Time for America to Follow China’s Lead
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Time for America to Follow China’s Lead
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Kishore Mahbubani is a former Singaporean diplomat who served twice as ambassador to the United Nations. Currently, he is the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He is the author of “The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World.” This piece is part of a special RCW series on the U.S.-China geopolitical relationship. The views expressed here are the author’s own.

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In a 2005 speech before the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, former World Bank President Robert Zoellick famously called upon the Chinese government to become a responsible stakeholder in the global system, and to work with other international powers to maintain stability and security around the world. One can assume that when Zoellick delivered his speech on that fall day in New York, there was no doubt in his mind -- nor in the minds of most American leaders and policymakers -- that the United States was in fact the responsible stakeholder in the international system, and that China was not.   

However, last year’s election of Donald Trump has spurred a remarkable reversal in global perceptions of the United States and China. President Trump has loudly proclaimed that he will pursue unilateralist “America First” policies, and he has also threatened to withdraw the United States from the World Trade Organization. In a 2016 interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Trump said, "[W]e’re going to renegotiate or we’re going to pull out. These trade deals are a disaster. The World Trade Organization is a disaster." By contrast, after the two brilliant speeches delivered by Chinese President Xi Jinping in Davos and in Geneva in January 2017, China has projected itself as a defender of the prevailing multilateral order. Zoellick would not be able to deliver his 2005 speech in 2017. The roles have reversed.

Clinton's Subtle Warning

This need not and should not have happened. As a power that is, by the president’s own admission, in relative decline, it is increasingly in the national interest of the United States to strengthen multilateral rules and processes. Articulating this truth in a visionary 2003 speech at Yale University, Former President Bill Clinton said:

“if you believe that maintaining power and control and absolute freedom of movement and sovereignty is important to your country’s future, there’s nothing inconsistent in that. We’re the biggest most powerful country in the world now we’ve got the juice and we’re going to use it … But if you believe that we should be trying to create a world with rules and partnerships and habits of behavior that we would like to live in when we’re no longer the military political economic superpower in the world, then you wouldn’t do that. It just depends on what you believe.”

His audience mightn’t have been aware at the time, but this was a cunning bit of advice from the once president. Clinton was telling them to prepare for a world in which the United States is the number two global power, and China is number one. As the world’s second power, America would prefer to live with a number one power that supports “a world with rules and partnerships and habits of behavior” that would make the world a more orderly place. Even more cunningly, Clinton was suggesting that the United States could slip the “handcuffs” of multilateral rules and processes more effectively onto China if America slipped those very same handcuffs on itself while it was still the world’s pre-eminent power.

However, Clinton’s speech would have been more effective had he honestly admitted that it has been a consistent American policy to weaken, rather than strengthen, multilateral rules and institutions. This was a dirty little secret I discovered while serving twice as Singapore’s ambassador to the United Nations, from 1984 to 1989 and again from 1998 to 2004. This policy was also made plain when the United States walked away from the World Court in 1985, refused to ratify the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, and tried to undermine the International Criminal Court in 2002. America has also consistently tried to pick weak and spineless U.N. secretaries-general to head up the global body. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton admitted this publicly in his memoirs when he quoted then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said, “I’m not sure we want a strong secretary-general.” Unfortunately, such candor is a rarity from U.S. leaders.

Paradoxically, Trump may emerge as the most honest and forthright American president on the issue of multilateralism. He has made public his disdain for multilateral rules and institutions. He has denounced the Trans-Pacific Partnership and threatened to walk away from commitments that the United States had made on climate change. At a White House briefing earlier this year, Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said, “As to climate change, I think the president was fairly straightforward: We’re not spending money on that anymore.”

Multilateral China

Such rhetoric should have been music to Beijing’s ears. As a rising power poised to become the world’s largest economy within a decade or so, it would be in China’s interest, one might argue, to see international institutions such as the United Nations weakened and marginalized. This is, after all, exactly what the United States has done for decades.

But China chose a different tack. Its decision to take the opposite course of strengthening rather than weakening multilateral institutions should be seen as a surprising, even shocking, decision. Why is China not following the footsteps of the prevailing number one power? One possible reason why China is not emulating America in undermining multilateralism is that the two countries have very different conceptions of their respective roles in the world. The United States sees itself as an “exceptional” country, hence it believes that it has a global responsibility to transform the world. It refuses to be constrained by multilateral rules when it interferes in the internal affairs of other countries. It has promoted many so-called color revolutions, including the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan and the 2011 Arab Spring revolution in Egypt. No other country shares this messianic impulse of the United States.

By contrast, China is only interested in improving the livelihoods of its 1.4 billion citizens (or one-fifth of the world’s population). After a century and a half of “hell” -- from the First Opium War in 1839 through to the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 -- China experienced “heaven” and enjoyed the world’s fastest economic growth, especially after joining the global multilateral order that the West gifted to the world after the Second World War. No country has benefitted more from the WTO than China has. This is why China is now the world’s number one trading power.

Having enjoyed many remarkable benefits by walking away from Mao’s isolationist policies and toward Deng’s integrationist policies, China knows from first-hand experience that integration into a rules-based multilateral order has served China well. In another remarkable reversal, the values and benefits of free trade have been documented and explained by American, not Chinese, thinkers. Yet today, it is politically toxic in the United States to defend free trade agreements like NAFTA or TPP. By contrast, China is enthusiastically signing more and more free trade pacts. Since it joined the WTO in 2001, it has signed 14 FTAs with countries as diverse as Australia, South Korea, and Peru, and in 2002 it agreed to a broader free trade area with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Can Washington Follow Beijing?

It was therefore a mistake for American pundits and policymakers to pooh-pooh the two speeches made by Xi earlier this year. They reflect a well-considered position that China benefits from a stronger rules-based multilateral order. Similarly, it was also unwise of the American media to excoriate Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for characterizing the U.S.-China relationship as a very positive one built on “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation,” as is common in Chinese policymaking circles. Article 2 of the U.N. Charter, after all, spells out the principles of international cooperation, and Tillerson’s statements were only a reiteration of these principles.

Sadly, Tillerson was accused in the West of kowtowing to China. The clear assumption behind these criticisms is that America is pursuing the correct international policies while China is pursuing the wrong ones. However, the United States clearly remains committed to weakening and undermining multilateral rules and processes, while China still believes that it is in its national interest to do the opposite.

As Bill Clinton wisely advised, it is now in the national interest of the United States to change course and strengthen multilateral rules and institutions. In an atmosphere of global financial crises and climate change, of pandemics and terrorism, and numerous other international challenges such as famine and cyber-security, it is high time that the United States embraced global institutions and became a responsible stakeholder in the global system once more.