China, Trump and an ‘epochal shift’

Is this what the end of an era looks like?

This was a week that President Trump closed by dramatically escalating his trade dispute with China, threatening new tariffs on nearly $500 billion of Chinese goods. He did so even while facing mounting tensions within his own administration, underscored by an anonymous New York Times op-ed and a new book by Bob Woodward.

In a bit of symbolic theater on the eve of Trump’s trade announcement, China’s Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai was hosting a party in Washington for his African counterparts to celebrate this week’s Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing.

The Atlantic Council’s Peter Pham, director of our Africa Center, reckons that even more significant than the $60 billion in loans and other development financing announced by President Xi Jinping was the turnout. All but six of Africa’s 54 heads of state showed up in Beijing to pay obeisance to the Chinese leader, despite having been given less than a month’s notice.

From the Chinese ambassador’s DC reception, China Daily reported that African envoys bristled at Western criticism characterizing China-Africa cooperation as a “debt trap” or “neocolonialism.” The dean of the African diplomatic core, Congolese Ambassador Serge Mombouli, said, “What does the West do better than China right now in Africa?”

Moral of the story: In an increasing number of places in the world, it isn’t that the US and its democratic allies are losing the battle for influence. They are too frequently no-shows.

Regardless of how the Trump drama unfolds, this US president will have left the stage long before this story is done. China will still be working to strengthen its economy, develop its next-generation technologies, extend its geopolitical reach and perfect its authoritarian system – perhaps even with President Xi still in charge (as he faces no term limits).

Many still pooh-pooh the notion that we are passing through an Inflection Point in history as significant as the end of World Wars I and II –the underlying theme of this weekly feature. In a must-read interview with Der Spiegel this week, Wolfgang Ischinger, Chairman of the Munich Security Conference and an Atlantic Council board director, described the situation as an “epochal shift,” with a rising China, a disruptive Russia and an unfocused America.

Those who argue that the dangers of America’s relative decline are being exaggerated rightly point to America’s robust economy, it’s innovative resilience, the self-correcting nature of its democracy and its unique network of alliances. They note the many obstacles China’s rise still faces, ranging from debt overhang to questions around the durability of its increasingly autocratic system.

Yet it would be self-deluding to deny, as Robert Kagan writes in a must-read essay in the Wall Street Journal this weekend, that “the liberal world order established by the United States a little over seven decades ago is collapsing.” That shouldn’t be surprising, he argues, as “it was always a historical anomaly. The long period of prosperity, widespread democracy and peace among the great powers was a dramatic departure from the historical norm.”

The question, one of generational significance that is little realized either by President Trump or most Americans, is what replaces it.

What role will the United States and its democratic allies around the world have in shaping the future and protecting the extraordinary world they began to create after World War II? As Kagan writes, the dramatic change from great power wars and despotic inhumanities that preceded 1945 came not because there was a sudden embrace of enlightenment principles, which had been around for centuries. Instead, the change came because the relatively new global actor, the United States, was ready to exert its power and influence around a larger cause.

“It possessed a unique and advantageous geography,” writes Kagan, “a large, productive population, unprecedented economic and military power, a national ideology based on liberal principles, and a willingness, after the war, to use its power to establish and sustain a global order roughly consistent with those principles.”

The mistake many make is to blame the growing dangers to the liberal world order solely on the shift to Trump and his “America First” agenda. Kagan rightly reminds us that the Obama administration as well supported a new “realism,” focusing on “leading from behind” and “nation building at home.”

Americans’ desire for global retreat, after so many decades of costly leadership, may be understandable or even inevitable. Yet at a time when most Americans are focused on the next episode of the Trump drama, the greater peril lies in whether the seven-decade saga of US global leadership reaches its self-inflicted closing chapter.

“Those who call themselves realists today suggest that we can do less in the world and get more out of it,” writes Kagan.

That’s the most dangerous fiction of our times. We can either build upon our investments of the past 70 years, remaking and reinvigorating the order we built, or we can watch that structure collapse with uncertain and potentially catastrophic consequences.

After the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, the great statesman Dean Acheson (one of the Atlantic Council’s founders), argued that the only guarantee of peace was “the continued moral, military and economic power of the United States.”

That remains the only guarantee of the future, working alongside friends and allies to extend one of the greatest periods of peace, progress and prosperity that the world has ever known.

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe. This blog post is based on his weekly InflectionPoints newsletter. Read the newsletter in full here.

Image: US President Donald J. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping shook hands at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on November 9, 2017. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)