Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
The dual confrontation of the U.S. with China and Russia we are witnessing today was born in the post-Cold War “unilateral moment” from the 1990s through the early 2010s when America’s global sway was at its peak. The apparent triumph of the sole superpower in those heady decades concealed the seeds of its own demotion.
Paradoxically, it is the economic and technological convergence fostered by American-led globalization that has empowered the divergence from an American-led geopolitical order. Those nations that benefited most from the open capital flows, free trade, technology transfer and integrated markets of that era, such as China, are now asserting their newfound place in the world grounded in their own civilizational foundations instead of “becoming like us.” Humiliated by its displacement as a world-class player, Russia sees this erosion of the West’s grip on global order as an opportunity to reassert itself in the neighborhood it once dominated. In short, the world is returning from a good run for Western hegemony to the plural centers of power that have characterized most of history.
This turn of the times appears as inexorable as it is unwelcome for Western values. Despite being soiled by the well-known crimes of imperialism and follies of liberal interventionism, the “Occidentalizing” mission of the era now passing also imparted to the world attractive ideals of broad appeal — the rights of the individual, self-determination, consent of the governed, checks and balances on political power, cultural tolerance and free expression. If these values are not aligned with the power to promote and defend them, their fate as the global standard will be sealed by those with the power to oppose and defeat them.
The West Has A Weakening Hand
But the historical reality is that the West has a weakening hand to play in facing the challenges ahead.
The interdependence globalization forged will not be easy to untangle from its compromising geopolitical implications as the center of gravity shifts eastward. China is now the main trading partner of America’s key allies, including Germany — its transatlantic anchor — Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines. Indonesia, along with the rest of the ASEAN nations and India, the other pillar of the Indo-Pacific front, have also predominantly tied their rising prosperity to trade with China. As this tilt takes hold, Western Europe has come to depend on Russia for nearly half of the natural gas that warms its homes and fuels its industry.
America itself can no longer effectively promote and defend Western values abroad unless it first gets its own house in order. An insurrection against the democratic transfer of power, the galloping growth of inequality and a financialized digital economy preoccupied with which tech giant controls the video-game market of the virtual metaverse do not suggest a society with the inner commitment or concentration of political will to stand up in any enduring way to assertive autocracies beyond its borders. To the extent America remains on this dysfunctional trajectory, it is displacing itself as the primary mover and shaker on the global scene as much as any set of challenging powers.
Reading The Powershift Correctly
In this fraught environment, nothing is more critical than reading the dynamics behind the global powershift correctly.
“China believes that its rise to great-power status entitles it to a new role in world affairs — one that cannot be reconciled with unquestioned U.S. dominance,” writes Yan Xuetong, the dean of the school of international relations at Tsinghua University. By definition, this refusal by the preeminent rising power to remain subordinate to the hierarchy of American order diminishes its supremacy. But establishing a presence on the world stage on its own terms does not amount to the reputed “long game” of a Chinese “grand strategy” to run the world in America’s place, as the U.S. National Security Council’s China expert, Rush Doshi, imagines.
As if this were still the largely consensual, trusting America of the 1950s on the path of upward mobility, he calls, in turn, for a “grand strategy” on the part of the U.S. to stop China in its tracks just as “containment,” in his view, ultimately vanquished the Soviet Union.
A Mismatch Of Means And Ends
John Lewis Gaddis, the biographer of George Kennan, who authored America’s “containment” policy, defines grand strategy as “the alignment of unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities.” Doshi’s aspirations, seemingly shared by the rest of the fevered Washington foreign policy “blob,” are hardly matched by present capabilities.
The political will America can muster these days is dangerously uneven when faced with outside challenges. President Biden cannot even garner a consensus to pass his slimmed-down “Build Back America” program at the cost of $1.8 trillion. At the same time, just the nation’s top 15 billionaires alone are worth that amount, most doubling their fortunes during the COVID crisis of the past two years. Yet, to show its martial resolve in the strategic competition with China, the U.S. Congress readily approved a $778 billion military budget — more than Biden had asked for.
This incapacity of America to come together to repair its torn democracy and strained society while spending big time to thwart impertinent arrivistes abroad is a worrisome turn. Reducing strategic competition to only a war-fighting posture invites that very inevitability. Such asymmetry of purpose by a flailing superpower faced with self-assured upstarts could all too easily slip down the slope from a postwar era into a prewar one.
Absent the strategic depth of a robust liberal democracy that stands behind outsized military prowess, it is hard to see how the U.S. can roll back the tide of a world breaking up into geopolitical spheres of influence, including digital platforms that reflect political and cultural underpinnings that depart from Western values.
Rather than pursuing an illusory grand strategy to stay on top that it cannot realize, the U.S. and its allies should endeavor to sustain the West’s civilizational presence among plural centers of power by shoring up its own liberal values, democratic practices and economies that share the wealth fairly.
Instead of trying to make an unaccommodating world in its image, a post-hegemonic West should seek to fortify a model that others want to emulate.