The new year has arrived, as it so often does, with a flurry of reflections and resolutions. I have been thinking, for instance, about the biggest story we (or at least I) didn’t pay enough attention to in 2017: China.
The geopolitical rise of China is the most profound event of our era. Yet it is also too often forgotten as our attention is drawn to more urgent and noisy issues such as Russia’s election interference, North Korea’s weapons tests, and terror attacks. For the most part, China’s rise has been slow, subtle, and steady, and too often such changes in geopolitical power are wrongly interpreted as stasis.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if, looking back a decade from now, 2017 is remembered as the year China took on the role of the preeminent shaper of global order. Not that China wasn’t important before, of course. Its extraordinary growth in the previous 40 years has been a major factor in the global economy and in the reduction of global poverty, and Beijing has already played an important role on issues such as climate change.
But Beijing wasn’t the dominant, willful political actor in 1997 or 2007 that it was in 2017. What accounts for this change?
Part of the reason is American retreat, which started in the early years of this century when the overwhelming focus on terrorism and adventurism in the greater Middle East took America’s eye off the ball. It continued through much of President Obama’s two terms. And it is now accelerating as a result of President Trump’s deliberate abdication of America’s global leadership role. James M. Lindsay and I explore this topic further in our forthcoming book — The Empty Throne: How America Abdicated its Global Leadership Role. Look for it later this year.
But China’s newfound clout is not only America’s doing. Beijing took unprecedented steps in 2017 to translate economic power into geopolitical power. In his speech at Davos in January, President Xi Jinping announced China as a staunch defender of globalization and open markets. Last year Beijing also continued building up its presence in the South China Sea and firming up economic and political linkages spanning Eurasia via its ambitious “One Belt, One Road” scheme. In Europe, China set up its “16+1” initiative with a band of countries running from Albania in the south up through the Baltic states. China’s free trade agreement with Georgia, for example, just took effect this week.
In Africa, China’s first military base overseas was set up last year in Djibouti, following a tsunami of investment on the continent. The headquarters of the African Union was backed by Chinese funds, as was the new Ethiopia-to-Djibouti railroad that began commercial service this week. It’s a similar story in Latin America, which Xi Jinping declared last year was the “natural extension of the 21st century Maritime Silk Road.” As for international institutions like the United Nations, when Washington has threatened to cut resources, China has been quick to step in with money and manpower — as it did, again, last year. It is no coincidence, of course, that many moves by Beijing came about last year as President Xi Jinping began his second term and further consolidated his authority within the Chinese Communist Party and over the apparatuses of the state.
Nor has China been content with simply upholding the status quo. As several articles below reveal, Beijing is crafting a global order that is at best an illiberal challenge to the West, and at worst a direct threat to the United States.
For some, like President Trump’s former chief adviser Stephen Bannon, the appropriate response is alarm. “China’s everything,” Bannon is reported to have said. “Nothing else matters. We don’t get China right, we don’t get anything right. This whole thing is very simple. China is where Nazi Germany was in 1929 to 1930.” It’s not that simple, of course, and the most prudent course forward is somewhere been alarmism and indifference.
Nonetheless, as 2017 made clear, the competition is now very much underway. Which nation will do more to shape the international order going forward — the United States, which has played this role since 1945, or China, which wants to play this role for the next half century?
Now, as for new resolutions, there is no better way to commit to being well informed about the world than to attend one of the many events we have planned at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in the coming months. As always, I welcome your reflections on this topic or any other topic in This Week’s Reads.
Bryan Harris and Robin Harding/Financial Times
“If you start to shoot first, you better be prepared for a full range of counter-reactions.” That sage advice, as quoted in this smart article in the Financial Times, is from a former head of US Pacific Command and Central Command. As things stand now, however, the US military is not prepared for an all-out reprisal from Pyongyang. Yes, the US military could quickly launch a targeted and destructive attack on North Korea. But protecting the quarter of a million US citizens in South Korea and Japan from retaliation would require coordination on a scale that Washington cannot muster at a moment’s notice. Logistics win wars, but logistics also take time. And since starting a massive evacuation might itself trigger a preemptive attack by Pyongyang, Washington finds itself on edge but also reluctant either to attack or to prepare for a counterattack on a large scale.
Evan Osnos/The New Yorker
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump was a sharp critic of China, saying that Beijing’s actions amounted to the “greatest theft in the history of the world.” At the time, Trump was talking about trade imbalances. But as Evan Osnos details in this brilliant essay in the New Yorker, the more important steal looks to be Beijing moving in on Washington’s long-standing leadership role in the world. And “theft” is perhaps wrong the description here. After all, the Trump administration has been more than willing to open up space for China as it has enacted its “America First” agenda. If foreign policy can still be distilled into a concise phrase, then Osnos gives us a strong contender for that of the current administration: “Trump’s doctrine may come to be understood as retreating from the front.”
Fareed Zakaria/The Washington Post
“I would argue that the largest trend today is the decline of American influence,” writes Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post. “Not the decline of American power . . . but a decline of its desire and capacity to use that power to shape the world.” It’s an important distinction, one Zakaria makes by quoting from allies who now see the United States as willfully, unnecessarily, and unwisely retreating from its long-standing role in the world. For example, the German and Canadian foreign ministers have been particularly vocal about this abdication by the Washington. Meanwhile, Zakaria adds, China is “blazing a new trail” in creating an illiberal-tinged alternative to the postwar order.
Mark Landler/The New York Times
President Trump, Mark Landler writes in this smart essay in the New York Times, “has transformed the world’s view of the United States from a reliable anchor of the liberal, rules-based international order into something more inward-looking and unpredictable.” In a series of revealing vignettes, several reported for the first time, Landler details how allies and partners have responded to President Trump’s erratic and idiosyncratic leadership. “His Twitter posts,” Landler writes of the president, “delivered without warning or consultation, often make a mockery of his administration’s policies and subvert the messages his emissaries are trying to deliver abroad.” Just as worrying, the president’s in-person meetings with foreign leaders are no better than his electronic missives at dispelling uncertainty and alarm.
Reuel Marc Gerecht/Wall Street Journal
While the reasoning behind President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is still a bit hazy, the result could not be clearer, writes Reuel Marc Gerecht in the Wall Street Journal. The Palestinians have, in a sense, already lost. “Recognizing the extent and irreversibility of Palestinian defeat is the first step in the long process of salvaging Palestinian society from its paralyzing morass,” Gerecht says. The Jerusalem decision, then, should be viewed as part of a larger, ongoing, and much-needed deck clearing in the long moribund peace process, which cannot start in earnest until the Palestinians “get their own house in order,” Gerecht writes.
Walter Russell Mead/Wall Street Journal
Who doesn’t enjoy a well-argued historical analogy? In this op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Walter Russell Mead makes the intriguing argument that the Trump administration’s national security strategy bears more than a passing resemblance to Britain’s “blue water” strategy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Then, “blue water” advocates called for turning away from alliances in Europe to focus instead on Britain's own wealth and power, not least on its superior navy. Now, Mead argues, a similar strategy by the Trump administration promises to put American power above concerns for multilateral institutions. “This is a vision that appears to blend the pragmatic approach of the professionals in President Trump’s national-security team with the less disciplined but still sometimes acute insights that helped him win the election,” Mead writes.
Philip Zelikow/Foreign Policy
Of course, the problem with historical analogies is that they never quite fit exactly. In fact, some distort more than clarify, as Philip Zelikow argues about Walter Russell Mead’s “Blue Water” comparison. “The prosperity is not in the water,” Zelikow writes, but rather in the colonies which the oceanic trade routes connected to Britain a century ago. More to the point, the “blue water” advocates in early twentieth century are better understood as the multinational globalists of their day, supporting new international linkages. They were not, according to Zelikow, the offshore balancers of Mead’s imagining. Nor, Zelikow concludes, should anyone be so quick to see national power and multilateral institutions as squared off in a zero-sum conflict with one another — either then or now.
Marc Santora/The New York Times
As near as makes no difference Warsaw is the same distance from Brussels as Moscow. Yet Poland has long seen itself as leaning West, even when it was a part of the Soviet Union, writes Marc Santora in the New York Times. In fact, Poland’s steadfast commitment to the European Union in recent years makes its new spat with Brussels all the more unusual. Last year Warsaw set in motion a judicial overhaul that effectively put Polish courts under the power of the ruling political party. Brussels was quick to criticize this action, and sharply. But as Santora notes, this isn’t simply a case of Poland antagonizing the West while quietly sidling up to Russia, as Hungary has done in recent years, for instance. “The dispute with the European Union is a more complex, and uniquely Polish, affair,” Santora explains.
Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima, and Greg Jaffe/The Washington Post
Deceit and misinformation, globe-spanning implications, a cast of characters ranging from computer hackers and government officials to Hollywood executives — the story has all the elements of a pulpy spy thriller. But it’s all real. This report in the Washington Post pulls back the curtain on Moscow’s disinformation campaign abroad and Washington’s varied and at times slapdash attempts to respond. The level of detail is astounding, as is the narrative provided by the reporters which makes sense of a complex universe of disinformation and counter-disinformation. But just as important is what is revealed about Russia’s clear and straightforward goal: sowing discord abroad and undermining US standing in the world.
Anne Barnard and Maria Abi-Habib/The New York Times
No one would describe politics in the Middle East as simple and straightforward. But an especially complex and bizzare episode occurred late last year when Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, announced his resignation on Saudi television, seemingly against his will. As Anne Barnard and Maria Abi-Habib explain in the New York Times, the architect behind this unusual episode was the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. In exerting pressure on Hariri, Prince Mohammed hoped to pressure Hezbollah in Lebanon — or rather, to pressure Iran, Hezbollah’s chief backer. More precisely, Prince Mohammed wanted to target Tehran for its backing of fighters in Yemen through Hezbollah in Lebanon. Confused? Don’t worry. Barnard and Abi-Habib do a brilliant job of pulling out and explaining each of the relevant points.