The estimably realistic Harvard Prof. Stephen Walt (tweets here) calls things as more Americans should see them–from an article at Foreign Policy (note “Theme poem” at end):
The question is who gets to write the codes—and whether the United States will live up to its own.
…the distinction between the United States’ supposed commitment to a system of rules and China’s alleged lack thereof is misleading in at least three ways. First, it overlooks the United States’ own willingness to ignore, evade, or rewrite the rules whenever they seem inconvenient. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to acknowledge that Washington sometimes thinks it is perfectly okay for might to make right and for winners to take all. The collapse of the Soviet Union, when the United States took full advantage of a weakened post-Soviet Russia, is a perfect example.
…the issue is not the United States’ preference for a “rules-based” order and China’s alleged lack of interest in it; rather, the issue is who will determine which rules pertain where. Or as the Rand Corp.’s Michael Mazarr recently put it, “At its core, the United States and China are competing to shape the foundational global system—the essential ideas, habits, and expectations that govern international politics. It is ultimately a competition of norms, narratives, and legitimacy.”
The differences between the American and Chinese conceptions are relatively straightforward. The United States (generally) prefers a multilateral system (albeit one with special privileges for some states, especially itself) that is at least somewhat mindful of individual rights and certain core liberal values (democratic rule, individual freedom, rule of law, market-based economies, and so on). These ideals may be applied imperfectly at home and pursued inconsistently abroad, but the U.S. commitment to them is not just empty rhetoric. Among other things, it underpins U.S. efforts to persuade or compel other states to alter their own domestic arrangements. Not surprisingly, the United States also likes many existing institutions (the IMF, NATO, the World Bank, the reserve role of the dollar, to name a few) because they give the United States greater influence.
By contrast, China favors a more Westphalian conception of order, one where state sovereignty and noninterference are paramount and liberal notions of individual rights are downplayed if not entirely dismissed [see here]. This vision is no less “rules-based” than the United States’, insofar as it draws on parts of the United Nations charter, and it would not preclude many current forms of international cooperation, including extensive trade, investment, collaboration on vital transnational issues such as climate change. China is also a vocal defender of multilateralism, even if its actual behavior sometimes violates existing multilateral norms. Nonetheless, a world in which China’s preferences prevailed would be different than one in which the U.S. vision proved to be more influential.
I don’t know which of these two visions will win out in the years ahead, but a few observations are in order. First, if you think the United States and its closest allies are going to write all the rules themselves, think again. International orders inevitably reflect the underlying balance of power, and China’s rise means that its ability to shape some of the rules (or to refuse to go along with rules that it rejects) will be considerable.
…even like-minded allies who welcome U.S. leadership want it to be exercised more judiciously. It’s not U.S. hegemony per se that bothers them; it is the excessive exploitation of hegemonic privilege. They don’t like it when the United States blithely violates the rules of the system—as it did when it left the gold standard in 1971 or when it invaded Iraq in 2003—and especially when the consequences are at least as severe for them as for the United States itself. They don’t like the United States using the SWIFT system and other institutions of the global financial order to sanction states it happens to be at odds with, and especially when it threatens third parties with secondary sanctions if they don’t fall into line. Ironically, what U.S. allies really want is for the United States to take its oft-repeated commitment to a “rules-based” order more seriously.
…more adroit diplomacy can only take a country so far. Over the longer term, the contest to set the rules of global dealings will be determined primarily by which country—the United States or China—has more hard power. The United States could dominate the construction of the postwar liberal order because its economy was producing nearly 50 percent of the gross world product and the other major powers were in ruins and in hock to Uncle Sam. Hard power—in the form of economic and military strength—still buys its possessors a lot of deference: Look at all the world leaders who were clearly alarmed, angered, belittled, and disgusted by Trump yet treated him with a respect he did not deserve. Why? Because the United States was still the 800-pound gorilla, and it made little sense to needlessly provoke its wrath.
If Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s loftiest ambitions are realized and China eventually occupies the commanding economic heights of the 21st century, it still won’t be able to take over the world. But such a position will give it a great deal of influence over the rules of the international system, because other states will be less willing to defy it openly and forced to adapt some of their practices to conform to Chinese preferences. Even states that are actively balancing against China militarily may choose to accommodate it in other ways. By contrast, if the United States keeps pace economically and retains key advantages in most of the core technologies on which future productivity depends, then the 21st-century order is likely to favor Washington’s preferences more than Beijing’s…
But what if Beijing’s ultimate ambition is not a Westphalian world of formally equal sovereign states whose internal affairs are their own concern but one in which all are in one way or another tributary to the Middle Kingdom? And all that entails for distinct sovereignties.
Very relevant earlier posts based on pieces by Prof. Walt:
Theme poem by Robert Burns, upon which both Americans and Chinese might well ponder: