Over the past few months, we have been exploring the ideas of global leadership and of the U.S. role in the international system. We've also been examining the emergence of China as, by some accounts, a competitor to the United States in that role. We have sought to remain observers rather than advocates, trying to understand through a study of history and an assessment of current political, economic, security and social factors, how the structure of the global system has evolved, and in what direction it is likely headed. Our attempt has been to explore this theme not through the lens of "should," but of "was" and "is."
Washington's recent decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, as well as China's well-publicized meetings with European nations on the same topic, have reinvigorated national and international debate over the question of the United States' global leadership and China's usurpation of that role. But this, in many ways, is an ideological and subjective assertion. It is often couched in castigating terms against a U.S. government that has abdicated its role as an international leader, whether by deference to globalism or by embracing an "America First" policy. The assertion is followed, of course, by warnings against the rise of China. The counterargument is that the United States should not be the global leader, that other countries are rising in the natural order of global power, or that there should be no global leader at all.
What Defines a Leader
Perhaps it would be useful to begin by considering what being a world leader means. There is a difference between the ideas of "global power" and "global leadership." Global power is about reach, strength and the assertion of national interests across the world. Power has relatively concrete aspects, from economic heft and activity to military hardware and training to logistics capacity. It also has some "soft" elements, including culture, language and innovation. Global leadership, in contrast, is more than the assertion of power, intentional or otherwise. It has an added element, an underlying argument of how things "should" be, that is both proffered and emulated.
Historically, there was no single world system until the 1500s, and for the next 500 years or so, it was a system shaped by competition among the countries of Europe. Following World War II, it shifted once again to a rivalry between global blocs led by the United States and the Soviet Union. In the former case, the system largely centered on power, as that was the way political units and nations thought. Power was shaped in colonial empire, in expansion, in access to resources and in industrial capacity.
During the Cold War, there was an added element of core ideology, the democratic free market system proffered by the United States and the communist/socialist controlled market system proffered by the Soviet Union. While neither lived up to its ideals and both exploited them to secure their own power, there was nonetheless a sense of two global ideologies vying for victory — and thus leadership of the new post-colonial global system.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States was left by default as the world's sole superpower. Even at the height of European colonialism and power, no country could hold such sway, economically, militarily, politically and culturally. The United States "won" the Cold War, but it didn't know what to do with its success. Since then, the United States has struggled to decide just what roles and responsibilities its victory entails. Is there a real need for a global leader? Should the world move toward a truly globalized system where national self-interest fades? Or should the United States assert its interests as one among many, recognizing neither the responsibility of global leadership nor the acceptance of globalization over national interest?
One can have both global power and global leadership. The two can blend together, cross over each other, and at times create contradictory behavior. If the United States was both a global leader and pursued global power, at times its strategic aims contradicted the ideals it proclaimed as the former — through the support of dictatorships and autocratic regimes and use of economic or military tools to selectively back or oppose movements of national self-determination. Being a global leader doesn't necessarily mean that a country is perfect. In fact, without a strong sense of national power and security, no state can take on a position of global leadership.
The U.S. role, attained with the loss of its powerful strategic competitor, may be more of an interregnum than a new norm in international relations. Global leadership is a mixed blessing; conceptually it makes it easier to assert and protect national self-interest, but it comes at a high cost, all the more so with an international purview. The imbalance created by the end of the Cold War, the acceleration of technology and changes in demographics worldwide have conspired to drive the development of regional powers, to diffuse power across the globe and, by default, to erode the overwhelming influence of the United States.
So, the United States' position as true global leader may be challenged. But is it really facing replacement by China? Assuming China even sought a role of global leadership, does it have the national strength and some deeper idea or ideology about how the world "should" be shaped, as well as the ability to project them and see them emulated?
Strength is not merely a question of military capacity; it is also one of economics, political and social stability, and strategic positioning. China is a nuclear power, one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and by most accounts the second-largest economy in the world, exceeded only by the United States. The Chinese military is undergoing changes in focus and structure that are preparing it for an outward-facing role, rather than one primarily of domestic stability and defense. At home, China has stabilized politically since the vagaries of the Mao era, and abroad China takes an active role in multinational and global forums and bodies. In short, China is a strong nation.
However, in looking at China, there are constraints to its power and strength. Unlike the United States, which sits far from the centuries of warfare and chaos in Eurasia, China rests on the eastern edge of the landmass and shares land borders with 14 countries. (It also neighbors several others in the maritime realm.) Most of its borders are relatively stable, and China is the dominant power in its bilateral relationships with many of its neighbors. But the number of neighbors alone presents a challenge to Beijing. Historically, aside from repeated attempts to press its borders well into the Korean Peninsula and northern Vietnam, China was largely a self-contained nation. For the most part, Chinese empires sought only minor control or influence in nearby states; so long as those states paid fealty to the emperor, China left them to their own devices.
New Challenges in China's Backyard
Now, China is finding this more passive path less and less viable. North Korea's nuclear and missile program may not directly threaten China's security, but it indirectly does by shaping Washington's response in the region, and it could someday lead to a U.S. military intervention. Beijing's hands-off approach to Pyongyang just isn't working, but more direct involvement on its part would risk turning North Korea against China, or destabilizing North Korea, both of which would come with the higher cost of managing a security crisis.
Meanwhile, in Myanmar, China has taken on a more direct role in facilitating peace negotiations between border tribes and the central government. But greater involvement can quickly lead to greater responsibilities, and it may invalidate China's repeated assertion that it practices a policy of non-intervention in dealing with its neighbors. The careful balance of appearing to simultaneously support both and neither side of the conflicts along its periphery is becoming harder and harder to maintain. And a resolution, or even management, in Myanmar may well require Beijing to pick sides.
In Central Asia, China has taken an active approach in regional economic development and in addressing security threats posed by terrorism and separatism. But while much of China's interactions are welcome, there is also growing concern in Central Asia and Russia that Beijing is expanding its sphere of influence into an area traditionally dominated by Moscow, and that Chinese investments and transport corridors may be serving Beijing's interests more than local communities. At each place along the Chinese border, Beijing is finding that maintaining influence is coming at increasingly steep cost. And as China puts more money and resources into its Belt and Road Initiative, it will find itself needing to expend additional resources to protect its ever-growing networks. The recent killing of Chinese teachers in Pakistan is just the latest action against China in its peripheral states. In Africa and Latin America, for instance, China likewise faces mounting resistance to its looming presence. These rising costs in security and investment come at a time when China is undergoing a major shift in its own economy as it seeks to move from an export-oriented model to a consumption-oriented one.
All of this is taking place in a country where economic and social change has rapidly unfolded over the past few decades, but political change has not come close to keeping up (and Beijing has little intent to allow it to do so). Tension is building within China, and while Beijing has done an admirable job of maintaining national unity and economic activity, it cannot change the fact that there is always a gap between the pains and benefits of reform. This is not to say that China cannot take on global challenges as it deals with problems at home. But in looking at the issues in which China appears to be taking the lead, it often seems that Beijing's primary focus — as it is with most countries — is its own national security. China's infrastructure bank, frequently cited as one of the ways in which China is taking over the United States' leadership role, benefits its neighbors, to be sure. But it also facilitates Beijing's broader Belt and Road Initiative, which is in part a strategic move meant to respond to heightened security risks to China's far-flung supply lines.
In much the same way, China's embrace of global climate change initiatives is as much about access to technology and domination of key green energy sectors, including solar and wind power, as it is about healing the planet. These self-interested regional and global policies reflect similar actions taken by the United States during the Cold War — actions driven by the global components of national strategic interests. They may evolve into something else in the future, but as it stands they are less about showing leadership in shaping a global norm than about showing leadership in shaping the direction of investments and the control of critical sectors.
A Lack of Missionary Zeal
This brings us to the second question — that of China's underlying philosophy. However much one may find U.S. behavior hypocritical, underpinning it is a deep political philosophy espousing democracy and open markets, and the assertion that they not only serve U.S. interests but are also the "best" government and economic systems for the world. This missionary zeal has existed since the early days of the United States, long before it had the power to back up its ideology. In many ways it stemmed from the way the country was founded, by immigrants and in isolation from Europe's wars, and built atop an older European philosophical heritage.
The United States, moreover, was largely able to create a system and style of government from whole cloth. What pre-existing nations there were in North America were steadily moved or removed, and in their place a government and society were built on waves of immigration and movement across the continent. The lack of long-standing populations, each with its own identity and history, allowed the United States to forge a single continental nation in a way that neither Europe nor China ever did. One could argue that U.S. leaders rarely live up to the ideologies the nation purports to promote, but they continue to shape U.S. strategic culture and action abroad, even if not always overtly.
China emerged as a nation at a different time in history, in a different part of the world, and built on different principles. The consolidation of China's numerous peoples didn't do away with the sense of regionalism and localism, though it did infuse atop that a sense of nationalism. Buddhism and Confucianism played a strong role in Chinese political philosophy, which in part colored China's concept of empire and its layers of relations with the nations around it. China was the Middle Kingdom, the center of the world system, but it served as a model rather than an enforcer. The nearer to the center, the more "like" the center, the higher its place in Chinese world order. The farther away, the less China expected to wield influence. Unlike the young United States, which assumed it had the perfect political system for all countries of the world, China did little to try to force its system on others, except perhaps its nearest neighbors.
Though early communist China, under Mao, took a more active role in spreading communism (and its Maoist variant), it was neither a global nor concerted effort. Furthermore, it was an adopted ideology, and it wasn't long before China's communism and the Soviet Union's communism diverged and even contradicted each other. Following the internal chaos triggered by the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping sought a new policy for the country, one that emphasized internal stability and national strengthening while asserting a non-aggressive and non-interference policy abroad. China's focus was largely on itself, on national unity and economic growth, and not on exporting any particular political ideology.
But it's this same lack of clearly defined ideology that may hamper any move, intended or otherwise, by China to take on a true role in global leadership. China doesn't have a political or social system that it recommends to others, it simply asserts (publicly, at least) that each system should be equally respected and should not interfere with others. But non-interference isn't a rallying cry that motivates concerned, unified action. Rather, it is an assertion of live and let live. This is the antithesis of leadership.
The semi-stability of the Cold War may well have been an anomaly, the brief moment of unexpected U.S. dominance an interlude. But in terms of overall power, even if the United States is not the sole global leader, it remains disproportionately larger and stronger than any near competitor. And that means it will continue to be sought after by both challengers and seekers of a security guarantor alike.