China-U.S. relations are, and will continue to be, a defining feature of the future international order, and stable evolution of that relationship is relevant not only to the future welfare of the two nations but also to the world. Variables having potential impact on the relationship are numerous. Ideology being a key variable in political stability, how the United States defines itself will be crucial — whether it will define itself as a nation state or an ideologue.
In international relations, ideology usually refers to a set of political beliefs or ideas that characterize a particular culture. Promotion of a particular ideology is sometimes regarded as natural — the U.S., for example, although it has proved to be very detrimental to the stability of the world.
Ideological competition during the Cold War was a critical source of tension. Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. secretary of state and a renowned strategist, was among those who often raised the choice — whether to be a nation-state or promote an ideological cause. On many occasions, Kissinger asked whether Iran is primarily motivated by self-interest as a nation state or by a religious cause. He suggested that U.S.-Iran relations would have no problems if Iran were to see itself as a nation-state, since nation-states behave based on a calculation of interests. If, on the other hand, Iran aligns with the cause of radical Islamic revolution, U.S.-Iran relations will have no future because the U.S. cannot accept the promotion of such an ideology — either in the region or around the globe — because it poses challenges to U.S. interests.
Kissinger might have rightly framed the question. If every country were to see itself as a nation-state, relations would be much peaceful and the world would enjoy better order. Unfortunately, he may have failed to convince politicians and decision-makers in America to see the U.S. as a nation state rather than an ideological engine.
The question he raised about Iran applies equally to China-U.S. relations.
Luckily, President Donald Trump and the incumbent administration have little interest in promoting ideology. It seems Trump cares much more than anything else about trade and some other economic issues. He is, perhaps, too pragmatic and direct about U.S. economic interests, which has sometimes annoyed the rest of the world.
It is also lucky that some scholars and politicians have realized that Western-style democracy does not apply on the soil of other parts of the world. For instance, the Middle East region has proved many times that the Western approach creates more problems than it solves. In China-U.S. relations, some American scholars and politicians have also abandoned the illusion of changing China’s political system.
Yet, the U.S. has long regarded itself as both a nation-state and a promoter of the cause of Western liberal democracy. The number of scholars and politicians with this view is large, and recent years have witnessed the reemergence of ideology in U.S. policy, particularly toward China.
Pushed by people with this mindset, the U.S. Congress in 2019 passed a bill in the name of promoting human rights and democracy in Hong Kong, and another criticizing China’s counterterrorism measures in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region — the establishment of training centers — as an abuse of human rights.
American academics and media have produced numerous papers, articles and reports criticizing China’s policy on many domestic issues. Unfortunately, many of those who wrote have never been to Xinjiang, Hong Kong or even any part of China.
All of this has seriously undermined China’s sovereignty and efforts to maintain internal stability. China does respect human rights, a principle written into the country’s Constitution. It also values democracy. What China cannot accept is human rights and democracy as defined by Western criteria. It has its own ways to achieve political development.
The rise of ideology can also be seen in American media comments about China’s latest fight against the novel coronavirus epidemic. As the whole Chinese nation fought tenaciously against the virus, a commentary was published with the headline “A Communist Coronavirus” on Jan. 29 in The Wall Street Journal, written by Daniel Henninger, deputy editor of the newspaper. Taking the opportunity to comment on China’s efforts fighting the virus, the article turned into a demonization of China’s political system. It argues that this system will eventually damage the world, either by accident or intent, disregarding the fact that China’s political system works particularly well when it comes to containing pandemics.
When nation states interact with each other, they bargain and negotiate over interests while maintaining good relations. What China and the U.S. did recently in arriving at their phase one trade agreement is a good example. Despite fierce bargaining, the leadership on both sides expressed satisfaction with the deal.
But when ideology is involved, things get much more complicated. The latest reemergence of the ideological approach in the U.S. might not be like the revolutionary ideologies of Iran 40 years ago, but promoting Western ideas, concepts and beliefs grown primarily on American ground to other parts of the world will produce a very negative impact on international relations. It will undermine the political security of other nation states, which have different cultural backgrounds. Issues such as political security and sovereignty are not bargaining chips and are not available for concession.
To put it more specifically, America’s promotion of its ideology could undermine Chinese confidence in its sincerity. Concerned about the promotion of ideology, China may have good reason to feel threatened on issues of political security, as well as reason to feel frustrated about the prospects of resolving disputes with the U.S. through negotiation. Such undercurrents will add difficulty to the development of stable and cooperative China-U.S. relations and put relations between the two into a more difficult place.
To sum up, it is the U.S. itself that has regarded itself as both a nation-state and an ideological promoter of the cause of Western ideology, and this has been detrimental to relations between nations. The relationship between China and the U.S. in the future will remain healthy only if the U.S. defines itself exclusively as a nation-state. The rise of ideology in U.S. foreign policy can only create big challenges.