US President Donald Trump announced on 29 May 2020 that the US would withdraw its membership from the World Health Organization (WHO). This is expected because he had, on 14 April 2020, announced that the US would temporarily halt its funding to the WHO. Regarding the Covid-19 outbreak, Trump had accused the WHO of being China-centric in its decisions as well as failing to share information, provide recommendations and declare it a pandemic in a timely manner. “The WHO … must be held accountable. It’s time, after all of these decades,” he said.
Trump’s habit of “withdrawal” is now regarded as the norm. Over the years, the US has withdrawn from agreements or organisations such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Global Compact on Migration, UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or what is known as the Iran nuclear deal, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) between the US and the former USSR, and the Paris Agreement on climate change. Is the withdrawal from the WHO yet another example of this behaviour?
Labelling these as “withdrawals” may be oversimplifying the matter. Since Trump came to power, the orientation of US foreign policy has undergone a transformation from going against economic sense to that of following more normal power calculations. Initially, Trump’s slogan was “Make America Great Again” as he believed that the US must reduce its overseas commitments because it had over-extended and over-burdened itself with maintaining international order. This is in fact nothing new because Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, had already done so without explicitly using the “America First” slogan or, like Trump, adopting a radical “withdrawal” policy.
In addition, it is more likely that Trump exercised his acumen as a businessman to calculate the costs of overseas US commitments. When the costs exceed benefits, he will reduce involvement, even with his allies. Over the years, Trump has been entangled with European allies, Japan, South Korea and others in cost-sharing for the various alliances.
A fact that cannot be ignored is that as the US hastily withdraws, the emergent China has become more active on the international stage.
The Trump administration’s conduct of “withdrawal”, being overly aggressive and US-centric, is naturally opposed by the US elites and its allies. In their view, withdrawal indicates a decline in the US's international influence, and is a sign that the superpower is not conducting itself like one. US withdrawal is also opposed by the US hardliners because it means, to a large extent, that the US is freely conceding international space to China or other countries.
A fact that cannot be ignored is that as the US hastily withdraws, the emergent China has become more active on the international stage. For example, according to Western observers, China has secured leadership positions in four out of fifteen specialised UN agencies, namely, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The Director-General of the WHO is regarded by the West to be pro-China.
The impact of insufficient public goods on international order
The current US behaviour signals the collapse of the existing international order. The US became the world’s largest economy in the 1890s. The US has been involved in global affairs since World War I and led the West to establish the post-war international order after World War II. International organisations, centred around the UN, constitute the institutional embodiment of this international order. For a long time after the war, the US was indeed able to play the leadership role in this international system.
The US, being the world’s largest economy, provides the largest share of global public goods required for the existence and development of the international order.
Despite calls for the democratisation of the system, it is in reality more difficult to democratise an international system than a domestic one. For example, although all member countries of the UN or international organisation have the right to speak, they do not have the same power within the organisations. The US, being the world’s largest economy, provides the largest share of global public goods required for the existence and development of the international order. This is termed by Robert Gilpin and known in academia as “hegemonic stability”, or a structure in which a strong state dominates the weaker states in the system. Similarly, the “Kindleberger Trap”, proposed by Joseph Nye from Harvard University in recent years, warns about the failure of the incoming dominant power to provide global public goods. Simply put, the sustenance and stability of the international order require sufficient global public goods.
US leadership in the international system does not mean that the US alone is providing global public goods, and it requires several conditions to be met.
First, while the US provides the lion’s share of global public goods, it also requires other countries, especially its allies and mostly developed Western countries, to be the providers too. The US possesses the ability to require other countries to do so and they have obliged.
Second, the openness of the international system means that although the US dominates the international system, it does not exclusively enjoy its power. The US opens the system to other countries, mainly its Western allies, requiring members to accept the system’s hierarchy and US leadership.
Third, in exchange for the acceptance of US leadership, the US avails its huge market to these countries.
Regardless of the conditions, hegemonic status is secured because hegemons transcend their own interests to safeguard others’ interests, as put forward by the Italian neo-Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci.
... Trump is correct to shift emphasis from international to domestic. If the US continues to expand and over-commits itself overseas, it will decline faster.
Today, the US has very rapidly lost its ability to provide international leadership. It does not seem to have avoided the logic behind the rise and fall of all previous empires, namely emergence, expansion, over-expansion, weakness and decline. While no one will forecast the final decline of the US, there is consensus that the US today has weakened and correspondingly declined.
Seen through this lens, Trump is correct to shift emphasis from international to domestic. If the US continues to expand and over-commits itself overseas, it will decline faster.
The decline of the US does not necessarily mean the collapse of the international order. If the US is unable to provide global public goods, other countries can take over. In the global village created by globalisation, countries are highly interdependent and have a greater need for sufficient global public goods. Globalisation has also given rise to many emerging countries, including China. They are strong economies that are able to provide the necessary public goods required by the international order. If so, it would seem that there is no threat to the international order.
Sharing global power to maintain international order
However, a crisis that threatens international order is not caused by the lack of providers of public goods; the shortage of public goods is caused by international politics. To put it bluntly, global public goods are the attractive packaging for international power politics. In essence, international leadership underlies global public goods. Gilpin’s “hegemonic stability” theory can better explain the true nature of international politics better than global public goods.
This is also the essence of the contest between China and the US on the global stage today. As the US loses its ability to provide international leadership, China is rapidly emerging and willing to assume greater international responsibilities or provide more global public goods. This is the basis of the “stakeholder” concept proposed by Robert Zoellick, former US trade representative, deputy secretary of state and president of the World Bank Group, that the US maintains the existing international order through the sharing of global power with China.
Although weakened, the US is still the country with the most superlatives, including the largest economy, largest market, most innovative enterprise system and strongest military power.
China, the second largest economy, has become the strongest defender of the post-war system after many years. Instead of charting a new course, the emergent China has chosen to join the existing international system and elevate its status to play a greater international role by introducing reforms to the system. On the surface, China has made the best choice for itself and the US because it avoids causing shocks to the existing international system.
However, the problem is more complex in international politics. China faces enormous challenges in maintaining the post-war system or playing a bigger role in the existing system.
First, the US will not withdraw from the international political arena. Although weakened, the US is still the country with the most superlatives, including the largest economy, largest market, most innovative enterprise system and strongest military power. A country with so many superlatives will neither withdraw from the international political arena nor share global power with other countries, especially one which is so different in culture, value system, ideology and political system. This is unlike Britain’s peaceful transfer of international hegemony to the US after World War II. Britain’s graceful exit for the US to assume international leadership was possible because of their similarities. In addition, due to the wars among the European countries, no Western power had the ability to lead the world, except for the US that had avoided the war.
Why should China challenge the US for world leadership, when it is already a huge strain for the powerful US?
Second, even if the US loses its ability to lead the world, will the West accept China as the new leader? Although the world does not belong to the West, like it or not, the international order was established and has always been dominated by the West. While the openness of the international order permits participation from non-Western countries, no non-Western country has ever led the world. Without acceptance by the West, it will be very difficult for China to do so, even if other countries accept China’s leadership. At least for now, the West does not intend to accept China’s leadership. Instead, the West is always wary about whether China will secure international leadership. In the fight against Covid-19, the West has taken every effort to prevent China from doing so, for which the reasons are self-evident.
The Chinese belief that hegemons will decline
Third, and more importantly, China has always expressed its lack of desire to compete with the US for world leadership because objectively it does not possess sufficient ability to do so. Although China is the world’s second largest economy that will surpass the US in the near future, China’s per capita income is still much lower than that of the US. Its technology, innovation, military and enterprise systems still lag behind the US. During the media conference at the recent “two sessions” in China, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang emphasised that China has 600 million people whose monthly income is 1,000 RMB (about S$198). This shows that China will remain a developing country for a long time. In addition, China does not desire to lead the world because the Chinese believe that hegemons will decline. The British Empire, Japan and the Soviet Union have all declined. Why should China challenge the US for world leadership, when it is already a huge strain for the powerful US?
China benefits from being part of the international system. China needs to, and is willing to, maintain this international order by cooperating with other countries, especially the US. Interested in Zoellick’s “stakeholder” concept, China believes that China-US cooperation will solve any problem. Conversely, China-US conflict will be disastrous for the world.
The resultant counterbalance among countries means that radical reforms of international organisations cannot be achieved. With low effectiveness and continued corruption, they will be less able to meet the needs of member countries.
However, the US believes otherwise, that it is a matter of time that China challenges the US for world leadership if China continues to develop.
While the US has lost its strong leadership edge, it will not voluntarily abandon the international organisations. China currently has neither the requisite leadership capabilities nor willingness to lead, and does not want to be the one that destroys the existing system. Meanwhile, the West wants to maintain the existing international order while being vigilant against China. These imply that existing international organisations will continue to exist, but they will become increasingly politicised and consequently the tools of international political struggles among the major sovereign countries. The resultant counterbalance among countries means that radical reforms of international organisations cannot be achieved. With low effectiveness and continued corruption, they will be less able to meet the needs of member countries.
The world is making the transformation to “one world, two systems, and two markets”.
Clearly, this is not in the interest of all countries. How will the major countries respond, and what is the new international order? Although many diplomats and foreign affairs observers, including Henry Kissinger, are predicting the emergence of a new international order, its arrival is fraught with challenges. History has proven that a new international order will certainly not be created by modifying the existing one, but will arise from the extension of regional and localised order.
The world is making the transformation to “one world, two systems, and two markets”. This is evident in the China-US trade war or the tussles, triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, between China and the US as well as between China and the West. The weakening of international organisations will render “one world” superfluous, making “two systems, two markets” the reality.
This is unsurprising because despite the UN-centric international system since World War II, many international issues have been resolved through other Western institutions such as the Group of Seven (G7). China has already begun complementing the existing international system through the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the New Development Bank (NDB) established by the BRICS, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The British government has proposed a D10 (ten democracies comprising G7 and Australia, South Korea and India) to compete with China in 5G technology. If another Group of X (GX) appears in the future to support another system and market, it may be attributed to international politics instead of China’s original intention. With continued globalisation, it will not be surprising if some countries are simultaneously members of two systems and two markets.
China’s potential response to render the international system and market competitive for sustainable development is an important issue that must be separately examined.