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Foreign Policy

The US’ Dilemmas

Feb 28 , 2018
  • He Yafei

    Former Vice Minister, Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The choices the US makes in 2018 will not only shape its strategic orientation in the 21st century, it will also affect the future of world peace and economic prosperity.
The first challenge that comes to mind is its relations with China. The US has been at a loss on how to cope with a rising China. Should it accept China as it is or view it as a “revisionist power” and a challenge to America’s hegemonic position?

To put it simply, is China going to be a strategic competitor or a cooperative partner to the US? This will be a historically significant choice for the US to make and it is definitely not an easy decision.

There are always different voices in the US on China, and the difference now is sharper than ever. On the one hand, the Trump Administration lists China as America’s major strategic competitor and challenger to its national interest, its economy and value system in its National Security Strategy Report, Defense Strategy Report, and Trump’s State of the Union Address. On the other, many American foreign policy experts and media commenetators, representing the East Coast Establishment’s China policy of “engagement and hedging”, are vehemently criticizing Trump’s handling of issues related to China.

The true danger lies in relating China as if it were already a real foe. This may drive the US into the Thucydides Trap, even though everyone knows the US actions towards China so far, are merely the result of old habits - a habitual inclination to hinder China’s growth to be a world major power, rather than a firm anti-China policy.

The second challenge is both domestic and global for the US in the form of the increasing disintegration of the US-made “Liberal International Order”. Martin Wolf commented, with typical British understatement, that “today the liberal international order is sick”. Trump, a year into his presidency, has repeatedly attacked the very fabric of the liberal international order embodied in global governance of security treaties, trade arrangements, the open market, and multilateral institutions like the WTO and UNESCO, seriously undermining the governance system established by the US after the end of WWII.

Today, effective global governance has become a luxury and necessary global commons to maintain world order are much more difficult to come by, making “governance deficiency and disorder” more a rule than an exception, causing greater uncertainty.

What is more, what Trump has been doing in upending the liberal order has continued to garner support from America’s blue-collar workers and other people on the same low rung of the social ladder, even though elites and establishment elements of both Democratic and Republican Parties are viciously opposing it. The end result is more hijacking of important decisions by party politics and deeper division and stronger animosity in American society as a whole.

“America First” is appealing to Americans as Brexit is to the British, leaving many people wondering whether Americans can reconcile continuing global cooperation to maintain the current international system with the domestic legitimacy the Trump Administration has been so desperately seeking.

This challenge has far-reaching consequences both for the US and the rest of the world. Will the US embrace globalization and global governance as it is, or ditch the whole thing and remake it to its own liking? Unfortunately in this age, the US cannot call the shots like it did during the “American Century”. The “American Moment” has passed like water under the bridge though President Trump in his State of the Union Address wishes to restore it.

The third challenge is related to the diminishing relevance of neo-liberal economic model and the Washington Consensus versus the increasingly attractive economic developmental path China has taken which has produced an economic miracle as demonstrated by China’s political stability, economic growth, and social cohesion.

China is not exporting such a “model”, because political, economic, social and cultural conditions vary from country to country. Yet many countries believe that China’s success certainly offers an alternative path to economic prosperity while being able to preserve their own political and cultural heritage. One definitely can’t argue with that.

It is up to history to make any determinative judgment on this issue.

The US is now deeply troubled by increasing strategic anxiety as it has dominated global economic management for decades with its “liberal and rule-based economic system” which it believes is now challenged by what China has achieved.

What counts in today’s world is not just “hard power” such as economic and military power, but also soft power constituting cultural affinity and economic models. In fact it is common sense that each country needs to make its own development model by adapting its domestic conditions to the changing global reality. “One size fits all” will never work in the real world.

For a person, it is obvious that one needs to learn all one’s life and always adapt to the society one lives in. The same applies to a country, a nation no matter how big or small, rich or poor. Will the US adapt to a world with a changed balance of power and with many competing models of economic growth? It remains an open question and also a dilemma for the superpower the US still is.

For the sake of building a better future, everyone expects the US to make a wise choice on these three difficult questions.

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