America First? To the Rest of the World, Now It’s China First

It's an awkward moment to defer world leadership. Now it's a question of who steps into the breach.

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It's happening, sooner than you think.

The US has been the “leader” of the world at least since the fall of the Soviet Union and arguably since World War II. At that time, Great Britain was too depleted to continue in the role and the Soviet Union, although a nuclear superpower, had its own dysfunctional empire. Thus, America took over as the world’s dominant power, accepting the role informally by default and formally, more or less, following the 1944 Bretton Woods Agreement.

I put “Leader” is in quotation marks because what it means, in this context, is simply the most powerful player. The player’s power has been exercised at times (the Marshall Plan, Jimmy Carter’s human-rights campaign) with all the sensitivity, responsibility and prudence of genuine leadership. At other times and in other places (Vietnam, Korea, Honduras at least twice, Chile, Iran), the power has been flung about like a baseball bat in an art gallery.

Yet, American power has been, on balance, by far the most important, positive and stabilizing element in the postwar world. Even with the outright madness of M.A.D. — the doctrine of mutually assured destruction — we have so far avoided any combat usage of nuclear weapons since 1945. The spread of liberal capitalism has been mishandled in many ways and has now brought such wealth inequality that it likely has to be abandoned or thoroughly restructured. It has also brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and, in the process, probably averted a great deal of bloodshed.

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There is no doubt that the American foreign-policy establishment, operating behind an impenetrable curtain of smugness and exclusion, has demonstrated both arrogance and incompetence in numerous and nearly intolerable ways. The challenges facing global powers in the 21st century start with climate change and extend through human rights, women’s rights in particular; water management; population control; border management; inequality; and technological change at warp speed. Therefore, now seems rather an awkward moment to defer world leadership, as the Trump administration has done.

It’s not as though the world will not be led, or dominated; it’s just a question of who steps into the breach. The obvious candidate is China, which is topping the US this year as the world’s largest economy, and which has already taken over leadership areas ranging from green-energy development to aid for developing nations.

One of the questions this development raises is whether Communist China’s emergence as the world’s dominant nation portends a threat to the power of multinational corporations that have flourished under US leadership. It does, and there is the rub.

We’ll get to that. First, though, if you harbor any doubts about Chinese intentions, let me share with you a fascinating little exercise. I keyed “china poised” into my favorite search engine, and came up with a very long list of areas in which China appears ready to take over as the world leader: foreign aid, electric vehicles, response to climate change, and artificial-intelligence development among them. Quite aside from her economic heft, China also is a nuclear power and the planet’s most populous nation.

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Rejecting China’s dominance of the new order does not appear to be an option. Surviving within the new order becomes the question, and for the US that question is complicated by serious confusion regarding our own identity. What about America needs to — or perhaps is worthy to — survive?

The most immediate threat may be to multinational corporations owned mostly by American investors and closely identified in our policy with American interests. They’ve already encountered, pretty routinely, the troubles associated with doing business inside China. It’s a fair bet that those troubles will multiply, starting soon. Western, capitalistic traders have some values that are not necessarily mirrored by their partners around the globe. The centrality, even the sanctity, of private property in the collective American psyche cannot be overstated. Keeping one’s word at any cost is a bourgeois Western value, because it is necessary for the conduct of commerce. When values like these are not mutually honored, commerce becomes really quite difficult. If American business thinks protection of intellectual property is challenging now, they are likely in for the shock of their lives when the US no longer sets the rules.

That’s the thing: international law is, mostly, not law at all in the way the term is understood within a nation-state. It is a collection of conventions, generally observed and sometimes enforceable. It works, when it works, largely because of a great many treaties and international agreements. The most important of these agreements negotiated in recent years is the TPP, or Trans-Pacific Partnership. It was deeply flawed and in need of adjustment, although not in the ways President Trump complains about. Its aim, however, was to forestall for some time the full takeover of trade and trade policy by China. That was a good idea, and abandoning it was stupid.

So the topsy-turvy, leaderless mess that is Washington is suddenly, needlessly spreading to rest of the world. The question for America and the rest of the world can only be:

What happens next?