The international system is in the early stages of its transition from a US-led order based upon American ideals and values to a Chinese-led order based upon Chinese ideals and values. The signs are everywhere. The pace of their arrival is accelerating.
Already in 2022, Canada declared the equivalent of martial law to suppress a peaceful if disruptive protest. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine gave Europe its largest ground war since World War II. Iran launched missiles at a US consulate in Iraq. Germany altered its long-standing defense policy.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates declined to take US President Joe Biden’s calls urging them to join his economic war against Russia. Israel and Turkey have put some daylight between themselves and US policy, instead holding themselves out as potential mediators possessing working relationships with both Russia and Ukraine.
These actions are symptoms of an American-led order in decline: America’s adversaries feel unconstrained. US allies recognize that their own security requires occasional diplomatic independence. Liberal democracies mimic Chinese controls against recalcitrant citizens.
How did we get here? The answer begins with two enormously consequential decisions that shaped the post-Cold War order.
The first decision – made during the Bush I, Clinton and Bush II years – rested upon the theory that wealthy people would clamor for freedom. The free world thus threw open its rule-based system of international trade, commerce, and finance to unfree countries.
China’s integration provided the ultimate test. Though the Communist Party of China (CPC) was never bashful about its plans to enrich its people without loosening social or political controls, Western leaders smugly believed that economic freedom and social control could not co-exist. The victory of liberal democracy was inevitable.
Barack Obama heralded the second decision, with broad allied support. It rested upon the theory that America’s oversized role in the world’s security and trading systems was doing more harm than good. The leaders of the free world thus withdrew their support for the moral underpinnings and enforcement capabilities of their own global system.
Donald Trump did little to sway major allies or alter the trajectory Obama had set. Biden’s rapid push to complete the promised “transformation” brought the world to its current moment.
The CPC has been the biggest beneficiary of both decisions. Having integrated itself deeply into the global economy, improved the material welfare of its own citizens, and strengthened its hold over domestic social and political life, China then moved to fill the role that America had abdicated. The CPC exudes confidence in its own socioeconomic systems, the values that underpin them, and the propriety of exporting them.
China has used economic engagement to spread its influence – and with it, the introduction of its governance model into countries that still like to regard themselves as free. Though perhaps most obvious in its dominance of manufacturing, the supply chain, and infrastructure investment, China’s deepest incursions come in the form of spyware embedded in its technology products.
Around the world, consumers, schools, businesses and governments seeking low prices on attractive products hand China insights into their data, their deliberations, and their lives. Americans enamored with the Chinese model, in business and in government, emulate these practices. The Chinese model is ascendant; the American model is fading.
Much as the US has become a significant if diminished power in the international arena, the primacy that the American system places on individual liberties and civil rights is losing its luster. China’s preference for social controls in the name of the “common good” are surging forward.
This ideological battle frames the struggle for the future of freedom. The US must decide how to reorient itself for this new global order. Those of us who value freedom and civil liberties are fighting a rearguard action.
Many are just waking up to the threat, perhaps most obviously in the form of grassroots movements protesting “emergency” restrictions on movement and assembly. A subtler if equally important development, however, is emerging in the US from state and local officials suddenly sensitized to their own vulnerabilities.
Florida enacted legislation protecting government and academia from foreign influence – and moved to minimize the exposure of its state funds and pension systems to China. A new Texas law protects critical infrastructure from technological threats emanating from hostile foreign actors; Idaho is working on a similar bill. Tennessee introduced legislation improving transparency of foreign funding.
Bipartisan legislative teams in Georgia and New York are working to limit government purchases of Chinese technology products. Multiple state governors have called to diversify critical resource and technology imports.
Such steps are long overdue, but they’re just a start. The theory justifying the integration of Chinese Communism into Western economics and finance has been disproved. Far from motivating China to open its social and political systems, the integration is motivating Western countries to establish political and social controls.
The US and its allies must remember that liberty and responsibility are intertwined. Undue reliance on unfree suppliers may be excellent for consumers, but it can prove deadly to a society of free citizens.