The World Might Want China’s Rules

Washington shouldn’t assume its values are more attractive to others than Beijing’s.

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
The U.S. and Chinese flags stand behind a microphone.
The U.S. and Chinese flags stand behind a microphone at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on April 9, 2009. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

In his address to Congress last week, U.S. President Joe Biden pulled a page from former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower’s playbook and tied an ambitious set of domestic programs to the need to compete more effectively with China. Just as Eisenhower convinced the country to fund the interstate highway system by invoking national security, Biden portrayed a broadly defined infrastructure program as critical to preserving the United States’ global position. Though this approach is not without risks, it recognizes the United States is in a new era of great-power competition and needs to raise its game.

But what is this competition really about? Despite growing (and to my mind, somewhat exaggerated) concerns about a military clash over Taiwan, neither the United States nor China poses a genuine threat to the other’s sovereignty or independence. The two states are simply too large, too populous, and too far away for each other to contemplate an invasion or even to impose its will on the other decisively. Both China and the United States also have nuclear weapons, which places even stricter limits on either state’s ability to compel the other to do its bidding.

Furthermore, neither country is likely to convert the other to its preferred political ideology. China isn’t about to become a multiparty democracy, and the United States is not going to be a one-party state capitalist regime (though the Republican Party’s current drift toward authoritarianism does make one wonder). Like it or not, these two powerful nations are going to have to coexist with each other for a long, long time.

If that’s the case, then what are they going to compete about? Some aspects of Sino-American competition will be material in nature as each country seeks to develop superior artificial intelligence capabilities, green energy technology, and biomedical products along with more advanced military capabilities. But as I argued at some length a few weeks ago, a major part of the competition will be normative as each country seeks to defend and promote the rules or norms it believes the global order should be based on. The question, therefore, is this: Whose rules will eventually win greater support around the world?

At the risk of oversimplifying, China’s preferred world order is essentially Westphalian. It emphasizes territorial sovereignty and noninterference, embraces a world where many different political orders exist, and privileges the (supposed) needs of the collective (such as economic security) over the rights or freedoms of the individual. As political scientist Jessica Chen Weiss recently put it, China seeks a world order that is “safe for autocracy,” where universalist claims about individual rights do not jeopardize the authority of the Chinese Communist Party or inspire criticism of its internal policies.

The United States, by contrast, has long promoted a world order where liberal values—based on the bedrock claim that all humans have certain inalienable rights—are favored. U.S. leaders helped embed these ideas in documents like the United Nations Charter, which refers explicitly to “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction.” Similar principles are obviously central to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and enshrined in the North Atlantic Treaty and other U.S.-led institutions.

Of course, neither the United States nor China lives up to these normative declarations. Contrary to Chinese claims that it “never” interferes in other countries’ internal affairs, Beijing has, in fact, been willing to do just that on a number of occasions. Similarly, although U.S. leaders like to extol their deep commitment to freedom, democracy, and basic human rights, they have been quick to ignore illiberal behavior by key allies, and the United States has failed to fully implement these ideals at home. Yet the normative preferences displayed by the United States and China are not just empty rhetoric: The United States has, at times, used its power to expand the sphere of democratic rule and pressure or ostracize states that rejected these ideals.

Which set of rules is likely to win out? When I wrote about this topic back in March, I suggested that hard power and demonstrated material success would play key roles because economic size influences other states’ calculations and success at home inspires emulation by others. But we should also consider the intrinsic appeal of the ideas themselves: Are the liberal norms the United States and its closest allies espouse likely to be more attractive to others than China’s vocal defense of national sovereignty, its repeated emphasis of noninterference, and its insistence that different states should have the right to evolve political institutions that are consistent with their own cultures and historical experiences?

Americans may be accustomed to thinking the “arc of history bends toward justice” and ideals of freedom are destined to triumph even if takes many decades before they are fully realized. And they could surely point to the history of the past four centuries to support that belief. Because I happen to share those values and am glad that I live in a (mostly) liberal country, I hope that view turns out to be correct. But it would be wise not to assume it because China’s preferred set of rules is likely to prove attractive in many places.

For starters, nondemocratic leaders—and that still means most governments around the world—may prefer a world order that gives each state the right to determine its own system of government and where it is considered illegitimate for outsiders to pressure them over what is taking place within their borders. Not surprisingly, China’s willingness to provide development assistance without conditioning it on domestic reforms (as U.S. and Western aid programs generally do), has proven to be especially appealing in some countries. Right off the bat, therefore, China’s defense of noninterference and its rejection of liberal norms is going to win support from a lot of autocrats.

Second, to the extent that a more powerful China respects these ideals, other states will worry less about Chinese-sponsored regime change. With the obvious exceptions of Hong Kong and Taiwan (which Beijing regards as internal matters), China’s live-and-let-live rhetoric might even be reassuring to states that do not share China’s own autocratic character. China may be willing to help other autocracies remain in power, but since Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s death, it hasn’t tried to turn existing democracies into one-party state capitalist regimes with a Leninist core. (Again, Hong Kong and Taiwan are important exceptions here.) That policy might change, of course, but at present, some countries might find this stance more attractive than the U.S. position that all governments ought to become democracies eventually.

Third, China’s position is less vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy. Proclaiming that all states should be permitted to develop as they see fit leaves it free to do business with democracies, military dictatorships, and monarchies and to tailor its relations with each to local conditions. The United States looks two-faced when it proclaims liberal principles but continues to support close allies that routinely violate these ideals, but China can trade, invest, and cooperate with anyone without being inconsistent.

Given all this, one might think China’s live-and-let-live approach to world order would eventually displace the United States’ liberal ideals, and the normative foundation underlying most global institutions would gradually revert back to a more Westphalian character. I think that conclusion is premature, however, because China’s normative position is not without its own liabilities.

One problem is other states are not indifferent to moral concerns, even in a world where power politics continue to shape much of what they do. Displays of brutality, a callous disregard for the lives of innocent people, and other acts of state-sponsored cruelty are alarming and repellent to others—even when these actions are confined within the borders of a particular state. Even the most despotic regimes understand this tendency, which is why they go to great lengths to conceal such actions, to sanction or restrict those who point it out, and to concoct elaborate excuses to justify crimes that cannot be hidden. The broad (if still shallow) support for the Responsibility to Protect doctrine also suggests many autocracies are uncomfortable with the idea that anything goes within the borders of a particular state.

For this reason, Chinese efforts to promote a world order that legitimates arbitrary rule and where governments’ internal policies are immune from moral censure is bound to make others nervous. When governments insist they have the right to do anything they want within their borders, other states—including other autocracies—will wonder what they might do outside those borders if they are ever in a position to act as they pleased.

Privileging the sovereignty of existing states and their absolute authority within a set of borders also runs counter to the idea of national self-determination. Liberalism emphasizes the rights of individuals, but it has also been sympathetic to the idea that people with a distinct culture, language, and collective identity should be allowed to govern themselves. This ideal helped destroy the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, ended the era of European colonialism, and played no small role in the eventual breakup of the Soviet Union. A world order that facilitates the mistreatment of ethnic or national groups inside a country is not going to appeal to those who either aspire to govern themselves or merely seek a more equal status.

An obvious case in point is China’s heavy-handed efforts to suppress its Uyghur minority and gradually expunge Uyghur cultural identities. If the principles of sovereignty and noninterference are used to defend policies like these, they will lose some of their global appeal, and China’s efforts to chip away at some of the norms that underpin the present global order are likely to be less successful.

By comparison, how are liberal ideals likely to fare in the future?

Let’s be candid: The past two decades has been a rough patch for many of the world’s democracies, despite (or perhaps because of) the favorable position they enjoyed as the 20th century came to a close. The United States stumbled into several costly and unsuccessful wars, triggered a global financial crisis, and is presently facing a level of dysfunction and partisan division unseen since its Civil War. Japan has been treading water economically, Europe has faced recurring economic crises and illiberal challenges, and earlier hopes that India and Brazil would fulfill their geopolitical potential have been disappointed. Concerns about liberalism’s long-term appeal on the global stage are hardly groundless.

If one takes a longer view, however, liberal ideals look more appealing. Although the world’s major democracies have performed poorly as of late, their record throughout most of the 20th century is impressive. It is a mistake to assume—as some Chinese commentators have—the West is in a condition of terminal and self-inflicted decline. As authors James Scott and Amartya Sen have argued, liberal societies are less likely to make truly catastrophic blunders—such as Stalinist-era collectivization or Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward—and more likely to correct such errors when they do occur. From this perspective, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the worst responses to the coronavirus pandemic have been by illiberal populists with strong authoritarian tendencies, such as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and former U.S. President Donald Trump.

These thoughts lead me to the following conclusion. Americans (and others) who favor liberal ideals cannot assume such truths are “self-evident” or that the long arc of history inevitably favors them. If that arc bends toward justice, it will not be due to divine intervention, some hard-wired tendency in human nature, or deep historical teleology leading inevitably toward a predetermined (liberal) outcome. That arc will bend only if its proponents are more successful at demonstrating the superiority of their ideals, especially when compared with the alternative. That appears to be what the Biden administration is trying to do, but whether it succeeds will likely depend on whether the dysfunctional death spiral of disinformation that is currently distorting politics can be reversed.

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