Time to think of global order in a new way
That is surely a good thing in the long term, since adopting a different model can create a more inclusive world
There are two great processes currently going on in the world. One, the challenges and changes being brought about by the rising prominence of China, has manifested itself for a number of years in the economic realm. But the boundary between economics and politics is a highly porous one. And since the global financial crisis of 2008, the ways in which China has appeared more in questions about not just producing growth — but also dealing with geopolitics, stability and creating a new kind of governance structure that is more inclusive of newly emerging powers — has almost inevitably increased.
This was never going to be a straightforward process. The debate started in many ways only a few years after China entered the World Trade Organization in 2001. By 2005, Chinese academics and advisers like Zheng Bijian were speaking of the “peaceful rise” of the country. At the same time, Robert Zoellick, an official in the administration of then US president George W. Bush, was demanding that China take a more active role in global issues, and be a “stakeholder” rather than more of an observer. Within China, a popular series was aired on national television describing 12 periods in history when there were transitions between one power and another. The process of thinking about scenarios where China would have a more prominent role had already started. With the impact of the economic recession on the US, Europe and other developed countries from the end of the decade, this only became more urgent.
That links to the second process — the retrenchment and changes within countries like the United States, and the loss of confidence and rise of greater confusion and division within the past decade. This has culminated in the election of a number of populist parties in Europe and of US President Donald Trump. It has also brought about the referendum outcome in the United Kingdom in 2016 to exit the European Union.
Underlying protectionist sentiment has come to the fore. Not only are many apprehensive about what a world in which countries like China in particular have a more dominant role will be like, they have also become less optimistic about the strengths of their own systems, and more prone either to nostalgia (wanting things to return to the golden ages imagined about the past) or, in the most worrisome cases, to outright hostility. For these reasons, figures as diverse as Henry Kissinger, former British prime minister Gordon Brown, and former US president Barack Obama have characterised the present as highly dangerous and full of risk.
Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, in his classic treatise of two centuries ago, talked of fields of conflict being dominated by fast-paced change and confusion, with many things happening at once and the focus shifting almost second by second. This meant that instinct, rather than rationality, dominated. We can speak in this context about the looming trade war that seems to be happening at the moment between the US and China. And while, of course, this isn’t a physical battle, things are certainly happening at such a pace that it is very hard to keep up with and make sense of them. Stepping back and at least trying to establish a framework within which to broadly understand what is happening is important. Oth- erwise, we really do risk being led by events, rather than leading them, and operating blindly.
First of all, everyone has to remember that the option of China, accounting for a fifth of the human race, simply existing in some preprepared space created for it, and obediently occupying that, is not viable. It wasn’t viable even in the era of Richard Nixon 50 years ago when, before becoming US president, he argued in a celebrated article in Foreign Policy magazine that the outside world had no moral or intellectual right to bar Chinese people and their country from the world community. That sort of thinking led to the rapprochement of a few years later between the US and China. The same applies even more now, when one remembers the size of the Chinese economy and its interlinkages with the outside world.
Like the US, domestically and internationally, China is an intrinsically global power. Its affairs are ones the rest of the world needs to be knowledgeable about and factor into its own plans. At best, there can be negotiation, dialogue and discussion. There can be no dictation or demanding from either side. Things have to be more balanced and driven by consensus. There has to be compromise.
Second, the US and its allies have to ask the question of whether the current global order is fit for purpose, and be brave enough to seek to create a new framework where a much more broadly supported and agreed-upon system appears. The US withdrawal under Trump from the climate change concord agreed in Paris in 2015 is precisely the kind of unilateral action that damages everyone. Paris was a genuinely global treaty — something China and 77 other developing countries supported, after difficult debate. That the US, a country so long considered a rule abider and supporter, simply decided to walk away from an agreement it had already signed up for is perhaps one of the things in recent years that has most undermined faith in the prevailing global order. That the US under Trump has done this is ironic, but, in view of the clear evidence of rising temperatures across the world this year and associated natural weather calamities like the recent typhoons that have swept across Asia and the US, it is also potentially tragic.
In the short term, Trump’s maverick actions and unpredictability in trade, international governance and diplomacy may well be problematic to China — as to everyone else. In the long term, he has created a greater potential space for China to start to operate, and to demonstrate that it is a truly global player and needs greater global space. At the heart of this will be a Chinese vision that others can either engage with, or, in the more positive spaces (like that of action on the environment), see China as taking a leading role in. This prominence might not be something that China itself wanted to happen so quickly. It may well also be something it feels it needs more time to prepare for. But the opportunity is clearly now here.
The simple fact is that, as never before, there is doubt, and lack of confidence, in the current order, and a willingness to think about things in a different way. China can contribute ideas and initiatives to this new area, like the Belt and Road Initiative, and get a more attentive audience than ever before. That will necessitate a new kind of diplomatic attitude from Beijing, and a different kind of diplomatic language. It also involves an outside world that needs to be much more ready to at least listen to China, and to contemplate its initiatives and ideas in ways it never did before.
Sometimes we just need to embrace new models. That was what China did in 1978 when it started the reform and opening-up process — the 40th anniversary of which is being celebrated this year. That is yet one more reason to say that the global order needs to also reform and open up, in a different way. And in the long term, because it creates a more inclusive world, that is surely a good thing. China’s Dreams: The Culture of Chinese Communism and the Secret Sources of Its Power.