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China and the United States Are in a Race to Lose Power

A new cold war is starting, and neither side seems interested in winning.

Workers iron a Chinese national flag while a U.S. national flag is placed in front of a Chinese traditional painting before a meeting of the U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse on May 27, 2013 in Beijing, China.
Workers iron a Chinese national flag while a U.S. national flag is placed in front of a Chinese traditional painting before a meeting of the U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse on May 27, 2013 in Beijing, China. Alexander F. Yuan-Pool/Getty Images

Back in the bad old days of the Cold War, I recall hearing a well-known academic (and former diplomat) remark that the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in “a relentless competition to see which one could lose influence fastest.” Assuming my memory is accurate, he then added, “Fortunately, the Soviets are winning.”

I’m wary of facile analogies to that earlier period of great-power rivalry, but that observation seems to be an apt description of the current state of Chinese and American foreign policy. Beijing and Washington can each point to a few successes over the past year or two, but for the most part both seem to be perfecting the art of the own goal. Citizens of both countries have reason to be grateful; given how poorly their leaders have performed, it’s a small miracle the other side hasn’t taken better advantage.

Let’s start with the United States. I’m old enough to remember when it enjoyed a position of primacy unseen since the Roman Empire. Sadly, assorted sins of omission and commission under both Democrats and Republicans wasted the so-called unipolar moment and facilitated the rise of a new set of challengers. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton made the first missteps but escaped most of the blame, because the consequences of his blunders (NATO enlargement, dual containment, a bungled Middle East peace process, and overzealous pursuit of globalization) did not come home to roost until after he had left office. President George W. Bush got to deal with some of the repercussions (such as the 9/11 attacks), and he compounded the error by launching global anti-terrorism campaigns, invading Iraq, and letting a dangerous financial bubble burst in 2008. President Barack Obama failed to reverse the slide despite his successful rescue of the economy and his personal popularity in much of the world, and the consequences of these accumulating failures helped open the door to President Donald Trump’s reign of error.

As president, Trump has mostly demonstrated how to squander goodwill and respect and get little or nothing in return. He has repeatedly and gratuitously insulted some of America’s closest allies, referred to poorer nations as “shithole countries” and described U.S. neighbors in Latin America as teeming with rapists, murderers, and other dangerous types. In a world where a majority of people are nonwhite, he’s made common cause with racists and is basing his election campaign on stoking such sentiments in portions of his base. His decisions on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, and North Korea alarmed and alienated a wide range of countries and brought the United States no significant benefits. His fawning embrace of such dictators and autocrats as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi—to name but a few—has shredded whatever moral authority the United States might have had left. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s sanctimonious moralizing, mismanagement of his department, and lack of interest in genuine diplomacy hasn’t helped either.

Finally, and most tellingly, Trump’s disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic has made the United States look incompetent and incapable of reform, a development that is bound to make other countries look elsewhere for advice on how to grapple with today’s challenges.

As the Irish Times writer Fintan O’Toole recently put it: As country after country bars Americans from entering because they are worried that they will spread disease, who can blame them?

You’d think this situation would be a golden opportunity for an ambitious, restless, and increasingly powerful China. Beijing has benefited in the past from America’s mistakes and was careful not to imitate them. Like the United States throughout most of the 19th century, which stayed out of trouble abroad and focused its energies on building a world-class economy at home, China was concentrated on internal development and been all too content to watch the United States stumble into costly quagmires and internal disarray.

But instead of taking advantage of America’s latest stumbles and working to consolidate its position as the more sensible and responsible superpower, lately China appears to be succumbing to its own version of foreign-policy malpractice.

For starters, China’s reputation has suffered because the coronavirus pandemic began there, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) bungled the initial response, and then Beijing tried to deny responsibility. The government has done better since, but the initial damage could not be entirely assuaged. And with a few exceptions (such as Latin America), subsequent Chinese efforts to win influence by offering masks, medicines, and other forms of aid have mostly backfired or been seen more as a self-interested gambit to whitewash their image than a genuine effort to help foreigners.

Even worse, Beijing has doubled down on the practice of “wolf warrior” diplomacy, an increasingly assertive and belligerent approach that relies on intimidation and a certain take-no-prisoners style of engagement. Such a policy may play well in an increasingly nationalistic China, but it appears to be antagonizing nearly everyone else. It is based on the odd idea that foreign leaders will respond well to being berated, threatened, and punished. So a legitimate and disinterested Australian proposal for an independent international investigation of the origins of the coronavirus prompted not a polite rejection from Beijing (as one might expect), but the imposition of harsh tariffs on Australian beef and barley coupled with threats of additional sanctions if the Aussies didn’t back off. The predictable result? A growing Australian consensus on the need to stand up to China more effectively. More recently, when the Chinese ambassador to Somalia reportedly pressured the president of the disputed territory of Somaliland, Muse Bihi Abdi, to reduce his government’s ties with Taiwan, Bihi ended the meeting and told his foreign ministry to expand ties with Taiwan even more. A couple of weeks later, diplomat from Somaliland arrived in Taiwan to open a new representative office there.

Lastly, the recent Chinese-Indian border clashes and the imposition of a rigid new security law in Hong Kong have solidified Asian and Western concerns about China’s long-term ambitions. Countries that were once ambivalent about confronting China—including Australia, the United Kingdom, and Germany—have moved close to Washington on such issues as 5G technology, despite their own reservations about the direction of U.S. policy and the mercurial personality of the current U.S. president. Instead of taking advantage of America’s most recent stumbles, in short, China has helped insulate the Trump administration from some of the consequences of its own blunders.

The current competition to lose influence carries three obvious implications. First, it reinforces what the political scientist Ian Bremmer has labeled the “G-Zero World,” an international order without a single clear leader or even a coherent coalition of like-minded countries coming together to manage critical global problems.

Second, this situation suggests that whichever great power wises up first will have a real opportunity. Here the United States has one obvious advantage—at least in theory—as it is about to hold a national election. Americans have the opportunity, therefore, to get rid of their incompetent incumbent and to try someone else. The CCP’s 20th Party Congress will not occur until 2022, and Xi Jinping is likely (though not absolutely certain) to remain in power. Given that he is the principal architect of China’s more assertive international posture, a sharp change of course seems unlikely. But China has responded nimbly to other adverse developments, and it’s possible that top officials (including Xi) will learn from their recent setbacks and continue to pursue their ambitious agenda in a more subtle and effective way.

If Trump remains U.S. president (either legitimately or as a result of a rigged election), and if Xi and Co. learn the right lessons from their recent stumbles, China will have new opportunities to enhance its global stature and undermine some of America’s overseas partnerships. On the other hand, if American voters decisively repudiate Trumpism in the November election and the CCP continues its heavy-handed, wolf-warrior approach to the outside world, keeping China comparatively isolated will be significantly easier.

But here’s a warning to those Americans who are now pinning their hopes on presidential candidate Joe Biden and his coterie of all-too-familiar and all-too-mainstream advisors: It’s too late to turn back the clock to 2016. Having watched the United States go through four years of nonstop turbulence, other nations will wonder whether someone like Trump could get elected again. A Biden victory won’t unite the divided nation overnight, and deep partisanship will continue to have baleful effects on U.S. foreign policy. A Biden administration will have its hands full dealing with the pandemic and the economy at home, leaving less time and fewer resources to devote to big international projects. A Democratic victory in November may be essential to preserving the United States as a constitutional republic, but it won’t fix U.S. foreign policy overnight.

That said, the next administration does have the opportunity to fashion a smarter and more effective strategy toward China. It would focus in part on pure geopolitics (i.e., reinforcing U.S. alliances in Asia) but mostly on meeting the technological challenge that China poses in areas such as artificial intelligence. To do that, it will need to work more effectively with U.S. advanced allies, resurrect efforts to attract scientific and technical talent from abroad, and stop wasting public resources in areas of marginal strategic importance (e.g., Afghanistan). It would also recognize that launching an ideological cold war against Beijing—as implied by Pompeo’s recent jeremiad at the Nixon Library—is not going to persuade China to change its domestic policies and is more likely to alarm the allies whose support the United States will need. A smarter competitive strategy would also keep the lines of communication open to Beijing and work to cooperate with China on the issues where the countries’ interests overlap (e.g., climate change, global health, etc.).

A friend of mine once compared foreign policy to high school football: Victory tends to go not to the team that makes the most brilliant plays but to the one that commits the fewest turnovers, penalties, fumbles, and interceptions. In short, it’s the team that makes the fewest errors that usually ends up on top. The next administration doesn’t have to be brilliant to be a lot better than its predecessors (and I don’t mean just Trump). I take some comfort from that; one doesn’t have to be a starry-eyed idealist to believe that significant improvement is possible.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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