Posted on: May 9, 2021 Posted by: Mitchell Plitnick Comments: 0

Professor Stephen Walt of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard recently wrote an interesting piece for Foreign Policy where he posed the question of whether the rest of the world might prefer China’s “world order” to that of the United States. As Walt poses the question, “Are the liberal norms the United States and its closest allies espouse likely to be more attractive to others than China’s vocal defense of national sovereignty, its repeated emphasis of noninterference, and its insistence that different states should have the right to evolve political institutions that are consistent with their own cultures and historical experiences?”

Ultimately, Walt concludes that “Americans (and others) who favor liberal ideals cannot assume such truths (i.e. that these ideals are superior and universally preferred) are “self-evident” or that the long arc of history inevitably favors them. If that arc bends toward justice, it will not be due to divine intervention, some hard-wired tendency in human nature, or deep historical teleology leading inevitably toward a predetermined (liberal) outcome. That arc will bend only if its proponents are more successful at demonstrating the superiority of their ideals, especially when compared with the alternative.”

I don’t agree entirely with Walt’s take on this question, but his exploration of it is thought-provoking and quite interesting. I strongly recommend reading it in full and considering his arguments carefully.

I very much agree with Walt that there is no teleological inevitability to either justice in the abstract or, much less, to the victory of liberal norms. I have always seen the arc of history bending toward justice as a demonstrable, albeit torturously slow, phenomenon caused not by some natural force but by the unending efforts of a great many idealistic and courageous human beings and the intrinsic appeal of those causes to the masses.

Where I differ with Walt is in his casting of the United States in the role of exemplar of liberal values. It isn’t just that we don’t always live up to our values—no nation-state does. The greater concern I have is that the United States is not primarily characterized by those liberal values, especially if we look at our foreign policy, the main focus of Walt’s piece. Moreover, we, like most countries, demonize our competitors, often while we are committing crimes just as grievous, if not worse. And that tends to lead us into bad policy decisions.

This becomes all the more important in the wake of Joe Biden’s first address to Congress. China was the foreign policy focus in that speech, a reflection of Biden’s desire to present himself as a tough commander-in-chief to the assembled members of Congress. It was not a new direction; his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, who has been perhaps Biden’s closest professional confidant for many years, has reserved his most bellicose rhetoric for China, even before his boss took office and he assumed his current position.

It’s easy to forget that the U.S. attitude toward China took a sharp turn toward hostility during the Trump administration. That did not happen because Trump suddenly discovered that China was a severe violator of human rights, was an authoritarian regime, or that it was determined to take firmer control of Hong Kong. All of those conditions pre-dated Trump, and some of them even made Trump look more warmly on China.

No, it happened because Trump (or, rather some in his administration) recognized that the very real, contentious issues between the U.S. and China could be used to demagogic advantage, and that they, unlike those issues with Russia, were prone to bipartisan animosity. The South China Sea dispute, Hong Kong autonomy, the status of Taiwan, intellectual property issues, and other issues of trade and monetary policy had been contentious for years, and the Barack Obama administration had faced growing calls to take a more adversarial stance with China. Obama preferred to maintain cordial, if somewhat cold, Chinese-American relations, but now that Trump shattered that concept, Biden is maintaining the belligerence. It’s less overtly racist and insulting in character, but it’s no less aggressive or provocative.

Some of these issues are more genuinely contentious than others. The tensions in the South China Sea, for example, are a flash point of legitimate interests on both sides. China sees it as an American intrusion in the waters of and near their sovereign territory, part and parcel of the massive American military presence all around them. The U.S. sees Chinese overreach that concerns and impacts key allies Japan and South Korea and smaller regional partners, and, more than that, holds the potential for Chinese domination over a trade route that sees trillions of dollars of commerce go through it every year. It’s actually an excellent illustration of Walt’s formulation of a Westphalian order, as favored by China, and liberal interventionist one as favored by the United States.

But placing that confrontation in the context of the language Biden used in his address to Congress, we note that he stressed the need to compete with China and repeatedly presented China as a threat, not only to the United States, but to the “world order.” Secretary Blinken echoed that theme last week, with a statement clearly referring to China, saying the U.S. would “push back forcefully when we see countries undermine the international order, pretend that the rules we’ve all agreed to don’t exist, or simply violate them at will.”

The problem—which even Blinken himself acknowledged to some extent—is that the United States only plays by those rules when it benefits us. When the rules become inconvenient, we ignore them. While Blinken admitted that during the Trump administration, “some of our actions in recent years have undermined the rules-based order and led others to question whether we are still committed to it,” he failed to note that Trump was just more blatant (some might even say less hypocritical) than most about ignoring those rules.

Barack Obama was an exemplar of a rules-based international system. Yet Obama intentionally exceeded a UN mandate in Libya and plunged that country into a chaos it has still not recovered from. He also ignored international law with regularity when it came to Israel’s crimes against the law and against human rights norms. He also backed a Saudi assault on Yemen despite the dire consequences for that country that were felt immediately after the Saudi bombardment began. And, of course, there were the endless drone strikes and the innumerable civilian casualties that resulted.

That’s just a few examples, and they are just in foreign policy. There were many others. But Obama, more than most of his predecessors, espoused a rules-based order, and claimed to stick to it. Dedicated interventionists like George w. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan have a much longer list.

But rather than delve into history, let’s look at the picture today. China is the preferred boogey man of the Biden administration. While policymakers are largely concerned about China’s growing global reach through its “Belt and Road Initiative,” as well as its rapidly growing economy and impressive technological advances, the most egregious crime of the Chinese government, in the eyes of most Americans, is its treatment of the Uighurs. This has been called a genocide, and I, for one, agree that this is probably what China is engaged in.

Genocide is defined legally as any one of a list of five acts committed “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The five acts are:

  • Killing members of the group
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group


In my view, the evidence supports the accusation that China is engaged in the second, fourth, and possibly the third of these acts, and that their purpose is to eliminate the Uighur community in China.

The problem is that when we hear genocide, we tend to hear “the Holocaust.” The differences between the early days of the Nazi regime (that is, before the death camps, and before the war) are sharp, especially when it comes to wanton killing, which was part of the Nazi program from the beginning but has not been for the Chinese, thus far.

That doesn’t mean what is happening to the Uighurs is anything less than a crime against humanity that we must do all we can to stop. But is it really worse than what we are helping Saudi Arabia do to Yemen? Is it worse than the Israeli actions we run interference for as they turn Gaza into an open-air prison while taking every step they can to wipe out Palestinian identity? Is it so different from the concentration camps on our borders for asylum seekers that are still there even if we’ve forgotten about them?

No, they’re not. That doesn’t make what China is doing any better, but it does mean that when American liberals rail against China, and especially when Democratic leaders in Congress and the White House do so, they are just reinforcing the hypocrisy we present to the world. It proves over and over again that the rules-based order we protect is a set of rules we apply when we want them to apply, depending on how it affects us and our interests.

That’s not a workable policy. It’s especially problematic when the real concern is not human rights or international law—we know it’s not by how we deal with those rules when we and our allies are involved. Instead, it’s about real concern that China is simply going to do better than us in the global economy in the foreseeable future if we compete by the very rules we claim to be defending.

When Joe Biden says we must “win the 21st century,” the first reasonable reaction should be that it’s just a nonsensical statement. But it’s part and parcel of setting up China not as a rival or competitor, but as an enemy. That’s dangerous, especially now in the United States with the massive rise in hate crimes against Asians and Asian/Pacific Islander Americans. But it’s even more dangerous as a matter of policy.

Those of us, like myself, who came of age during the Cold War remember how widely enmity with the USSR was used to justify all sorts of horrible ideas, from McCarthyism to the near-total destruction of Southeast Asia, to the massive violence in Central America, and to the quashing, imprisoning and even state murder of left-wing activists, especially people of color, in the U.S.

We learned nothing from it. Right after the Cold War ended, we turned around and made Saddam Hussein—again, a truly brutal dictator and criminal, but one we loved for years—the latest monster, leading first to starving the Iraqi people for a decade before devastating the country with an invasion and occupation that had massive ripple effects throughout the region and significant blowback here, all of which we continue to deal with today.

China does some very bad things, as does Russia. But China has also done a great deal to reduce poverty in that country. From 1990, when about 2/3 of the Chinese population lived in poverty, to 2016, when just 0.5% of the population lived in poverty, China lifted 750 million people out of poverty, according to the World Bank. That’s an astounding figure. By contrast, in 2018, 10.5% of the US population lived in poverty.

We must also note that the United States has the highest rate of incarceration by far in the entire world. There are other measures that show we are in no position to sit in judgment over others.

None of this justifies Chinese abuses, nor is it intended to imply in any way that China should not be pressured to stop its crimes against the Uighurs and Hong Kong, or its other transgressions. And there’s no doubt that China is a more authoritarian country than the United States, at least as long as the Republicans don’t fulfill their ambitions.

But let’s not criticize China for deciding to bring countries into their debt and into their circle of influence by helping build infrastructure and establishing economic ties. That’s just blaming them for being better at the game we set up than we are.

Instead, if we want to compete, how about we work with poorer countries in a better and more altruistic fashion than China? That would certainly allow us to “win the 21st century,” whatever that means. The problem is, of course, that’s not The American Way.