Pax Americana or Pax Sinica?

A new book argues that America should recede as China rises. Here’s why that’s a bad idea.
May 22, 2019
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Nepal's President Bidhya Devi Bhandar and Xi Jinping review honor guards during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People on April 29, 2019 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Madoka Ikegami - Pool/Getty Images)

“Is China threatening the liberal international order, or is China threatening the global balance of power?”

This provocative question was recently posed by Kishore Mahbubani, a former diplomat and professor of public policy at the National University of Singapore, in the course of a Munk debate held at Toronto’s Roy Thompson Hall. The argument Mahbubani proceeded to make left little doubt that his question was a rhetorical one.

There can be little doubt that the struggle between the United States and China will be this century’s decisive geopolitical rivalry. For Mahbubani, America’s position in that contest betrays its arrogance of power. Whatever the lofty rhetoric from Washington, he dismisses its strategy of curbing Beijing’s bid for supremacy in the Indo-Pacific as the last gasp of declining power unrelated to the perpetuation of the liberal international order. (He did not disclose whether he thought the deep and even frantic concern about Chinese hegemony among the Indian, Japanese, or Taiwanese is similarly born of national egotism.)

Before the debate in Toronto was through, the Singaporean academic hit this point home: “The paradox of our global situation,” he alleged, “is that the biggest threat to the liberal international order is not from a non-liberal society like China but from a liberal society like the United States of America.”

Where’s the proof for this bold assertion? Mahbubani recalled that the People’s Republic of China hasn’t fired a shot in anger for more than three decades, whereas in the same era the United States has used force on a scale that would make the Romans blush. Notwithstanding the unprecedented peace and prosperity made possible by this American-led security architecture, Mahbubani noted with dismay that in the last year of the Obama administration alone, the U.S. dropped 26,000 bombs on seven countries.

Omitting any mention of the rationale behind this vigorous application of airpower—a vast majority of these drone strikes and air raids were directed against ISIS and kindred jihadist movements across the Middle East—was not a lapse on Mahbubani’s part. Since the suppression of forces of disorder is a prerequisite for the flourishing of civilization, any serious argument against American hard power must come at the expense of the liberal conception of world order on whose behalf it is exercised. Mahbubani is reluctant to be directly critical of an order that’s conferred such copious benefits for three-quarters of a century, and so deals with this contradiction by ignoring it completely.

To gain a fuller appreciation of the frivolous approach adopted by so many opponents of U.S. foreign policy toward the system it helped create and maintain, one could hardly do better than getting ahold of a copy of Mahbubani’s latest book, Has the West Lost It? Billed as a “provocation,” this slender manifesto makes a brusque case for transferring stewardship of the international order eastward. As China rises to predominance, so this argument runs, the West and chiefly America ought “to learn to share, even abandon” its position of global leadership and “adapt to a world it can no longer dominate.”

The danger in this course of action is that it would in all likelihood hasten the breakdown of the global order that, since it was erected after World War II, has brought about three underrated blessings: the dramatic decline of organized violence, the erosion of extreme poverty (not least in China, where 850 million people have been lifted into the middle class), and the upsurge in representative government around the world.

On the evidence of this progress, the theory of the stability of a unipolar world still holds true. First pronounced by William Wohlforth, this theory posits that the primacy of a single state in the international system deters aggression from others that may possess the desire but not the firepower to effectively challenge the status quo. Put differently, without America’s unrivaled strength and deep involvement in world affairs, the specter of competitive jockeying among rising powers—and the unpredictable crises and clashes that traditionally arise from it—would return to endanger the peace of the world.

The human condition has been improving for so long in no small measure because the United States has been committed to this theory. It has actively (if inconsistently) sought to deter illiberal regimes while reassuring liberal regimes, or at least those reconciled to the prevailing order, that they do not need to take up arms precisely because Washington can be trusted to exercise its own immense power for the benefit of others. (This liberal form of hegemony is especially beneficial in East Asia, where major powers are strategically and ideologically estranged, as Charles Kupchan argued two decades ago in his essay “Life after Pax Americana.”)

Instead of wrestling with this potent argument about the indispensable status of the United States to the liberal order, Mahbubani takes it as an article of faith that human progress will continue unabated even after Pax Americana is no more. He shows precious little concern for what uncontested Chinese supremacy, initially in Asia and the Pacific but eventually farther afield, would mean for its neighbors and the world. Suffice to say, the people of Taiwan do not feel they can afford to be quite so sanguine about a potential changing of the guard.

It has become a truism that if the West is declining then the rest must be rising. It is widely believed that China is (as Kissinger once said of the Soviets) “Sparta to our Athens.” The day is not far off, we have been assured, “when China rules the world.” Has the West Lost It? echoes these deterministic assumptions but distinguishes itself by greeting the eclipse of American power without overmuch fuss. This insouciance rests on the conceit that, whoever is at the helm of global order, “all of humanity is one.” On this view, such a large percentage of humans residing outside the West—88 percent, to be precise—deserves a distribution of power reflecting that fact.

Mahbubani displays a touch of cheekiness by contending that rather than resisting this fate, cunning American strategists should embrace it. After all, “China, unlike America, does not have a messianic impulse to change the world.” This is—to put it no higher—a highly dubious proposition. For one thing, the Middle Kingdom has never been without a conception of its special place in the world. For another, it has plans to retrieve its usurped role of world-historical leadership—the U.S.-led order is “a suit that no longer fits,” according to its ruling Communist Party—that will further swell in tandem with its “comprehensive national power.”

It is hard to escape the impression that China’s conduct at home gives a fair indication of what the character of Chinese primacy might be. While the “China model” of state-directed capitalism has impressed many onlookers—especially with its international financial institutions (the New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) and the Belt and Road Initiative, through which China is prepared to invest more than a trillion dollars forging economic and strategic ties in development projects around the world—comparatively little attention has been paid to the other half of that model: brutal albeit savvy authoritarianism. The PRC spends nearly as much on its internal security as it does on its entire military, refining the art of repression by means of mass surveillance, secret detention facilities, censorship, and paramilitary forces.

Still, the question remains: Does China’s colossal population and economic heft entitle it to more clout in international affairs? (The Chinese economy already ranks as the world’s largest in terms of purchasing power and is poised to surpass the U.S. in dollar terms.) Such forthright appeals to size and stature seldom carry much weight in the order of nations. If past experience is any guide, there is a more compelling rule for rising powers to learn: To borrow from Frederick Douglass, power concedes nothing without a demand.

It is indeed “perfectly natural,” as Mahbubani observes, for an ascendant China “to ask for new terms of engagement” from an order that was not conceived with its model in mind. But what he fails to consider is that it’s equally natural for the established powers wedded to that order to firmly stick to those terms. Eventually, it would also be perfectly natural for the rivals to adjudicate their differences the only way they can in a Hobbesian world: by force.

In Mahbubani’s eyes, the United States should get ahead of the curve and inject a hefty dose of restraint into its statecraft. The only remedy to the inequitable balance of power, it goes without saying, is to make peace with a Pax Sinica. Would America ever consider making such an accommodation? It is reasonable to doubt it. Just as America has proved resistant to withdrawing from the turmoil of the Middle East, it is likely to show staying power in East Asia. And for the same reason: It has vital interests, ideological as well as strategic, to protect there, and believes it alone can protect them.

A close reading of Has the West Lost It? reveals its author’s weak grasp of such considerations. In its pages, for instance, September 11, 2001, is characterized as a date when “most Americans felt they were innocent victims subject to an unprovoked attack.” Mahbubani is not so easily taken in by such a quaint notion. In his telling, “most thoughtful international observers” interpreted al Qaeda’s attack on American civil society “as an inevitable blowback against the West’s trampling on the Islamic world for several centuries. It was not just Muslims who believed that.” Who outside the umma does our interlocutor have in mind? None other than novelist and Castro sympathizer Gabriel Garcia Marquez who, before the sun set on September 11, fastidiously tallied the crimes of yanqui imperialism in Latin America. Thus does Mahbubani find a good word for what Bernard Henri Lévy dubs the “red-brown” synthesis of communist apologists and fundamentalist votaries of the prophet who jointly look upon the incineration of infidels with undisguised approval.

The “painful truth” for Mahbubani is that American idealism, so far from redounding to the benefit of mankind, “has increased human suffering.” Beyond the abundant evidence of our historically pacific epoch, one need only register the wages of American “realism” to grasp the error of this argument. The death toll in Syria, allowed by America’s abstention from that terrible conflict, has far surpassed the bloodletting caused by America’s intervention in Iraq.

Mahbubani finds it “difficult to understand why America, a distant country protected by two oceans, decided to intertwine its destiny with the Islamic world.” It becomes considerably easier to understand American anxieties once it is recalled that oceans failed to shield the republic from danger on December 7, 1941 as it did on September 11, 2001. It also behooves the author to consider Tolstoy’s possibly apocryphal observation that “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” The United States learned this lesson in its infancy—that is, well before any imperial “meddling”—when its citizens aboard merchant vessels fell victim to the depredations of the Barbary states.

But to Mahbubani, there is not the slimmest excuse for the United States to have taken up a position in the lands of Islam to begin with, and so it should simply and hastily abandon it. “Henceforth, there should be zero American bombs dropped in Islamic countries.” He has the good sense here (or do I mean schizophrenia?) to attach the caveat that applying this principle too rigidly might not be well advised. In Afghanistan, he allows, it would likely cause the resurgence of the Taliban, thus undermining U.S. national security.

Mahbubani recounts the folly of the Iraq war, from which few readers today, even in the West, would dissent. However, he presses this point well beyond its breaking point. He suggests a “mea culpa” campaign for American intellectuals who sounded the trumpets on behalf of regime change in Baghdad but have not yet atoned, publicly, for their sins. (It’s no surprise that the author fails to propose a similar exercise for those who counseled non-intervention in the Syria rebellion, thereby permitting the Syrian Baathists to generate the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century.)

Those who perceived an intolerable threat in the totalitarian rule of Saddam’s Baath Party are regarded as little more than intellectual cretins. “To say that this war was a massive act of stupidity is an understatement.” By deposing Saddam Hussein, Mahbubani argues, the U.S. “removed a strong secular leader who was opposed to Osama bin Laden.” It also “reinforced the conviction among 1.5 billion Muslims that the loss of Muslim lives did not matter to the West.”

Where to begin? The assertion that Saddam Hussein’s regime kept the lid on Islamism is nothing short of delusional. As Samuel Helfont ably documents in “Compulsion in Religion,” the secular image of Iraq’s Baath Party was more myth than reality. From the beginning of Hussein’s rule in 1979, the Iraqi regime lavishly used Islam to control the population. After the Gulf War, the “faith campaign” wrenched control of religious institutions and disseminated a belligerent piety throughout Iraqi society. This policy aligned with Saddam’s role as the paymaster of jihadist organizations in the region, including playing host to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Even fierce critics of the war should acknowledge this official fusion of militant faith with Arab nationalism that set the stage for the jihadist-Baathist campaign of violence and sabotage that later engulfed Iraq.

It is also bizarre to find such sanctimonious preening about the value of Muslim life in a volume marked by special pleading for a regime that has erected a vast system of “re-education camps” for millions of predominantly Muslim Turkic minorities, including Uighurs, in the province of Xinjiang. Perhaps a condemnation will only be forthcoming when the People’s Liberation Army is deployed to halt ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, supply vital assistance after a devastating Indonesian earthquake and tsunami, or excavate mass graves outside of Kirkuk.

Mahbubani concludes his diatribe against American international activism by issuing his charge from the Munk debate that imperial hubris has made it the world’s “primary instigator of turbulence and uncertainty.” This can only be true if global progress was inevitable and irreversible, which Mahbubani gives every appearance of believing.

“The EU’s greatest achievement,” he avers, “is that there is zero prospect of war between any two EU member states.” In point of fact, the EU is a result, not the cause, of a postwar peace that was only secured by a decades-long investment of American materiel and brawn. Without its forward-leaning posture on the continent, European security competition, especially the latent “German problem,” would have resumed long ago.

Through The Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN], the Far East is replicating what Mahbubani calls “this EU gold standard.” He is confident that “Europe’s shining example of the culture of peace will slowly seep into the Middle East too.”

Whether this agreeable vision comes to pass will depend in no small part on the next few presidents of the United States rejecting the advice of Mahbubani’s manifesto and understanding that China’s threat to American global hegemony is, by design and in effect, a threat to the liberal international order.

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer. Follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.