The CFR Does China

Over at the Lost Laowai blog, Ryan links to a poorly-titled* LA Times oped by Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Fellow and foreign policy scholar Walter Russell Mead, in which Mead looks at the “shrinkage” of the Chinese economy in the latest World Bank data and explains how this and other problems inherent to the Chinese politico-economic structure mean that Beijing won’t be challenging the US for the role of hegemon anytime soon.

Mead looks at other implications of the data, especially in regard to global poverty, but his fixation on China’s threat capability leaves Ryan wondering where all the hostility and pro-American talk came from. However, Mead’s not a journalist so one shouldn’t expect neutral journalistic positions. He is a scholar and proponent of American exceptionalism (which sees America as special and uniquely important in world affairs), and his talk on China’s military capabilities reflects the ongoing discussions within the CFR about whether China is a military threat to the US, an economic threat, or a strategic partner (to use Clinton-era talking points).

Most of what I have to say about Mead’s article I’ve left in the Lost Laowai comment section, but Mead’s not the only person at the council commenting on China. The CFR decided to start off 2008 by focusing on China in the January/February edition of Foreign Affairs, the council’s flagship publication — a journal I used to geek out to when I was still in university. While most of the articles online are behind a subscription firewall, the website features a full-length essay by political scientist G. John Ikenberry that treads ground similar to Mead while giving us more ideas to chew on.

Basically, Ikenberry looks at the perennial topic of American decline — which talking heads have been warning about since before I was born — and asks whether China’s rise will topple the Western liberal order. His short answer is no.

Let’s go to the man himself:

… The rise of China does not have to trigger a wrenching hegemonic transition. The U.S.-Chinese power transition can be very different from those of the past because China faces an international order that is fundamentally different from those that past rising states confronted. China does not just face the United States; it faces a Western-centered system that is open, integrated, and rule-based, with wide and deep political foundations. The nuclear revolution, meanwhile, has made war among great powers unlikely — eliminating the major tool that rising powers have used to overturn international systems defended by declining hegemonic states. Today’s Western order, in short, is hard to overturn and easy to join.


As it faces an ascendant China, the United States should remember that its leadership of the Western order allows it to shape the environment in which China will make critical strategic choices. If it wants to preserve this leadership, Washington must work to strengthen the rules and institutions that underpin that order — making it even easier to join and harder to overturn. U.S. grand strategy should be built around the motto “The road to the East runs through the West.” It must sink the roots of this order as deeply as possible, giving China greater incentives for integration than for opposition and increasing the chances that the system will survive even after U.S. relative power has declined.

Those of us with foreign policy backgrounds know where this is going.

Ikenberry begins by sketching out basic power transition theory for the readers: the idea that a great power will leverage its economic might to become a hegemon (and in some variants of this theory, enforce a “hegemonic peace”) and order the international (or regional) system around that power’s needs, yet when a rising power sees its economy reach parity with the hegemon, the system faces a crisis point as the rising power must choose to cooperate with or topple the politico-economic system established by the hegemon. To explain with an example, according to proponents of this theory, 19th century hegemon Great Britain used war to defeat Germany, a rising power at the start of the 20th century, but later on, allowed another rising power, America, to peacefully inherit Britain’s hegemonic position and the international system created by the British. Today, naturally, America remains the hegemon and the role of challenger is played by China, and many scholars ask, what happens next?

To Ikenberry, the United States has remained hegemon for so long thanks in part to the remarkable international order constructed by Roosevelt and others at the close of the Second World War. As I said, we know where this is going — international liberal institutionalism. Ikenberry praises the liberal trade regimes (listen to the sounds of clenched teeth among Democrats), the primus inter pares nature of American leadership (my words, not his; Ikenberry claims that America leads by consensus, which I take to mean leading like a prime minister rather than an emperor or king), and the international institutions that have spread norms and fostered cooperation (he cites the United Nations but NATO and the World Bank are more palatable examples to most UN-phobic Americans). When the moment comes, China, in Ikenberry’s eyes, will recognize the benefits of remaining in the system, rather than upsetting the balance.

His proof? China’s current enthusiasm for participation in international economic institutions:

China is already a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a legacy of Roosevelt’s determination to build the universal body around diverse great-power leadership. This gives China the same authority and advantages of “great-power exceptionalism” as the other permanent members. The existing global trading system is also valuable to China, and increasingly so. Chinese economic interests are quite congruent with the current global economic system — a system that is open and loosely institutionalized and that China has enthusiastically embraced and thrived in. State power today is ultimately based on sustained economic growth, and China is well aware that no major state can modernize without integrating into the globalized capitalist system; if a country wants to be a world power, it has no choice but to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). The road to global power, in effect, runs through the Western order and its multilateral economic institutions.

China not only needs continued access to the global capitalist system; it also wants the protections that the system’s rules and institutions provide. The WTO’s multilateral trade principles and dispute-settlement mechanisms, for example, offer China tools to defend against the threats of discrimination and protectionism that rising economic powers often confront. The evolution of China’s policy suggests that Chinese leaders recognize these advantages: as Beijing’s growing commitment to economic liberalization has increased the foreign investment and trade China has enjoyed, so has Beijing increasingly embraced global trade rules. It is possible that as China comes to champion the WTO, the support of the more mature Western economies for the WTO will wane. But it is more likely that both the rising and the declining countries will find value in the quasi-legal mechanisms that allow conflicts to be settled or at least diffused.

The problem here is that we only really have evidence of China integrating economically into the Western system while remaining outside most of the liberal political and cultural currents. For example, Western norms concerning human rights within countries and solidarity against human rights abuses in other countries (e.g. Sudan) are all but ignored by China,** since the People’s Republic speaks a vastly different political language of “non-interference” that goes against Western norms which demand reform at home and action abroad. Even when China acknowledges a norm, such as the trend towards abolishing the death penalty or protecting the global environment, the country argues that the circumstances of the present prevent them from adopting such policies. Thus, as China ascends in the United Nations, it seems likely to refuse Western powers who call on China to support liberal norms, instead offering only indifference or outright opposition.

Ikenberry sidesteps the question of whether China could be co-opted to follow Western norms and instead asserts a need for the US to strengthen its connections to the West, and in so doing strengthen the West as a politico-economic-military complex. His method? Again, Ikenberry’s answer is liberal institutionalism, though he spends most of the time arguing in the abstract:

The first thing the United States must do is reestablish itself as the foremost supporter of the global system of governance that underpins the Western order. Doing so will first of all facilitate the kind of collective problem solving that makes all countries better off. At the same time, when other countries see the United States using its power to strengthen existing rules and institutions, that power is rendered more legitimate — and U.S. authority is strengthened. Countries within the West become more inclined to work with, rather than resist, U.S. power, which reinforces the centrality and dominance of the West itself.


The United States should also renew its support for wide-ranging multilateral institutions. On the economic front, this would include building on the agreements and architecture of the WTO, including pursuing efforts to conclude the current Doha Round of trade talks, which seeks to extend market opportunities and trade liberalization to developing countries. The WTO is at a critical stage. The basic standard of nondiscrimination is at risk thanks to the proliferation of bilateral and regional trade agreements. Meanwhile, there are growing doubts over whether the WTO can in fact carry out trade liberalization, particularly in agriculture, that benefits developing countries. These issues may seem narrow, but the fundamental character of the liberal international order — its commitment to universal rules of openness that spread gains widely — is at stake. Similar doubts haunt a host of other multilateral agreements — on global warming and nuclear nonproliferation, among others — and they thus also demand renewed U.S. leadership.

Professor Ikenberry ends the essay by asserting that if the United States builds stronger connections to the West, that the West as a whole will be stronger than China and China will, in turn, see the wisdom of cooperation rather than conflict when she reaches a point of parity with America. And yet, as Ryan noted with regard to the Mead piece, Ikenberry’s essay says far more about America than it does about China. Most of the article is devoted towards explaining what the United States should do without deeply exploring what China might do, and that’s a disappointment coming from a scholar of Ikenberrry’s stature.

Finally, I can’t close this topic without noting that a sentence Ikenberry wrote in the middle of his essay struck a nerve with me. “War-driven change has been abolished as a historical process.” That is a ridiculously absolute statement for a scholar to make, though at the same time I hope to God we don’t see Ikenberry proven wrong.

* In Mead’s case, I hope it was the LA Times that came up with the title.

** Fun thought experiment. Imagine if the Cultural Revolution had ended after three rather than ten years and China had emerged as an anti-Soviet, quasi-capitalistic power in the early 1970s rather than the early 1980s. Now imagine a rising China doing business with the Soviet-opposed apartheid state of South Africa. Could China have given the South Africans enough economic and political support to sustain the regime in the face of Western boycotts?


6 thoughts on “The CFR Does China

  1. Enlightening post Matthew. Ikenberry makes a lot of solid points, but as with Mead, where he irritates me – and likely a lot of other non-Americans – is his tone of entitlement to all great things that have happened while the US has been “on top”.

    Finally, I can’t close this topic without noting that a sentence Ikenberry wrote in the middle of his essay struck a nerve with me. “War-driven change has been abolished as a historical process.” That is a ridiculously absolute statement for a scholar to make, though at the same time I hope to God we don’t see Ikenberry proven wrong.

    That sums it up for me. “Change” is exactly the banner that the US tends to fly while initiating war. You’re right that it is an ridiculously absolute statement for (anyone) to make, and I agree in that I wish it could be true. But it’s proven wrong everyday.

    One other thing I’m not so certain about is where you use “long” to describe the US hegemony. Not much over half a century isn’t, historically, that long of a hegemony, is it?

  2. Ryan, while I understand that a non-American might be irked by the “America is special talk,” if we picked up foreign policy journals by Australians, Russians, or Japanese, we’d find similar arguments for Australian, Russian, or Japanese exceptionalism. This is the natural philosophy of someone in the foreign policy establishment of a country, and that perspective will seem odd to “outsiders.”

    As for the length of American hegemony, I was paraphrasing Ikenberry and the words I used were “so long,” as opposed to short-lived. Militarily speaking, the US was a regional hegemon in the Western hemisphere starting in the 1820s, and by the early 1900s had replaced Britain as the economic center of the world. And then, starting in the early 40s, the US emerged as a military hegemon as well, and it used this combination of military and economic power to craft the institutions Ikenberry lauds. So we can say the US has been the total systemic hegemon for about 60 years, but before that it was a cultural and economic hegemon starting around WWI.

    Moving on, it should be noted that power transition theory generally looks at the last 500 years of history, when empires first became truly global thanks to sea power and when economies became dynamic thanks to capitalism. In terms of the theory, 60 years is a good run, and no country has remained hegemon much more than 90 years. We may think of British hegemony as lasting roughly 200 years because Britain first defeated the Dutch at the end of the 17th century to become hegemon, then defeated its main challenger the French to become hegemon again at the start of the 19th century until the Germans rocked the boat at the start of the 20th century. Political scientists usually break these two periods apart owing to the fact that there was a real perception that Napoleonic France was going to become the new hegemon — just look at Napoleon’s Qin Shihuang-esque reforms in Europe, which seem the work of a hegemonic power.

    (Sorry to get into this so much; it was one of my favorite theories to discuss in grad school.)

  3. Don’t apologize, it’s fascinating. And that makes sense regarding the rise of Napoleonic Europe.

    So, how does the East-West divide during the Cold War fit into America’s hegemon title? I’m guessing on a global influence level, the former USSR was a lot closer to challenging the US than China is now, no?

  4. Yeah, see, there’s a heavy bit of revisionism during the Cold War. At that time, many of the political scientists talked about bipolarity and the power transition people were less prominent. If anything, the end of the Cold War gave the power transition theorists an opening.

    The bipolar theorists like Kenneth Waltz were a bit freaked out at the Soviet collapse because their schema was “two big powers = stable world” and suddenly the world looked unipolar and dangerous. So along came the power transition people who said “one big power = stable world” and that idea has a lot of appeal. (People find comfort in theories that support the status quo, of course.) What’s more, the power transition people looked back and said, “Yeah, the US was the hegemon back then, too, and the Soviets were never really close.” This kind of revision required changing the definition of hegemony somewhat, especially in terms of including “soft power,” which the US had in abundance for decades.

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