but also to remake the entire structure of the economy. These included the Made in China 2025 plan, which aims to upgrade China’s manufacturing capabilities in a number of important sectors; the Internet Plus strategy, a scheme to integrate information technology into more traditional industries; and the 14th Five-Year Plan, which outlines an ambitious agenda to decrease China’s reliance on foreign technology inputs. Through such policies, Beijing channels tens of trillions of yuan into companies, technologies, and sectors it considers strategically significant. It does this by means of direct subsidies, tax rebates, and quasi-market “government guidance funds,” which resemble state-controlled venture capital firms.
Thus far, Beijing’s track record in this area is decidedly mixed: in many cases, vast sums of investment have produced meager returns. But as the economist Barry Naughton has cautioned, “Chinese industrial policies are so large, and so new, that we are not yet in a position to evaluate them. They may turn out to be successful, but it is also possible that they will turn out to be disastrous.”
Xi believes he can mold China’s future as did the emperors of the country’s storied past.
Related to this industrial policy is Xi’s approach to China’s private-sector companies, including many of the technological and financial giants that just a few years ago observers viewed as possible agents of political and social change. Technological innovation put firms such as Ant Group and Tencent in control of critical new data flows and financial technology. Xi clearly perceived this as an unacceptable threat, as demonstrated by the CCP’s recent spiking of Ant Group’s initial public offering in the wake of comments made by its founder, Jack Ma, that many perceived as critical of the party.
Xi is willing to forgo a boost in China’s international financial prestige to protect the party’s interests and send a signal to business elites: the party comes first. This is no David and Goliath story, however. It’s more akin to a family feud, given the close and enduring connections between China’s nominally private firms and its political system. Indeed, nearly all of China’s most successful entrepreneurs are members of the CCP, and for many companies, success depends on favors granted by the party, including protection from foreign competition. But whereas previous Chinese leaders granted wide latitude to the private sector, Xi has forcefully drawn a line. Doing so has further restricted the country’s ability to innovate. No matter how sophisticated Beijing’s regulators and state investors may be, sustained innovation and gains in productivity cannot occur without a vibrant private sector.
GRAND STRATEGY OR GRAND TRAGEDY?
In order to seize temporary advantages and forestall domestic challenges, Xi has positioned himself for a 15-year race, one for which he has mobilized the awesome capabilities of a system that he now commands unchallenged. Xi’s truncated time frame compels a sense of urgency that will define Beijing’s policy agenda, risk tolerance, and willingness to compromise as it sprints ahead. This will narrow the options available to countries hoping to shape China’s behavior or hoping that the “Wolf Warrior” attitude will naturally recede.
The United States can disprove Beijing’s contention that its democracy has atrophied and that Washington’s star is dimming by strengthening the resilience of American society and improving the competence of the U.S. government. If the United States and its allies invest in innovation and human capital, they can forestall Xi’s efforts to gain first-mover advantage in emerging and critical technologies. Likewise, a more active and forward-looking U.S. role in shaping the global order would limit Beijing’s ability to spread illiberal ideas beyond China’s borders.
Unwittingly, Xi has put China into competition with itself, in a race to determine if its many strengths can outstrip the pathologies that Xi himself has introduced to the system. By the time he assumed power, the CCP had established a fairly predictable process for the regular and peaceful transition of power. Next fall, the 20th Party Congress will be held, and normally, a leader who has been in charge as long as Xi has would step aside. To date, however, there is no expectation that Xi will do so. This is an extraordinarily risky move, not just for the CCP itself but also for the future of China. With no successor in sight, if Xi dies unexpectedly in the next decade, the country could be thrown into chaos.
Even assuming that Xi remains healthy while in power, the longer his tenure persists, the more the CCP will resemble a cult of personality, as it did under Mao. Elements of this are already evident, with visible sycophancy among China’s political class now the norm. Paeans to the greatness of “Xi Jinping Thought” may strike outsiders as merely curious or even comical, but they have a genuinely deleterious effect on the quality of decision-making and information flows within the party.
It would be ironic, and tragic, if Xi, a leader with a mission to save the party and the country, instead imperiled both. His current course threatens to undo the great progress China has made over the past four decades. In the end, Xi may be correct that the next decade will determine China’s long-term success. What he likely does not understand is that he himself may be the biggest obstacle.
China Is Maneuvering for International Leadership as the United States Falters
By Kurt M. Campbell and Rush Doshi, March 18, 2020
With hundreds of millions of people now isolating themselves around the world, the novel coronavirus pandemic has become a truly global event. And while its geopolitical implications should be considered secondary to matters of health and safety, those implications may, in the long term, prove just as consequential—especially when it comes to the United States’ global position. Global orders have a tendency to change gradually at first and then all at once. In 1956, a botched intervention in the Suez laid bare the decay in British power and marked the end of the United Kingdom’s reign as a global power. Today, U.S. policymakers should recognize that if the United States does not rise to meet the moment, the coronavirus pandemic could mark another “Suez moment.”
It is now clear to all but the most blinkered partisans that Washington has botched its initial response. Missteps by key institutions, from the White House and the Department of Homeland Security to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have undermined confidence in the capacity and competence of U.S. governance. Public statements by President Donald Trump, whether Oval Office addresses or early-morning tweets, have largely served to sow confusion and spread uncertainty. Both public and private sectors have proved ill-prepared to produce and distribute the tools necessary for testing and response. And internationally, the pandemic has amplified Trump’s instincts to go it alone and exposed just how unprepared Washington is to lead a global response.
The status of the United States as a global leader over the past seven decades has been built not just on wealth and power but also, and just as important, on the legitimacy that flows from the United States’ domestic governance, provision of global public goods, and ability and willingness to muster and coordinate a global response to crises. The coronavirus pandemic is testing all three elements of U.S. leadership. So far, Washington is failing the test.
As Washington falters, Beijing is moving quickly and adeptly to take advantage of the opening created by U.S. mistakes, filling the vacuum to position itself as the global leader in pandemic response. It is working to tout its own system, provide material assistance to other countries, and even organize other governments. The sheer chutzpah of China’s move is hard to overstate. After all, it was Beijing’s own missteps—especially its efforts at first to cover up the severity and spread of the outbreak—that helped create the very crisis now afflicting much of the world. Yet Beijing understands that if it is seen as leading, and Washington is seen as unable or unwilling to do so, this perception could fundamentally alter the United States’ position in global politics and the contest for leadership in the twenty-first century.
MISTAKES WERE MADE
In the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease now referred to as COVID-19, the missteps of Chinese leaders cast a pall on their country’s global standing. The virus was first detected in November 2019 in the city of Wuhan, but officials didn’t disclose it for months and even punished the doctors who first reported it, squandering precious time and delaying by at least five weeks measures that would educate the public, halt travel, and enable widespread testing. Even as the full scale of the crisis emerged, Beijing tightly controlled information, shunned assistance from the CDC, limited World Health Organization travel to Wuhan, likely undercounted infections and deaths, and repeatedly altered the criteria for registering new COVID-19 cases—perhaps in a deliberate effort to manipulate the official number of cases.
As the crisis worsened through January and February, some observers speculated that the coronavirus might even undermine the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. It was called China’s “Chernobyl”; Dr. Li Wenliang—the young whistleblower silenced by the government who later succumbed to complications from the COVID-19—was likened to the Tiananmen Square “tank man.”
Yet by early March, China was claiming victory. Mass quarantines, a halt to travel, and a complete shutdown of most daily life nationwide were credited with having stemmed the tide; official statistics, such as they are, reported that daily new cases had fallen into the single digits in mid-March from the hundreds in early February. In a surprise to most observers, Chinese leader Xi Jinping—who had been uncharacteristically quiet in the first weeks—began to put himself squarely at the center of the response. This month, he personally visited Wuhan.
Even though life in China has yet to return to normal (and despite continuing questions over the accuracy of China’s statistics), Beijing is working to turn these early signs of success into a larger narrative to broadcast to the rest of the world—one that makes China the essential player in a coming global recovery while airbrushing away its earlier mismanagement of the crisis.
Beijing is working to turn early signs of success into a larger narrative to broadcast to the rest of the world.
A critical part of this narrative is Beijing’s supposed success in battling the virus. A steady stream of propaganda articles, tweets, and public messaging, in a wide variety of languages, touts China’s achievements and highlights the effectiveness of its model of domestic governance. “China’s signature strength, efficiency and speed in this fight has been widely acclaimed,” declared Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian. China, he added, set “a new standard for the global efforts against the epidemic.” Central authorities have instituted tight informational control and discipline at state organs to snuff out contradictory narratives.
These messages are helped by the implicit contrast with efforts to battle the virus in the West, particularly in the United States—Washington’s failure to produce adequate numbers of testing kits, which means the United States has tested relatively few people per capita, or the Trump administration’s ongoing disassembly of the U.S. government’s pandemic-response infrastructure. Beijing has seized the narrative opportunity provided by American disarray, its state media and diplomats regularly reminding a global audience of the superiority of Chinese efforts and criticizing the “irresponsibility and incompetence” of the “so-called political elite in Washington,” as the state-run Xinhua news agency put it in an editorial.
Chinese officials and state media have even insisted that the coronavirus did not in fact emerge from China—despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary—in order to reduce China’s blame for the global pandemic. This effort has elements of a full-blown Russian-style disinformation campaign, with China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman and over a dozen diplomats sharing poorly sourced articles accusing the U.S. military of spreading the coronavirus in Wuhan. These actions, combined with China’s unprecedented mass expulsion of journalists from three leading American papers, damage China’s pretensions to leadership.
CHINA MAKES, THE WORLD TAKES
Xi understands that providing global goods can burnish a rising power’s leadership credentials. He has spent the last several years pushing China’s foreign policy apparatus to think harder about leading reforms to “global governance,” and the coronavirus offers an opportunity to put that theory into action. Consider China’s increasingly well-publicized displays of material assistance—including masks, respirators, ventilators, and medicine. At the outset of the crisis, China purchased and produced (and received as aid) vast quantities of these goods. Now it is in a position to hand them out to others.
When no European state answered Italy’s urgent appeal for medical equipment and protective gear, China publicly committed to sending 1,000 ventilators, two million masks, 100,000 respirators, 20,000 protective suits, and 50,000 test kits. China has also dispatched medical teams and 250,000 masks to Iran and sent supplies to Serbia, whose president dismissed European solidarity as “a fairy tale” and proclaimed that “the only country that can help us is China.” Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma has promised to send large quantities of testing kits and masks to the United States, as well as 20,000 test kits and 100,000 masks to each of Africa’s 54 countries.
Beijing’s edge in material assistance is enhanced by the simple fact that much of what the world depends on to fight the coronavirus is made in China. It was already the major producer of surgical masks; now, through wartime-like industrial mobilization, it has boosted production of masks more than tenfold, giving it the capacity to provide them to the world. China also produces roughly half of the N95 respirators critical for protecting health workers (it has forced foreign factories in China to make them and then sell them directly to the government), giving it another foreign policy tool in the form of medical equipment. Meanwhile, antibiotics are critical for addressing emerging secondary infections from COVID-19, and China produces the vast majority of active pharmaceutical ingredients necessary to make them.
Beijing’s edge in material assistance is enhanced by the fact that much of what the world depends on to fight the coronavirus is made in China.
The United States, by contrast, lacks the supply and capacity to meet many of its own demands, let alone to provide aid in crisis zones elsewhere. The picture is grim. The U.S. Strategic National Stockpile, the nation’s reserve of critical medical supplies, is believed to have only one percent of the masks and respirators and perhaps ten percent of the ventilators needed to deal with the pandemic. The rest will have to be made up with imports from China or rapidly increased domestic manufacturing. Similarly, China’s share of the U.S. antibiotics market is more than 95 percent, and most of the ingredients cannot be manufactured domestically. Although Washington offered assistance to China and others at the outset of the crisis, it is less able to do so now, as its own needs grow; Beijing, in contrast, is offering aid precisely when the global need is greatest.
Crisis response, however, is not only about material goods. During the 2014–15 Ebola crisis, the United States assembled and led a coalition of dozens of countries to counter the spread of the disease. The Trump administration has so far shunned a similar leadership effort to respond to the coronavirus. Even coordination with allies has been lacking. Washington appears, for example, not to have given its European allies any prior notice before instituting a ban on travel from Europe.
China, by contrast, has undertaken a robust diplomatic campaign to convene dozens of countries and hundreds of officials, generally by videoconference, to share information about the pandemic and lessons from China’s own experience battling the disease. Like much of China’s diplomacy, these convening efforts are largely conducted at the regional level or through regional bodies. They include calls with central and eastern European states through the “17 + 1” mechanism, with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s secretariat, with ten Pacific Island states, and with other groupings across Africa, Europe, and Asia. And China is working hard to publicize such initiatives. Virtually every story on the front page of its foreign-facing propaganda organs advertises China’s efforts to help different countries with goods and information while underscoring the superiority of Beijing’s approach.
HOW TO LEAD
China’s chief asset in its pursuit of global leadership—in the face of the coronavirus and more broadly—is the perceived inadequacy and inward focus of U.S. policy. The ultimate success of China’s pursuit, therefore, will depend as much on what happens in Washington as on what happens in Beijing. In the current crisis, Washington can still turn the tide if it proves capable of doing what is expected of a leader: managing the problem at home, supplying global public goods, and coordinating a global response.
The first of those tasks—stopping the spread of the disease and protecting vulnerable populations in the United States—is most urgent and largely a question of domestic governance rather than geopolitics. But how Washington goes about it will have geopolitical implications, and not just insofar as it does or does not reestablish confidence in the U.S. response. For example, if the federal government immediately supports and subsidizes expansion of domestic production of masks, respirators, and ventilators—a response befitting the wartime urgency of this pandemic—it would both save American lives and help others around the world by reducing the scarcity of global supplies.
While the United States isn’t currently able to meet the urgent material demands of the pandemic, its continuing global edge in the life sciences and biotechnology can be instrumental in finding a real solution to the crisis: a vaccine. The U.S. government can help by providing incentives to U.S. labs and companies to undertake a medical “Manhattan Project” to devise, rapidly test in clinical trials, and mass-produce a vaccine. Because these efforts are costly and require dauntingly high upfront investments, generous government financing and bonuses for successful vaccine production could make a difference. And it is worth noting that despite Washington’s mismanagement, state and local governments, nonprofit and religious organizations, universities, and companies are not waiting for the federal government to get its act together before taking action. U.S.-funded companies and researchers are already making progress toward a vaccine—though even in the best-case scenario, it will be some time before one is ready for widespread use.
Yet even as it focuses on efforts at home, Washington cannot simply ignore the need for a coordinated global response. Only strong leadership can solve global coordination problems related to travel restrictions, information sharing, and the flow of critical goods. The United States has successfully provided such leadership for decades, and it must do so again.
That leadership will also require effectively cooperating with China, rather than getting consumed by a war of narratives about who responded better. Little is gained by repeatedly emphasizing the origins of the coronavirus—which are already widely known despite China’s propaganda—or engaging in petty tit-for-tat rhetorical exchanges with Beijing. As Chinese officials accuse the U.S. military of spreading the virus and lambaste U.S. efforts, Washington should respond when necessary but generally resist the temptation to put China at the center of its coronavirus messaging. Most countries coping with the challenge would rather see a public message that stresses the seriousness of a shared global challenge and possible paths forward (including successful examples of coronavirus response in democratic societies such as Taiwan and South Korea). And there is much Washington and Beijing could do together for the world’s benefit: coordinating vaccine research and clinical trials as well as fiscal stimulus; sharing information; cooperating on industrial mobilization (on machines for producing critical respirator components or ventilator parts, for instance); and offering joint assistance to others.
Ultimately, the coronavirus might even serve as a wake-up call, spurring progress on other global challenges requiring U.S.-Chinese cooperation, such as climate change. Such a step should not be seen—and would not be seen by the rest of the world—as a concession to Chinese power. Rather, it would go some way toward restoring faith in the future of U.S. leadership. In the current crisis, as in geopolitics today more generally, the United States can do well by doing good.
Think of two significant trend lines in the world today. One is the increasing ambition and activism of the two great revisionist powers, Russia and China. The other is the declining confidence, capacity, and will of the democratic world, and especially of the United States, to maintain the dominant position it has held in the international system since 1945. As those two lines move closer, as the declining will and capacity of the United States and its allies to maintain the present world order meet the increasing desire and capacity of the revisionist powers to change it, we will reach the moment at which the existing order collapses and the world descends into a phase of brutal anarchy, as it has three times in the past two centuries. The cost of that descent, in lives and treasure, in lost freedoms and lost hope, will be staggering.
Where exactly we are in this classic scenario today, how close the trend lines are to that intersection point is, as always, impossible to know. Are we three years away from a global crisis, or 15?
Americans tend to take the fundamental stability of the international order for granted, even while complaining about the burden the United States carries in preserving that stability. History shows that world orders do collapse, however, and when they do it is often unexpected, rapid, and violent. The late 18th century was the high point of the Enlightenment in Europe, before the continent fell suddenly into the abyss of the Napoleonic Wars. In the first decade of the 20th century, the world’s smartest minds predicted an end to great-power conflict as revolutions in communication and transportation knit economies and people closer together. The most devastating war in history came four years later. The apparent calm of the postwar 1920s became the crisis-ridden 1930s and then another world war. Where exactly we are in this classic scenario today, how close the trend lines are to that intersection point is, as always, impossible to know. Are we three years away from a global crisis, or 15? That we are somewhere on that path, however, is unmistakable.
And while it is too soon to know what effect Donald Trump’s presidency will have on these trends, early signs suggest that the new administration is more likely to hasten us toward crisis than slow or reverse these trends. The further accommodation of Russia can only embolden Vladimir Putin, and the tough talk with China will likely lead Beijing to test the new administration’s resolve militarily. Whether the president is ready for such a confrontation is entirely unclear. For the moment, he seems not to have thought much about the future ramifications of his rhetoric and his actions.
China and Russia are classic revisionist powers. Although both have never enjoyed greater security from foreign powers than they do today — Russia from its traditional enemies to the west, China from its traditional enemy in the east — they are dissatisfied with the current global configuration of power. Both seek to restore the hegemonic dominance they once enjoyed in their respective regions. For China, that means dominance of East Asia, with countries like Japan, South Korea, and the nations of Southeast Asia both acquiescing to Beijing’s will and acting in conformity with China’s strategic, economic, and political preferences. That includes American influence withdrawn to the eastern Pacific, behind the Hawaiian Islands. For Russia, it means hegemonic influence in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which Moscow has traditionally regarded as either part of its empire or part of its sphere of influence. Both Beijing and Moscow seek to redress what they regard as an unfair distribution of power, influence, and honor in the U.S.-led postwar global order. As autocracies, both feel threatened by the dominant democratic powers in the international system and by the democracies on their borders. Both regard the United States as the principal obstacle to their ambitions, and therefore both seek to weaken the American-led international security order that stands in the way of their achieving what they regard as their rightful destinies.
It was good while it lasted
Until fairly recently, Russia and China have faced considerable, almost insuperable, obstacles in achieving their objectives. The chief obstacle has been the power and coherence of the international order itself and its principal promoter and defender. The American-led system of political and military alliances, especially in the two critical regions of Europe and East Asia, has presented China and Russia with what Dean Acheson once referred to as “situations of strength” that have required them to pursue their ambitions cautiously and, since the end of the Cold War, to defer serious efforts to disrupt the international system.
During the era of American primacy, China and Russia have participated in and for the most part been beneficiaries of the open international economic system the United States created and helps sustain; so long as that system functions, they have had more to gain by playing in it than by challenging and overturning it.
The system has checked their ambitions in both positive and negative ways. During the era of American primacy, China and Russia have participated in and for the most part been beneficiaries of the open international economic system the United States created and helps sustain; so long as that system functions, they have had more to gain by playing in it than by challenging and overturning it. The political and strategic aspects of the order, however, have worked to their detriment. The growth and vibrancy of democratic government in the two decades following the collapse of Soviet communism posed a continual threat to the ability of rulers in Beijing and Moscow to maintain control, and since the end of the Cold War they have regarded every advance of democratic institutions — especially the geographical advance of liberal democracies close to their borders — as an existential threat. That’s for good reason: Autocratic powers since the days of Klemens von Metternich have always feared the contagion of liberalism. The mere existence of democracies on their borders, the global free flow of information they cannot control, the dangerous connection between free market capitalism and political freedom — all pose a threat to rulers who depend on keeping restive forces in their own countries in check. The continual challenge to the legitimacy of their rule posed by the U.S.-supported democratic order has therefore naturally made them hostile both to that order and to the United States. But, until recently, a preponderance of domestic and international forces has dissuaded them from confronting the order directly. Chinese rulers have had to worry about what an unsuccessful confrontation with the United States might do to their legitimacy at home. Even Putin has pushed only against open doors, as in Syria, where the United States responded passively to his probes. He has been more cautious when confronted by even marginal U.S. and European opposition, as in Ukraine.
The greatest check on Chinese and Russian ambitions has been the military and economic power of the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia. China, although increasingly powerful, has had to contemplate facing the combined military and economic strength of the world’s superpower and some very formidable regional powers linked by alliance or common strategic interest — including Japan, India, and South Korea, as well as smaller but still potent nations like Vietnam and Australia. Russia has had to face the United States and its NATO allies. When united, these U.S.-led alliances present a daunting challenge to a revisionist power that can call on few allies of its own for assistance. Even were the Chinese to score an early victory in a conflict, such as the military subjection of Taiwan or a naval battle in the South or East China Sea, they would have to contend over time with the combined industrial productive capacities of some of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced nations and the likely cutoff of access to foreign markets on which their own economy depends. A weaker Russia, with its depleted population and oil- and gas-dependent economy, would face an even greater challenge.
For decades, the strong global position enjoyed by the United States and its allies has discouraged any serious challenge. So long as the United States was perceived as a dependable ally, Chinese and Russian leaders feared that aggressive moves would backfire and possibly bring their regimes down. This is what the political scientist William Wohlforth once described as the inherent stability of the unipolar order: As dissatisfied regional powers sought to challenge the status quo, their alarmed neighbors turned to the distant American superpower to contain their ambitions. And it worked. The United States stepped up, and Russia and China largely backed down — or were preempted before acting at all.
Faced with these obstacles, the best option for the two revisionist great powers has always been to hope for or, if possible, engineer a weakening of the U.S.-supported world order from within, either by separating the United States from its allies or by raising doubts about the U.S. commitment and thereby encouraging would-be allies and partners to forgo the strategic protection of the liberal world order and seek accommodation with its challengers.
The present system has therefore depended not only on American power but on coherence and unity at the heart of the democratic world. The United States has had to play its part as the principal guarantor of the order, especially in the military and strategic realm, but the order’s ideological and economic core — the democracies of Europe and East Asia and the Pacific — has also had to remain relatively healthy and confident.
In recent years, both pillars have been shaken. The democratic order has weakened and fractured at its core. Difficult economic conditions, the recrudescence of nationalism and tribalism, weak and uncertain political leadership and unresponsive mainstream political parties, and a new era of communications that seems to strengthen rather than weaken tribalism have together produced a crisis of confidence not only in the democracies but in what might be called the liberal enlightenment project. That project elevated universal principles of individual rights and common humanity over ethnic, racial, religious, national, or tribal differences. It looked to a growing economic interdependence to create common interests across boundaries and to the establishment of international institutions to smooth differences and facilitate cooperation among nations. Instead, the past decade has seen the rise of tribalism and nationalism, an increasing focus on the Other in all societies, and a loss of confidence in government, in the capitalist system, and in democracy. We are witnessing the opposite of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history.” History is returning with a vengeance and with it all the darker aspects of the human soul, including, for many, the perennial human yearning for a strong leader to provide firm guidance in a time of confusion and incoherence.
The Dark Ages 2.0
This crisis of the enlightenment project may have been inevitable, a recurring phenomenon produced by inherent flaws in both capitalism and democracy. In the 1930s, economic crisis and rising nationalism led many to doubt whether either democracy or capitalism was preferable to alternatives such as fascism and communism. And it is no coincidence that the crisis of confidence in liberalism accompanied a simultaneous breakdown of the strategic order. Then, the question was whether the United States as the outside power would step in and save or remake an order that Britain and France were no longer able or willing to sustain. Now, the question is whether the United States is willing to continue upholding the order that it created and which depends entirely on American power or whether Americans are prepared to take the risk — if they even understand the risk — of letting the order collapse into chaos and conflict.
That willingness has been in doubt for some time, well before the election of Trump and even before the election of Barack Obama. Increasingly in the quarter century after the end of the Cold War, Americans have been wondering why they bear such an unusual and outsized responsibility for preserving global order when their own interests are not always clearly served — and when the United States seems to be making all the sacrifices while others benefit. Few remember the reasons why the United States took on this abnormal role after the calamitous two world wars of the 20th century. The millennial generation born after the end of the Cold War can hardly be expected to understand the lasting significance of the political, economic, and security structures established after World War II. Nor are they likely to learn much about it in high school and college textbooks obsessed with noting the evils and follies of American “imperialism.” Both the crises of the first half of the 20th century and its solution in 1945 have been forgotten. As a consequence, the American public’s patience with the difficulties and costs inherent in playing that global role have worn thin. Whereas previous unsuccessful and costly wars, in Korea in 1950 and Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, and previous economic downturns, such as with the energy crisis and crippling “stagflation” of the mid- to late 1970s, did not have the effect of turning Americans against global involvement, the unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the financial crisis of 2008 have.
The Obama administration responded to the George W. Bush administration’s failures in Iraq and Afghanistan not by restoring American power and influence but by further reducing them.
Obama pursued an ambivalent approach to global involvement, but his core strategy was retrenchment. In his actions and his statements, he critiqued and repudiated previous American strategy and reinforced a national mood favoring a much less active role in the world and much narrower definition of American interests. The Obama administration responded to the George W. Bush administration’s failures in Iraq and Afghanistan not by restoring American power and influence but by further reducing them. Although the administration promised to “rebalance” American foreign policy to Asia and the Pacific, in practice that meant reducing global commitments and accommodating revisionist powers at the expense of allies’ security.
The administration’s early attempt to “reset” relations with Russia struck the first blow to America’s reputation as a reliable ally. Coming just after the Russian invasion of Georgia, it appeared to reward Moscow’s aggression. The reset also came at the expense of U.S. allies in Central Europe, as programs of military cooperation with Poland and the Czech Republic were jettisoned to appease the Kremlin. This attempt at accommodation, moreover, came just as Russian policy toward the West — not to mention Putin’s repressive policies toward his own people — was hardening. Far from eliciting better behavior by Russia, the reset emboldened Putin to push harder. Then, in 2014, the West’s inadequate response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea, though better than the Bush administration’s anemic response to the invasion of Georgia (Europe and the United States at least imposed sanctions after the invasion of Ukraine), still indicated reluctance on the part of the U.S. administration to force Russia back in its declared sphere of interest. Obama, in fact, publicly acknowledged Russia’s privileged position in Ukraine even as the United States and Europe sought to protect that country’s sovereignty. In Syria, the administration practically invited Russian intervention through Washington’s passivity, and certainly did nothing to discourage it, thus reinforcing the growing impression of an America in retreat across the Middle East (an impression initially created by the unnecessary and unwise withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq). Subsequent Russian actions that increased the refugee flow from Syria into Europe also brought no American response, despite the evident damage of those refugee flows to European democratic institutions. The signal sent by the Obama administration was that none of this was really America’s problem.
In East Asia, the Obama administration undermined its otherwise commendable efforts to assert America’s continuing interest and influence. The so-called “pivot” proved to be mostly rhetoric. Inadequate overall defense spending precluded the necessary increases in America’s regional military presence in a meaningful way, and the administration allowed a critical economic component, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to die in Congress, chiefly a victim of its own party’s opposition. The pivot also suffered from the general perception of American retreat and retrenchment, encouraged both by presidential rhetoric and by administration policies, especially in the Middle East. The premature, unnecessary, and strategically costly withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, followed by the accommodating agreement with Iran on its nuclear program, and then by the failure to hold the line on threats to use force against Syria’s president, was noticed around the world. Despite the Obama administration’s insistence that American strategy should be geared toward Asia, U.S. allies have been left wondering how reliable the U.S. commitment might be when facing the challenge posed by China. The Obama administration erred in imagining that it could retrench globally while reassuring allies in Asia that the United States remained a reliable partner.
Nature abhors a vacuum
The effect on the two great revisionist powers, meanwhile, has been to encourage greater efforts at revision. In recent years, both powers have been more active in challenging the order, and one reason has been the growing perception that the United States is losing both the will and the capacity to sustain it. The psychological and political effect of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the United States, which has been to weaken support for American global engagement across the board, has provided an opening.
It is a myth, prevalent among liberal democracies, that revisionist powers can be pacified by acquiescence to their demands. American retrenchment, by this logic, ought to reduce tensions and competition. Unfortunately, the opposite is more often the case. The more secure revisionist powers feel, the more ambitious they are in seeking to change the system to their advantage because the resistance to change appears to be lessening. Just look at both China and Russia: Never in the past two centuries have they enjoyed greater security from external attack than they do today. Yet both remain dissatisfied and have become increasingly aggressive in pressing what they perceive to be their growing advantage in a system where the United States no longer puts up as much resistance as it used to.
The two great powers have differed, so far, chiefly in their methods. China has until now been the more careful, cautious, and patient of the two, seeking influence primarily through its great economic clout and using its growing military power chiefly as a source of deterrence and regional intimidation. It has not resorted to the outright use of force yet, although its actions in the South China Sea are military in nature, with strategic objectives. And while Beijing has been wary of using military force until now, it would be a mistake to assume it will continue show such restraint in the future — possibly the near future. Revisionist great powers with growing military capabilities invariably make use of those capabilities when they believe the possible gains outweigh the risks and costs. If the Chinese perceive America’s commitment to its allies and its position in the region to be weakening, or its capacity to make good on those commitments to be declining, then they will be more inclined to attempt to use the power they are acquiring in order to achieve their objectives. As the trend lines draw closer, this is where the first crisis is likely to take place.
Russia has been far more aggressive. It has invaded two neighboring states — Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 — and in both cases hived off significant portions of those two nations’ sovereign territory. Given the intensity with which the United States and its allies would have responded to such actions during the four decades of the Cold War, their relative lack of a response must have sent quite a signal to the Kremlin — and to others around the world. Moscow then followed by sending substantial forces into Syria. It has used its dominance of European energy markets as a weapon. It has used cyberwarfare against neighboring states. It has engaged in extensive information warfare on a global scale.
More recently, the Russian government has deployed a weapon that the Chinese either lack or have so far chosen not to deploy — the ability to interfere directly in Western electoral processes, both to influence their outcomes and more generally to discredit the democratic system. Russia funds right-wing populist parties across Europe, including in France; uses its media outlets to support favored candidates and attack others; has disseminated “fake news” to influence voters, most recently in Italy’s referendum; and has hacked private communications in order to embarrass those it wishes to defeat. This past year, Russia for the first time employed this powerful weapon against the United States, heavily interfering in the American electoral process.
Although Russia, by any measure, is the weaker of the two great powers, it has so far had more success than China in accomplishing its objective of dividing and disrupting the West.
Although Russia, by any measure, is the weaker of the two great powers, it has so far had more success than China in accomplishing its objective of dividing and disrupting the West. Its interference in Western democratic political systems, its information warfare, and its role in creating increased refugee flows from Syria into Europe have all contributed to the sapping of Europeans’ confidence in their political systems and established political parties. Its military intervention in Syria, contrasted with American passivity, has exacerbated existing doubts about American staying power in the region. Beijing, until recently, has succeeded mostly in driving American allies closer to the United States out of concern for growing Chinese power — but that could change quickly, especially if the United States continues on its present trajectory. There are signs that regional powers are already recalculating: East Asian countries are contemplating regional trade agreements that need not include the United States or, in the case of the Philippines, are actively courting China, while a number of nations in Eastern and Central Europe are moving closer to Russia, both strategically and ideologically. We could soon face a situation where both great revisionist powers are acting aggressively, including by military means, posing extreme challenges to American and global security in two regions at once.
The dispensable nation
All this comes as Americans continue to signal their reluctance to uphold the world order they created after World War II. Donald Trump was not the only major political figure in this past election season to call for a much narrower definition of American interests and a lessening of the burdens of American global leadership. President Obama and Bernie Sanders both expressed a version of “America First.” The candidate who spoke often of America’s “indispensable” global role lost, and even Hillary Clinton felt compelled to jettison her earlier support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. At the very least, there should be doubts about the American public’s willingness to continue supporting the international alliance structure, denying the revisionist powers their desired spheres of influence and regional hegemony, and upholding democratic and free market norms in the international system.
The weakness at the core of the democratic world and the shedding by the United States of global responsibilities have already encouraged a more aggressive revisionism by the dissatisfied powers.
Coming as it does at a time of growing great-power competition, this narrowing definition of American interests will likely hasten a return to the instability and clashes of previous eras. The weakness at the core of the democratic world and the shedding by the United States of global responsibilities have already encouraged a more aggressive revisionism by the dissatisfied powers. That, in turn, has further sapped the democratic world’s confidence and willingness to resist. History suggests that this is a downward spiral from which it will be difficult to recover, absent a rather dramatic shift of course by the United States.
That shift may come too late. It was in the 1920s, not the 1930s, that the democratic powers made the most important and ultimately fatal decisions. Americans’ disillusionment after World War I led them to reject playing a strategic role in preserving the peace in Europe and Asia, even though America was the only nation powerful enough to play that role. The withdrawal of the United States helped undermine the will of Britain and France and encouraged Germany in Europe and Japan in Asia to take increasingly aggressive actions to achieve regional dominance. Most Americans were convinced that nothing that happened in Europe or Asia could affect their security. It took World War II to convince them that was a mistake. The “return to normalcy” of the 1920 election seemed safe and innocent at the time, but the essentially selfish policies pursued by the world’s strongest power in the following decade helped set the stage for the calamities of the 1930s. By the time the crises began to erupt, it was already too late to avoid paying the high price of global conflict.
In such times, it has always been tempting to believe that geopolitical competition can be solved through efforts at cooperation and accommodation. The idea, recently proposed by Niall Ferguson, that the world can be ruled jointly by the United States, Russia, and China is not a new one. Such condominiums have been proposed and attempted in every era when the dominant power or powers in the international system sought to fend off challenges from the dissatisfied revisionist powers. It has rarely worked. Revisionist great powers are not easy to satisfy short of complete capitulation. Their sphere of influence is never quite large enough to satisfy their pride or their expanding need for security. In fact, their very expansion creates insecurity, by frightening neighbors and leading them to band together against the rising power. The satiated power that Otto von Bismarck spoke of is rare. The German leaders who succeeded him were not satisfied even with being the strongest power in Europe. In their efforts to grow still stronger, they produced coalitions against them, making their fear of “encirclement” a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Give ‘em an inch, they’ll take a mile
This is a common trait of rising powers — their actions produce the very insecurity they claim to want to redress. They harbor grievances against the existing order (both Germany and Japan considered themselves the “have-not” nations), but their grievances cannot be satisfied so long as the existing order remains in place. Marginal concession is not enough, but the powers upholding the existing order will not make more than marginal concessions unless they are compelled to by superior strength. Japan, the aggrieved “have-not” nation of the 1930s, did not satisfy itself by taking Manchuria in 1931. Germany, the aggrieved victim of Versailles, did not satisfy itself by bringing the Germans of the Sudetenland back into the fold. They demanded much more, and they could not persuade the democratic powers to give them what they wanted without resorting to war.
Granting the revisionist powers spheres of influence is not a recipe for peace and tranquility but rather an invitation to inevitable conflict.
Granting the revisionist powers spheres of influence is not a recipe for peace and tranquility but rather an invitation to inevitable conflict. Russia’s historical sphere of influence does not end in Ukraine. It begins in Ukraine. It extends to the Baltic States, to the Balkans, and to the heart of Central Europe. And within Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, other nations do not enjoy autonomy or even sovereignty. There was no independent Poland under the Russian Empire nor under the Soviet Union. For China to gain its desired sphere of influence in East Asia will mean that, when it chooses, it can close the region off to the United States — not only militarily but politically and economically, too.
China will, of course, inevitably exercise great sway in its own region, as will Russia. The United States cannot and should not prevent China from being an economic powerhouse. Nor should it wish for the collapse of Russia. The United States should even welcome competition of a certain kind. Great powers compete across multiple planes — economic, ideological, and political, as well as military. Competition in most spheres is necessary and even healthy. Within the liberal order, China can compete economically and successfully with the United States; Russia can thrive in the international economic order upheld by the democratic system, even if it is not itself democratic.
But military and strategic competition is different. The security situation undergirds everything else. It remains true today as it has since World War II that only the United States has the capacity and the unique geographical advantages to provide global security and relative stability. There is no stable balance of power in Europe or Asia without the United States. And while we can talk about “soft power” and “smart power,” they have been and always will be of limited value when confronting raw military power. Despite all of the loose talk of American decline, it is in the military realm where U.S. advantages remain clearest. Even in other great powers’ backyards, the United States retains the capacity, along with its powerful allies, to deter challenges to the security order. But without a U.S. willingness to maintain the balance in far-flung regions of the world, the system will buckle under the unrestrained military competition of regional powers. Part of that willingness entails defense spending commensurate with America’s continuing global role.
For the United States to accept a return to spheres of influence would not calm the international waters. It would merely return the world to the condition it was in at the end of the 19th century, with competing great powers clashing over inevitably intersecting and overlapping spheres. These unsettled, disordered conditions produced the fertile ground for the two destructive world wars of the first half of the 20th century. The collapse of the British-dominated world order on the oceans, the disruption of the uneasy balance of power on the European continent as a powerful unified Germany took shape, and the rise of Japanese power in East Asia all contributed to a highly competitive international environment in which dissatisfied great powers took the opportunity to pursue their ambitions in the absence of any power or group of powers to unite in checking them. The result was an unprecedented global calamity and death on an epic scale. It has been the great accomplishment of the U.S.-led world order in the 70 years since the end of World War II that this kind of competition has been held in check and great power conflicts have been avoided. It will be more than a shame if Americans were to destroy what they created — and not because it was no longer possible to sustain but simply because they chose to stop trying.