When China started to steadily progress into becoming a real-world power economically, many, especially in the West, complained that it does not take a fair share of its responsibility in international affairs. When they said that, they were, indirectly, comparing it to the United States. Looking at global affairs lately, there seems to be a role reversal in the making.
There is no disputing the fact that the US, especially in the post-World War II era, was the architect and financier of the international order. So much so that it earned the nick name “the world’s policeman”.
However, the current US administration’s worldview does not seem to be aligned with that school of thought. This is evidenced by series of actions the US has taken regarding international affairs in the last twenty months or so.
For instance, one of the first acts of the administration was pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership. That was followed by withdrawals from both the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal.
The United Nations was not spared either. The US withdrew its membership from both the UN Human Rights Council and UNESCO. There may be more to follow as the administration has threatened to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement if it does not get what it wants from the ongoing negotiations.
The question is what happens when the community police suddenly decide it does not want to be bothered by problems in the neighbourhood, preferring to concentrate on problems inside the police station.
The most likely outcome will be the takeover of the streets by gangs that have no intention of playing by the rules.
The international scene is currently rife with budding autocrats and ruffians strutting on stage: from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Poland’s Andrzej Duda, Hungary’s Victor Orban, Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
They are dismantling the little progress made towards democratisation across the world at will. They do not have to watch over their shoulders as the policeman is at home, uninterested in other people’s problems. This is a fundamental departure from American foreign policy precedent.
What happened to manifest destiny? What happened to “the shining city upon a hill?” And what does it imply to the international order and world peace?
International relations are messy affairs and consensus is elusive. However, there is a broad agreement that the international order abhors power vacuums.
“Almost as if according to some natural law, in every century there seems to emerge a country with the power, the will, and the intellectual and moral impetus to shape the entire international system in accordance with its own values,” said the renowned foreign policy guru and former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, in his famous 1994 book, Diplomacy.
He then goes on to show that it was France with the nation-state and national interest doctrine in the 17th century; Great Britain and the balance of power concept in the 18th century; Austria and the concert of Europe in the 19th century; and of course the United States in the 20th century that shaped the international order.
With America now seemingly abdicating that leadership role, the question is who will be the leading power of the 21st century. The most likely candidate could be China, the world’s second-largest economy, currently in the process of flexing its new gained economic and military power.
China may have gained military and economic power but not necessarily the “soft power” of cultural and intellectual influence. The US, in contrast, has long enjoyed disproportionate dominance in intellectual and moral influence on the international stage.
The current American foreign policy though seems to be willing to sacrifice this soft power dominance for hard cash. Notice all the trade disputes it is getting in to with friend and foe alike. The US is trading inspirational respect for being feared. This is not unlike the Biblical Esau who gave up his birthright for a bowl of stew.
The irony is, as the Economistrecently put it, China “has transformed the very core of its identity, changing itself from an inward – and backwards – looking power to an outward – and forward – looking one.”
The US nonetheless seems to be insisting on going the other way. Leaving us in a situation where an ascending military and economic power is asserting itself on the world stage at the same time as an established inspirational power is retreating into itself abdicating its international leadership role. This role reversal is a destabilising factor for the international order.
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