Following the deterioration of China-US relations over the past six months, Chinese Communist Party Politburo member Yang Jiechi met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Hawaii on 17 June 2020. Brookings Institution researcher Li Cheng told The Washington Post in an interview that the Chinese viewed this meeting as a “Nixon coming to China” moment. While it is still too early to come to any conclusion, this meeting signified the restarting of high-level strategic diplomatic dialogue between both countries, which has stagnated for a long time. Its significance should not be neglected, especially since Pompeo’s words and deeds over the past couple of months have been one of the focal points in the face-off between China and the US.
After the bipolar world order ended with the collapse of the USSR, the US became increasingly confident of “peace under an American rule” and since the 1990s, began transforming the “unipolar moment” into a “unipolar world order”.
Even as we are cheered by a glimmer of hope in China-US relations, we should ponder over the deeper reasons for the state of China-US relations. Many people have blamed the US’s problems on US President Donald Trump’s populist politics, but this is unfair to him. Dissatisfaction within American society is not caused by Trump as it has been around for a long time.
Trump’s campaign slogan during the 2016 US presidential elections was “Make America Great Again”. While the slogan cannot be directly linked to his electoral success, his eventual win proved that the slogan had struck such a chord in people’s hearts. Behind this state of affairs lies the mix of anxiety American elite strategists have over the closing window of “strategically opportune time” for US international leadership, and the anger felt by ordinary Americans at the way the US has wasted its golden time for development.
From “unipolar moment” to “unipolar world order”
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, dissolution of the USSR, major changes in Eastern Europe, and the end of the Cold War, the US suddenly became the world’s only superpower. The George H. W. Bush administration adopted a cautious approach and had responded strategically to drastic changes in the international landscape then.
American political and strategic elites eventually took the end of the Cold War as a sign of the success of the American model. Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” and Charles Krauthammer’s “unipolar moment” are both testaments to America’s joy at victory and its ambition in creating a new world order. After the bipolar world order ended with the collapse of the USSR, the US became increasingly confident of “peace under an American rule” and since the 1990s, began transforming the “unipolar moment” into a “unipolar world order”.
From achieving bipartisan consensus on the Soviet Union, American political and diplomatic elites gradually converged on a radical grand strategy — a liberal international order centred on the US, or what is known as the “liberal hegemonic order”. This new world order is more radical because it not only demands that the international order be modified according to American ideals, it also calls for reforming the domestic order if it poses national security threats to the US.
Met with the opportunities presented by the aforementioned strategic consensus, three new concepts in post-Cold War American strategic thinking emerged to help locate the country’s main threats.
First, the so-called “failed states”, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Somalia, where US military intervention was carried out in the 1990s. Second, the so-called “rogue states”, such as Iraq, Iran, North Korea and so on. In the early 21st century, the US launched a war on Iraq, while relations between the US and North Korea, as well as between the US and Iran have long been highly tense. Third, the so-called “strategic competitors” who are not part of the liberal order, such as Russia and China. In the second decade of the 21st century, we are already seeing worsening US-Russia relations, and fluctuating China-US relations.
From this perspective, America seemed to see the US-dominant “unipolar moment” after the Cold War as a “strategically opportune time” to create a “unipolar world order”. This erroneous thinking peaked after the 9/11 attacks and became mainstream strategic thinking.
Watching others become successful has just strengthened their belief that the US has squandered their golden time. The core question in the minds of Americans is: “Who lost the US?”
Who lost the US?
Following the Iraq War, a wave of anti-US unilateralism swept the globe. Coupled with enormous financial burdens from the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, the global financial crisis of 2008 that started in the US made the American people lose interest in the ideological basis of the US’s post-Cold War grand strategy. American society started to think that the government had made mistakes in its foreign policies over the past 30 years, depleting valuable resources as it took misjudged risks, embarked on costly state-building endeavours abroad and flaunted its leadership capabilities.
In their minds, the country’s establishment elites have wasted the US’s window of “strategically opportune time” for doing better economically after the Cold War. At the same time, having witnessed the rise of emerging countries including China, they strongly believe that for the past 30 years, the US has been foolishly helping others grow. Thus, not only have these potential competitor states failed to meet expectations in behaving the way the US expects, they are increasingly anti-US and refuse to cooperate. Watching others become successful has just strengthened their belief that the US has squandered their golden time. The core question in the minds of Americans is: “Who lost the US?” This sort of anxiety and frustration made Trump president.
In other words, the people’s decreasing acceptance of a liberal international order is making it increasingly difficult for the US to lead the new world order.
In the face of serious doubts from the American people, the rapid rise of emerging countries, and the emergence of new multilateral global governance frameworks like the G20, American establishment political and strategic elites are increasingly anxious about the closing window of “strategically opportune time” for the creation of a new order after the Cold War. They are not only bombarded by the media’s frequent questions about the China and Russia threats, but have to deal with the widening disconnect between the promise of US global leadership under a unipolar order on one hand and the distrust of the American people on the other. In other words, the people’s decreasing acceptance of a liberal international order is making it increasingly difficult for the US to lead the new world order.
These new internal developments have resulted in an interesting but seemingly contradictory situation. After Trump became president, he has been assuaging the concerns of the people through his isolationist “America First” policy. But in his national security strategy, in the name of strategic continuity, he continues to hold China and Russia up as strategic competitors who threaten the US’s global supremacy. To some strategic elites, it then becomes very important to rebuild domestic support by seizing the last chance to build a unipolar order through the US’s superior strength that it still currently enjoys to bring about international influence.
The question “Who lost the US?” is crucial for the rebuilding of a new US consensus on foreign relations. If such fundamental disagreements cannot be resolved, all other types of effort would prove futile in the end.
Not only is the window for the US to develop a new global leadership model still available, but its potential is also limitless.
How America can truly be great again
From our earlier discussions, the key to getting rid of the people’s anger and the elites’ anxiety lies in the US regaining confidence. Additionally, one must realise that the interpretation of the US’s “strategically opportune time” for unipolar global leadership was mistaken to begin with. Not only is the window for the US to develop a new global leadership model still available, but its potential is also limitless. The key lies in the US’s ability to see it objectively and make adjustments in its strategic thinking by adapting to changing circumstances. If the US is able to make these adjustments, America can be great again.
Firstly, one has to recognise that the US is a major power that has made historically unprecedented contributions to the establishment of a new international order after the war. The collapse of the USSR at the end of the Cold War was not a result of the US’s disintegrative strategy. The US’s ability to lead, create, and establish international mechanisms such as the United Nations, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, International Monetary Fund, and World Bank after WWII proves that the US is an innovative country with a broad global mindset. Until today, these mechanisms still make up the basic framework of international relations.
The sudden end of the Cold War came as a surprise to American strategists. Their failure to predict the war’s end made strategists of the containment strategy during the Cold War — such as Zbigniew Brzezinski and George Frost Kennan — more cautious and wary of the US’s post-Cold War grand strategy. However, the new generation of strategic elites has been actively equating the collapse of the USSR to the success of America’s liberal international order expansion strategy. They have been thinking that unipolar peace and prosperity would be achieved if they stuck to it. However, after the Cold War, it turns out that things are not as simple as it seems.
...the US formed this network during the Cold War with the main goal of containing the Soviet Union. Its corresponding mechanism design and thinking habits are closely linked to the Cold War and thus unsuitable for new trends and developments in the post-Cold War era.
Secondly, the US’s global allies make up an important part of its soft power. However, its diplomatic toolbox that was mainly developed during the Cold War puts a limit on how well it can utilise these advantages. The US’s network of global allies and partners are undoubtedly important diplomatic resources to the US. Historically speaking, few major powers are able to develop as wide and sustainable a network of allies and partners as the US. A positive example is the Group of Seven (G7) that has long contributed to the coordination of Western developed economy policies and stability of the world economy.
On the other hand, however, the US formed this network during the Cold War with the main goal of containing the Soviet Union. Its corresponding mechanism design and thinking habits are closely linked to the Cold War and thus unsuitable for new trends and developments in the post-Cold War era. If the US is able to leverage on this network and lead the world in coming up with an agenda, a cost-sharing plan, and policies that coordinate efforts to tackle global issues such as climate change, energy crisis, and infectious disease, its global leadership would not weaken but become strengthened instead.
Managing the future of China-US relations
To the US, China-US relations are an important testing ground for the US to redefine international leadership and the way it interacts with the world. In actual fact, Trump and his predecessor Barack Obama are both aware of the same problem, which is how the US can rebuild its strategy under the scenario where the unipolar order cannot be fulfilled and the American people are increasingly unsupportive of US global leadership. With the US presidential elections scheduled for the end of the year, regardless of who emerges triumphant, the aforementioned frustrations of the people and anxieties of the elite remain. This brings about huge uncertainties for China-US relations.
The US’s success in redefining its “strategically opportune time for the establishment of a new global leadership model” is also very important to China’s need in seizing its “strategically opportune time for the further development of reform and opening up”.
China can do little to affect the US’s domestic politics, but it can facilitate the US’s strategic thinking transformation process by providing a conducive external environment. The US’s success in redefining its “strategically opportune time for the establishment of a new global leadership model” is also very important to China’s need in seizing its “strategically opportune time for the further development of reform and opening up”. In this sense, the meeting between Yang and Pompeo in Hawaii is a step forward in this direction.
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