Through last week’s Summit for Democracy, President Joe Biden apparently sought to unite the world to rescue democracy, which is facing a critical crisis. Instead, the online event has set the world apart, with charges that its real intent was to contain China’s rise and seek US hegemony. By excluding almost half of the world, the occasion also exposed the Biden administration’s rhetoric on multilateralism as conflicting with its resolve for unilateralism.
But the US has faced such a credibility gap in its global standing with increasing frequency throughout the last three decades.
With the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, the US could have chosen to partner with the world to achieve global goals. Instead, successive Republican and Democratic administrations shed their ideological imperatives to dictate to the world — undertaking “humanitarian” interventions in troubled spots with devastating consequences. So much so that even President Barack Obama, despite his liberal credentials, opted for a troop surge in Afghanistan.
With this year’s end of this longest war in American history, Biden was also expected to make good on his promises to rebuild a sustainable multipolar world. Instead, no sooner than the US had quit Kabul, he declared China as America’s enemy No. 1, rebalancing the country’s geopolitical focus from the Arabian Gulf to the Indo-Pacific. A strategy had already been in play for a decade to contain Chinese influence in the South China Sea. The recently announced AUKUS alliance between the US, UK and Australia has taken this proposition to a dangerous level.
From the Cold War to the War on Terror, the US is accustomed to creating global friction along ideological lines, depicting the enemy as “evil” and using democracy as a tool for global supremacy. The Biden administration is treading the same regressive path, except that its current focus is on igniting a new cold war between a world of authoritarian states led by China and a world of democratic nations led by the US.
Will the world at large buy into this ideological farce? Luckily, there are reasons to hope that it won’t.
To start with, such a binary worldview is inherently problematic, not least due to the enormous risks it entails for future global peace, but also because it defies the very logic of complex interdependence in the age of globalization. Economically, China and the US cannot survive without each other. Beijing has no interest in exporting its economic or political model. Its Belt and Road Initiative also does not have any heinous design except to connect the world through major trade and transportation corridors, which is why 139 countries have joined it and more may be on the way.
Secondly, the blurring of political boundaries across the world through the cross-fertilization of political values, ideas and practices has rendered the classical distinction between democracy and autocracy irrelevant. Even conservative nations are experimenting with major socioeconomic reforms, transcending politics. Elsewhere, politics is consistently evolving in consonance with the relative pace of social change and economic development.
Thirdly, liberal democracy is itself suffering a major credibility crisis, from Europe to America and beyond. In the face of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol Hill and constant squabbling over basic electoral reforms since then, the US can hardly make the case for restoring public faith in democracy abroad. Nor can it be the sole arbiter of the world’s vast and varied political landscape, with diverse social conditions and cultural traditions.
Finally, more viable alternatives have emerged to overcome the limits of liberal democracy. China’s system of political meritocracy has gained particular traction globally, as it is designed with the aim of selecting political leaders with above-average ability to make morally informed political judgments. Rooted in Confucian civilization spanning millennia, the system has enabled China to eliminate acute poverty ahead of time and overtake the US as the world’s richest economy in terms of net worth amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
These factors create a pragmatic context for course correction by the US, especially in its China policy.
The US can draw comfort from the fact it still retains an obvious edge over its global competitors, including China, in terms of military strength, technology and popular culture. Beijing may have surpassed its wealth, but the US continues to play a pivotal role in managing the global economy. Washington must know that opening a new ideological front against China is no panacea for its sluggish economy or dysfunctional politics. Hence, the only way it can beat Beijing is through sheer economic competition, not by pushing its rival into a nonsensical global confrontation that it doesn’t want.
For its part, China has emerged as a bright spot on the world map thanks to an unparalleled national effort and is naturally garnering growing global goodwill for its fantastic economic track record. By treating China as a hostile power, bothering it over Taiwan and even boycotting the Winter Olympics in Beijing, the US is losing a great opportunity to draw valid lessons from its miraculous rise and to partner with it for a better world. China’s BRI and the US’ Build Back Better World make an excellent case for the purpose, with their respective focus on economic development and global governance.
And Biden himself can learn a great deal from his Chinese counterpart, instead of nudging his proud nation on a discredited political notion. President Xi Jinping’s idea of “shared destiny” is particularly worth emulating, as it offers a lasting path to world peace by proposing the creation of a global free trade regime, where all countries have equal rights irrespective of their political systems and cultural traditions.
• Ishtiaq Ahmad is a former journalist, who has subsequently served as the Vice Chancellor of Sargodha University in Pakistan and the Quaid-e-Azam Fellow at the University of Oxford.
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