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Foreign Policy

Is the U.S. Part of the World, or Is the World Part of the U.S.?

Nov 23, 2018
  • He Yafei

    Former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs


Recent tensions between China and the U.S. have increased uncertainty and raised concern for the China-U.S. relationship and the wider world order. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s Cold War speech and Henry Paulson’s talk of an “economic iron curtain” left many people wondering if we are on the cusp of a new Cold War. Traditional pro-Chinese factions within the U.S. have either watched on silently or fallen in line. On the positive side, polls show that young people in the U.S. have more positive views of China, trade negotiations are moving ahead, albeit with difficulty, and the recent Diplomatic and Security Dialogue has prepared for the meeting between the two heads of state in Argentina, showing that channels for bilateral discussion remain open.

It is of vital importance to understand the United States. An important question to answer is: Is the U.S. part of the world, or is the world part of the U.S.?

In the 40 years since China and the U.S. established diplomatic relations, the two countries have had cooperation as well as their differences, but cooperation has dominated as common interests have outweighed differences. The two countries have worked together to promote globalization, maintain the international system and world order, and played important roles in securing world peace and economic prosperity. Their ability to improve relations in the face of adversity has been due to their willingness to find common ground in each of their development strategies. At the same time, world multi-polarization and economic globalization have provided a favorable international environment for China-U.S. cooperation. One could say that internal and external factors have been equally important. China joining the WTO to promote China-U.S. economic cooperation, China and the U.S. participating in the P5+1 model in the Iranian nuclear deal, cooperating in six-party talks to resolve the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, and working together to promote the Copenhagen Accord and the Paris Agreement on climate change — all these examples prove that the U.S. needs the cooperation of other countries, especially China. The U.S., therefore, is part of the world.

In recent years, the U.S.’ strategic view of China has changed, as containment has come to dominate the American mindset. In Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?, the author Graham T. Allison looks at 16 cases in which a rising power has confronted an established power and concludes that the U.S. and China will inevitably fall into the trap and go to war, and the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy would seem to support this assertion. However, there are at least two major misunderstandings bound up in this judgment. The first is that it ignores the fact that interests of all countries, especially China and the US, are interdependent in the era of globalization. The second is that it places the U.S. above the rest of the world by assuming the world is under U.S. dominion, thereby ignoring the rights of China and the rest of the world to develop.

After the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the international system was dominated by Europe, with Asia, Africa, and Latin America on the periphery. After World War II, the world fell under the dominance of the U.S. The West, therefore, formed a view of world order that was centered on Europe (later the U.S.). Although the United Nations-based international system contains the idea of the democratization of international relations, the “center-periphery” system that had been in place for nearly 400 years led to the entrenched belief in strength and zero-sum thinking. Some countries still superstitiously cling to the law of the jungle, hoping to use military and economic power to subjugate the world and crush opponents.

As we all know, in this new historical era of great change, development, and adjustments, regardless of how strong a country is, every country is part of this world, and there needs to be a rule-based global governance system to manage it. The existing global governance system gives countries the opportunity to coexist and compete peacefully. Moreover, due to the large number of nuclear weapons to ensure mutual assured destruction (MAD), the option of using war to resolve issues has been basically removed. As such, seeking to make the world one’s own and clinging onto the "center-periphery" world view runs contrary to the trend of history. Only by safeguarding the interests of the community and building a community of shared future for mankind will all countries be able to move forward.

From this perspective, it seems that the US has actually betrayed the ideas of democracy and freedom held dear by its founding fathers and has become entangled in an imperial complex from which it is having difficulty extracting itself. This mode of thinking of the superiority of Western civilization rooted in American exceptionalism has severely biased the U.S.’ perception of the world and of China’s development, which is gradually constricting China-U.S. relations. In addition to this, U.S. President Donald Trump has championed the America First cause, leading the U.S. to confront Russia, place sanctions on Iran, exert pressure on China, and test relations with traditional allies, all of which has caused tensions in many regions and in bilateral relations, and led to disorder and fragmentation of global governance.

At a time when the world is undergoing changes, turbulence, and adjustments, conflicts of interest are inevitable. If America insists that the world is part of the U.S., it will see imaginary enemies everywhere. If an imaginary enemy becomes a true enemy, then traps will appear. This will not only harm the U.S., but the rest of the world. In The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: A History of Now, British author Michael Burleigh warns the U.S. that it should not imagine China as an upgraded version of the German Empire and that it is dangerous and irresponsible to portray China as a ubiquitous threat.

President Xi Jinping promised, "No matter how much China develops, we will not threaten anyone, subvert the current international system or pursue the establishment of our own sphere of influence." The Chinese leader’s "Three-No" commitment embodies China's world view, in which it sees itself as part of the world. One can only hope that the U.S. will abandon its old way of thinking, realize that the U.S. is also part of the world and start to treat China and the rest of the world as equals to achieve mutually beneficial cooperation.

In World Order, Henry Kissinger stated that the current world order will not last because it is mainly a manifestation of the U.S. concept of order, which is not universally legitimate. It is, therefore, destined to face a crisis when a major shift in power relations occurs. Any crisis of world order will be a crisis for the U.S. Ultimately, this crisis will be the result of the U.S. misunderstanding itself and the world.

The current world order is a set of global governance systems and rules centered on international organizations such as the United Nations, which is based on the Westphalian system of sovereign states. It is an open and expanding order. There are currently three major problems in the world: First, the gap between rich and poor is widening, with market benefits and social equality proving difficult to reconcile; second, developing countries do not have enough of a voice on the global stage, and the transition of global governance from being Western-dominated to being shared by East and West is moving very slowly; third, geopolitical contradictions are deepening, interfering with the consensus of the international community on comprehensive cooperation. It is imperative that world order be adjusted.

Einstein once said, “Problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.” He was talking about scientific research, but it applies just as well to geopolitics.

At the APEC Summit in 2018, President Xi Jinping clearly stated, “We must strengthen rule-based global governance if we are to achieve stability and development. Rules should be formulated by the international community, not in a might-is-right way. Once the rules are made, they should not be followed or bent as one sees fit, and they should not be applied with double standards for selfish agendas.”

Many conflicts around the world have been caused by the U.S. resorting to force and abusing its hegemony. The reason for this is its idea that the world is part of the U.S. Is it not time that the U.S. abandon this logic that justifies suppressing opponents by force to maintain U.S. dominance? For the international community, this only leads to what Samuel Huntington calls “a society that is truly helpless and hopeless.”

The truth is that the old world order is unsustainable and the old way of thinking is illogical. The view of the world dominated by the U.S., which is based on American exceptionalism, is outdated. A new world order guided by the establishment of a global community with a shared future should be our main aim. The U.S. remains a strong world power, but to maintain its position it must be part of the world and continue to cooperate with China and other parties to strengthen rule-based global governance and gradually achieve the smooth transition to a new world order. Coexistence requires tolerance; mutual benefits require cooperation; development requires openness; prosperity requires peace. These should be the basic tenets of the new world order.

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