The democracy summit held by Washington late last month came and went, with hardly anyone taking notice. Meanwhile, following in the footsteps of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Emmanuel Macron made his own pilgrimage to Beijing and came away with a friendly declaration of closer business ties and political cooperation. It’s hard not to conclude the French president was more interested in the new business contracts than leaning on Xi Jinping to get Russia out of Ukraine.
So much for the unity of the West!
Washington’s evolving China policy has become increasingly clear: to contain, and if necessary, fight China in a full-spectrum cold (or hot) war, across the globe. The material resources and diplomatic capital required must necessarily call on contributions from all friendly governments, not just allied democracies.
And that’s the basic self-contradictory problem of the democracy vs autocracy fairy tale. Commenting on the summit, Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass wrote: “Beyond the awkward ‘whom to invite’ issue, American democracy is hardly a model for others. Plus we need non-democracies to help us in the world, from sanctioning Russia to slowing climate change.”
Joe Biden ended up inviting some notionally democratic leaders who are more autocratic than many non-democrats while ignoring and offending other non-democratic leaders whose help the US will need sooner or later.
But that’s the problem: America’s evangelical appeal to democracy. Old habits die hard especially when they have worked for more than a century, if not longer. Despite a few bouts of isolationism since the late 19th century, US foreign policy has always been supremacist and interventionist. Yet, the naked expansionism has always been covered up by the prevailing moralistic or religious trends, whether it was civilising natives or making the world safe for democracy.
While the core interests of the empire have never been in doubt, they must be camouflaged by the social justice causes and high moral rhetoric of the day to sell the underlying foreign policy goals. This self-image of selfless American virtue means the US is always on the right side of history, and that means those against which it fights must, by definition, be on the wrong side.
But who really believes that today?
Contemporary major US cities are plagued by homelessness, crime and violence. Black and Hispanic families are decimated by mass incarceration. A handful of billionaires own most of the national wealth and dictate much of the national agenda. American democracy has become a tough sell, not only to foreigners but to its own, especially young people.
Meanwhile, China is not joining an ideological beauty contest with the US like the old Soviet Union once was. It has its own beauties and horrors. But its message to the world is clear: they are my problems and I am not exporting them to you, like the Americans with theirs – exporting its military industrial complex with proxy wars and interventions, and hiking interest rates that destabilise the world economy etc.
Beijing tends to oversell its economic development model when it’s actually just some old tricks that have been used time and again by many countries before. The only Chinese exception is in its scale. Meanwhile, Confucianism and the so-called civilisational state is too parochial to appeal to anyone else.
However, China’s economy is completely enmeshed in the world economy; America’s security and military architecture dominates every corner of the globe, as does its financial system. Every other country will have to figure out a way to live with both superpowers – unless these two learn to live with each other. They may tilt towards one side or the other but to bet the ranch on only one is foolhardy, and an invitation to conflict.
The democracies themselves may share common values but they are also countries with different geographies, histories, natural resources or lack thereof, economic needs and population sizes. Countries, in the end, must operate based on national interests.
Source : SCMP