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To Compete With China, We Need the Liberal International Order

The Trump Administration was not wrong in singling out China as a rising threat. But it was wrong in how it chose to confront it.

Hal Brands

In May, 2020, Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) introduced a joint resolution to pull the United States out of the World Trade Organization. For a quarter-century, the WTO has represented the apotheosis of progress toward a more integrated, cooperative global economy. Yet Hawley, who has been positioning himself for leadership of the post-Trump Republican Party, argued that the organization had merely empowered America’s most dangerous challenger.

China had exploited the market access its WTO membership provided to pursue a predatory trade policy at Washington’s expense, he wrote: “International organizations like the WTO have enabled the rise of China and benefited elites around the globe while hollowing out American industry.” Withdrawing from the WTO, and rediscovering the virtues of economic self-reliance, were prerequisites to defending American interests in an age of rivalry.

Hawley’s proposal parallels the Trump administration’s assault on the WTO over the past four years, an attack meant to make the organization irrelevant by preventing it from performing its crucial dispute resolution function. Hawley’s argument also reflects the key intellectual themes of Trump-era foreign policy. The administration and its supporters have advanced a two-fold argument: first, that the United States must shift toward competition with China; and second, that doing so requires moving away from the “liberal international order” that Washington has cultivated for decades.

Like many ideas underpinning Trump’s statecraft, the argument is narrowly correct, in the sense that calling a halt to progressively deeper engagement with China was an overdue prerequisite to confronting the challenge it poses to U.S. interests. Yet the argument also misses a larger strategic truth, which is that America cannot compete effectively with China if it abandons the liberal order that China’s behavior threatens.

The “liberal international order” is shorthand for the strategic project that America undertook after World War II and has pursued in various forms for 75 years. That project was embodied, economically, in institutions and agreements that promoted free commerce and discouraged mutually immiserating trade wars. It reflected an emphasis, albeit an imperfect one, on human rights and democratic values. It featured unprecedented, if inconsistent, multilateral cooperation through institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Health Organization. The entire order was anchored by American power and a network of U.S.-led alliances and strategic partnerships that circled the globe.

The liberal order is now caricatured by critics as a manifestation of a strategic idealism. Yet it was rooted in the sad realism that emerged from Great Depression and World War II—the realization that the world would surely descend into anarchy or worse absent enlightened leadership by its most powerful nation, and that America could secure its narrow national interests only through the creation of a larger international society that was itself healthy, stable, and prosperous. Over the subsequent decades, the American-led order proved remarkably effective in suspending the normal rhythms of power politics within the non-Communist world, and thereby forging a geopolitical community whose successes exerted excruciating strategic and ideological pressure on the Communist world.

After the Cold War, America’s strategic horizons expanded: Washington would exploit the collapse of the Soviet Union and its ideological challenge to enlarge and entrench the liberal system. NATO expanded into Eastern Europe to hedge against a resurgence of Russian power and encourage the consolidation of political and economic reforms. The United States promoted the freer flow of goods, capital, and information on an increasingly global scale. Washington also aimed to bring potential spoilers, notably China, into the expanding order, through economic integration that would, in theory, ultimately exert a geopolitically pacifying and politically liberalizing effect on Beijing.

It is undeniable that certain aspects of this program went awry. American officials underestimated the determination of China’s rulers to hang onto power amid a global wave of democratization, as well as their resourcefulness in doing so. Washington probably overestimated the extent to which a party that was rooted in Leninist principles could be induced to accept a positive-sum vision of international affairs. The engagement policy of the 1990s and 2000s ended up hastening the rise of a competitor that became more, not less, truculent and authoritarian. It also created, as COVID underscored, dependencies on an autocratic rival for key goods ranging from munitions components to pharmaceuticals.

The single most important strategic insight of the Trump administration has thus been that ending the engagement paradigm, and limiting American integration with China, are vital to containing the influence of a country that is using its centrality in the global economy as a source of strategic leverage. Regardless of whether Trump or Joe Biden wins the presidency, America must build greater resilience against China’s coercive power, which implies reducing—preferably in a targeted, selective fashion—the dependence of democratic societies on Chinese money, markets, and strategically important goods.

Unfortunately, the administration and its supporters have turned this insight into a broader hostility towards the liberal order. Trump, of course, has distinguished himself with his antipathy to alliances, trade agreements, and international institutions; he theatrically withdrew from the WHO rather than compete vigorously for influence there. The president’s National Security Strategy put an intellectual spin on this antipathy by condemning post-Cold War foreign policy as an exercise in geopolitical naiveté. It paired an unvarnished description of the Chinese challenge with a striking lack of emphasis on the relatively peaceful and cooperative order that Beijing is challenging. Former officials and leading intellectuals have argued that America can win “Cold War II” only by breaking with the liberal international order that helped it win Cold War I. This is where the argument jumps the tracks, for three reasons.

First, this approach risks turning the U.S.-China competition into a struggle over power alone. The reason that the United States has traditionally found it comparatively easy to rally allies is that it has been committed to a broader concept of international order that benefits so many countries. The contrast with Beijing, which has tended to consume global publics goods—freedom of the seas, for example—provided by others while aggressively pursuing its own economic and territorial interests, ought to be obvious.

But if the United States rejects the liberal order, then its competition with China is really just an effort to defend its own primacy. It isn’t clear why countries around the world—except those most tangibly menaced by Chinese military might—would join America in that effort. If America becomes less committed to the international order it created, expect many of its friends, particularly other democracies, to become less committed to supporting American leadership.

Second, for smaller countries that lack the power to slug it out with Beijing, economically or militarily, the liberal order is a critical means of self-protection. It provides international norms, standards, and processes that lesser powers can use to hold greater powers to account. The WTO is undoubtedly flawed, but it nonetheless offers a forum in which a Singapore or a Malaysia can lodge complaints against mercantilistic Chinese trade practices. If that organization becomes a dead letter, or if America becomes an agent of destruction vis-à-vis international law and institutions, we will enter a might-makes-right world that will seem quite congenial to Beijing.

Finally, the only way to compensate for selective decoupling from rivals is through deeper integration with friends. It is all well and good to say that America and other democracies should not rely on China for pharmaceuticals or components of precision-guided munitions. But autarky isn’t a feasible solution, even for the United States, and Washington can’t surrender the benefits of specialization and comparative advantage while still hoping to compete with a technologically sophisticated nation of 1.4 billion people. It will require more, not less, economic cooperation with like-minded nations to succeed in competition with China, which requires strengthening the order that binds America to its allies and partners.

The problem with Trumpism is not that it is devoid of good ideas, but that it often blends them with dangerously self-destructive ones. When Trump’s presidency ends, whether in a few months or a few years, the challenge will be to appropriate the former while jettisoning the latter. The paradigm of strategic competition with China should, and likely will, persist. But prevailing in that rivalry will require reinvesting in, rather than undermining, the liberal order Trump has scorned.