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China Wants a ‘Rules-Based International Order,’ Too

The question is who gets to write the codes—and whether the United States will live up to its own.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about foreign policy at the State Department in Washington on Feb. 4.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about foreign policy at the State Department in Washington on Feb. 4. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

A ready ability to use the phrase “rules-based international order” seems to have become a job requirement for a top position in the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus. One need look no further than Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s opening statement during his recent meeting with top Chinese officials. “Our administration is committed to leading with diplomacy to advance the interests of the United States and to strengthen the rules-based international order,” he said. The alternative, he continued, “is a world in which might makes right and winners take all, and that would be a far more violent and unstable world for all of us.” China, he seemed to be saying, is not only out to dismantle the U.S.-led order but also out to bring back the days of “might makes right.”

But the distinction between the United States’ supposed commitment to a system of rules and China’s alleged lack thereof is misleading in at least three ways. First, it overlooks the United States’ own willingness to ignore, evade, or rewrite the rules whenever they seem inconvenient. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to acknowledge that Washington sometimes thinks it is perfectly okay for might to make right and for winners to take all. The collapse of the Soviet Union, when the United States took full advantage of a weakened post-Soviet Russia, is a perfect example.

Second, as Harvard University’s Alastair Iain Johnston has shown, China accepts and even defends many principles of the existing order, although of course not all of them. That situation may change in the future, of course, but even a vastly more powerful China would undoubtedly seek to retain whatever features of the present order serve its interests.

Third, statements such as Blinken’s imply that abandoning today’s rules-based order would leave us in a lawless, rule-free world of naked power politics, unregulated by any norms or principles whatsoever. This is simply not the case: Scholars of widely varying views understand that all international orders—global, regional, liberal, realist, or whatever—require a set of rules to manage the various interactions that inevitably arise between different polities.

Examples can be found throughout the international relations literature: 44 years ago, theorist Hedley Bull defined an “international society” as “a group of states … bound by a set of common rules” and the University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer recently referred to international orders as “an organized group of international institutions,” which he says “are effectively rules that the great powers devise and agree to follow.” The statesman Henry Kissinger argues that all world orders rest on a “set of commonly accepted rules” and the Princeton University professor G. John Ikenberry’s many works on the U.S.-led “liberal” order all emphasize its “rules-based character.” The political scientists Beth Simmons and Hein Goemans agree, writing, “any intergroup order must be defined by rules of group membership and … political authority.” Even skeptics of the liberal order, such as the scholar Patrick Porter, acknowledge the role that rules played within that system, while emphasizing how the United States has used its superior power to compel other states to comply with the rules it prefers.

In short, the issue is not the United States’ preference for a “rules-based” order and China’s alleged lack of interest in it; rather, the issue is who will determine which rules pertain where. Or as the Rand Corp.’s Michael Mazarr recently put it, “At its core, the United States and China are competing to shape the foundational global system—the essential ideas, habits, and expectations that govern international politics. It is ultimately a competition of norms, narratives, and legitimacy.”

The differences between the American and Chinese conceptions are relatively straightforward. The United States (generally) prefers a multilateral system (albeit one with special privileges for some states, especially itself) that is at least somewhat mindful of individual rights and certain core liberal values (democratic rule, individual freedom, rule of law, market-based economies, and so on). These ideals may be applied imperfectly at home and pursued inconsistently abroad, but the U.S. commitment to them is not just empty rhetoric. Among other things, it underpins U.S. efforts to persuade or compel other states to alter their own domestic arrangements. Not surprisingly, the United States also likes many existing institutions (the IMF, NATO, the World Bank, the reserve role of the dollar, to name a few) because they give the United States greater influence.

By contrast, China favors a more Westphalian conception of order, one where state sovereignty and noninterference are paramount and liberal notions of individual rights are downplayed if not entirely dismissed. This vision is no less “rules-based” than the United States’, insofar as it draws on parts of the United Nations charter, and it would not preclude many current forms of international cooperation, including extensive trade, investment, collaboration on vital transnational issues such as climate change. China is also a vocal defender of multilateralism, even if its actual behavior sometimes violates existing multilateral norms. Nonetheless, a world in which China’s preferences prevailed would be different than one in which the U.S. vision proved to be more influential.

I don’t know which of these two visions will win out in the years ahead, but a few observations are in order. First, if you think the United States and its closest allies are going to write all the rules themselves, think again. International orders inevitably reflect the underlying balance of power, and China’s rise means that its ability to shape some of the rules (or to refuse to go along with rules that it rejects) will be considerable.

Second, and following from the first point, no single power can write and enforce all the rules of an order. The United States got most of what it wanted during the creation of the Bretton Woods system and had enormous influence over the subsequent evolution of that order, but it still had to compromise on a number of issues, and it frequently failed to get everything it wanted. The United States and China are going to have a great deal of influence over the rules that emerge either globally or within whatever partial orders each might lead. But to gain others’ compliance, they will still have to give other states at least some of what they want, too.

Third, China’s emergence (and, to a much lesser extent, Russia’s regional sway) gives other countries more options than they had during the unipolar era. Iran may be suffering mightily under U.S. sanctions, but its recent oil and investment deal with China reveals its ability to reduce the pressure somewhat without making additional concessions to the United States. Europe may be thrilled to see former U.S. President Donald Trump gone and delighted by President Joe Biden’s desire to repair trans-Atlantic ties, but that sense of relief hasn’t led Germany to cancel the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, didn’t stop the EU from signing its own investment deal with Beijing despite U.S. requests for a delay, and isn’t going to convince Prime Minister Viktor Orban to bring liberal values back to Hungary.

As the United States and China compete to promote rival visions for the world order, how are other states likely to respond? Autocratic nationalists in some countries may prefer China’s explicit rejection of liberal values and ideas about sovereignty, but Beijing’s increasingly bellicose behavior and its willingness to punish others for even minor transgressions has sparked growing concerns about what a more China-centric order might be like.

Americans may exaggerate the benevolent nature of U.S. hegemony, but its geographic distance from others and relatively benign intentions made its position of primacy more acceptable to many other states than the overall distribution of power might suggest. As I argued during the unipolar era, U.S. power did not provoke as much opposition as one might have expected, because it was separated from the other major power centers by two vast oceans and had no interest in territorial expansion. Most countries in Eurasia worried more about each other than they did about the United States, which also made U.S. support more desirable and its hegemonic position more tolerable.

Yet even like-minded allies who welcome U.S. leadership want it to be exercised more judiciously. It’s not U.S. hegemony per se that bothers them; it is the excessive exploitation of hegemonic privilege. They don’t like it when the United States blithely violates the rules of the system—as it did when it left the gold standard in 1971 or when it invaded Iraq in 2003—and especially when the consequences are at least as severe for them as for the United States itself. They don’t like the United States using the SWIFT system and other institutions of the global financial order to sanction states it happens to be at odds with, and especially when it threatens third parties with secondary sanctions if they don’t fall into line. Ironically, what U.S. allies really want is for the United States to take its oft-repeated commitment to a “rules-based” order more seriously.

In the short term, U.S. efforts to promote its preferred set of rules will benefit from Biden and Blinken’s commitment to active and constructive diplomacy, in sharp contrast to the bullying bombast of the Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Merely showing up at major global forums, treating other participants with respect, and showing a degree of empathy for others’ concerns are going to play well. If Beijing remains committed to its self-defeating “wolf warrior diplomacy,” a U.S. charm offensive will be even more effective.

But more adroit diplomacy can only take a country so far. Over the longer term, the contest to set the rules of global dealings will be determined primarily by which country—the United States or China—has more hard power. The United States could dominate the construction of the postwar liberal order because its economy was producing nearly 50 percent of the gross world product and the other major powers were in ruins and in hock to Uncle Sam. Hard power—in the form of economic and military strength—still buys its possessors a lot of deference: Look at all the world leaders who were clearly alarmed, angered, belittled, and disgusted by Trump yet treated him with a respect he did not deserve. Why? Because the United States was still the 800-pound gorilla, and it made little sense to needlessly provoke its wrath.

If Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s loftiest ambitions are realized and China eventually occupies the commanding economic heights of the 21st century, it still won’t be able to take over the world. But such a position will give it a great deal of influence over the rules of the international system, because other states will be less willing to defy it openly and forced to adapt some of their practices to conform to Chinese preferences. Even states that are actively balancing against China militarily may choose to accommodate it in other ways. By contrast, if the United States keeps pace economically and retains key advantages in most of the core technologies on which future productivity depends, then the 21st-century order is likely to favor Washington’s preferences more than Beijing’s.

Here’s the good news for Americans: Undertaking the reforms that will be needed to retain the necessary economic strength would be good for the United States in any case, and it would make sense even if China were weaker than it is today and posed no challenge to the current order. In short, the United States is in one of those happy moments where what is good for the country at home will also be good for its standing and influence abroad.

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

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