By Naná de Graaff and Bastiaan van Apeldoorn
This op-ed was originally published on International Affairs Blog
Amidst the clamour over the erratic leadership of the Trump presidency, and the predicted end of a liberal international order, what tends to get overlooked is that there is, at root, a crisis of leadership within America’s economic and political elite.
Trump is the symptom rather than the cause of this crisis, although he has arguably aggravated it. For decades the American power elite has been characterized by close entanglements between of the political and corporate elites, a power configuration that has become increasingly bound up with stagnant wages and widening inequality. Neo-liberal policies implemented at home have been mirrored by an ‘open door’ policy abroad, expanding free markets and maximizing the freedom of (above all) US capital — underpinned, crucially, by a globe-spanning military apparatus and US-centred multilateral institutions. Both these policies have reinforced the position of the power elite, with the top 1% becoming increasingly insulated from the rest of society. It is this which has generated the massive public discontent that has been mobilized by both the right and the left, and is one of the key reasons why Trump was elected.
The crisis of elite leadership which Trump epitomizes, however, greatly accelerates a power shift from a world centred around Western power and built on US hegemony, to a more multipolar world order that includes non-Western powers — in particular China — that has been in the making for decades. From climate governance to trade, America’s retreat from multilateral agreements rolls out the red carpet for China . This opportunity to provide global leadership is not lost on the Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has been driving forward a signature shift in China’s foreign policy, from ‘keeping a low profile’ (tao guang yang hui) to ‘striving for achievement’ (fen fa you wei). Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement turned the US into something of a pariah (the next G20 summit was immediately recoined G19+1) and his retreat from the Trans-Pacific Partnership — the crown jewel in Obama’s ‘Asia Pivot’ — only had the effect of self-isolation: negotiations on free trade in the Pacific are now pursued without the US. China is stepping into this void created by the US, not with an explicit claim to global leadership, but with the convenient argument that it is just behaving as the ‘responsible stakeholder’ US foreign policy makers always pressured it to be. While former Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping advised to: ‘bide our time’, the timing of Xi Jinping’s assertiveness couldn’t have been better and he is making the most of the unexpected helping hand from the US. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wryly wrote, Trump is ‘helping make China great again’.
Xi’s Elite Power Concentration
The crisis and fragmentation of elite leadership in the US coincides with a strengthening and centralizing of elite leadership around the Communist Party and the leadership of its General Secretary Xi, on a scale not seen in China since Deng Xiaoping. Internal dissent, both within the Party and beyond, has effectively been ‘disciplined’ through an anti-graft campaign and a general strengthening of censorship and surveillance. Xi’s philosophy of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era’ has been incorporated as the guiding ideology of the Party, while Xi himself, ‘Chairman of Everything’, has centralized control over economic policy-making and the military, and has elevated himself to historical heights of political power, which rests on a solid and cohesive elite power base and wide legitimacy. This concentration of power was further enhanced by the recent announcement that the two-term limit for Xi’s presidency is to be scrapped.
A Hybrid Scenario
What does this mean for US–China relations and future of the liberal international order? As we argue in our International Affairs article, in contrast to many alarmist accounts, we do not see a major US–China conflict in the making, let alone an outright war. The interdependencies and mutual interests in terms of investments and trade on both sides are too large to make a major conflict scenario likely, bar any fatal accidents. But neither can we expect China to become entirely co-opted into the liberal order, contrary to what many US policy makers and liberal scholars have assumed until recently. The Chinese economy is increasingly integrated into the world economy, and as a result its leaders are embracing ‘inclusive’ globalization and advocating an open door to trade and investment. However, as we show in our article, China’s economy remains wedded to a ‘state-directed’ form of capitalism, which involves a partial adaptation to the liberal rules of the game, but also selective and decisive resistance against it. We therefore envisage a third, more hybrid scenario of co-existence, which will entail both competition and cooperation.
This hybrid scenario, however, does not imply the absence of contestation and, crucially, hinges on the resolution of domestic political and social contestation within both the US and China. The key question here is whether and how the American and Chinese elites are able to manage their societal contradictions, domestically and internationally. This will require, among other things, major structural solutions and a (re)distribution of social, societal and natural resources in order to lower inequality, improve employment opportunities, solve the immigration conundrum and to ecologically save the planet. China is facing many domestic challenges, from spiralling national debt to the middle income trap, nevertheless it seems to be in a better position to address these crises than the US under Trump.
Nana de Graaff is Assistant Professor in International Relations at the Department of Political Science at the VU University Amsterdam.Bastiaan van Apeldoorn is Reader in International Relations in the Department of Political Science at the VU University Amsterdam.
Their co-authored article, ‘US–China relations and the liberal world order: contending elites, colliding visions’, appeared in the January 2018 special issue of International Affairs, ‘Ordering the world: liberal internationalism in theory and practice’.
Read the article here.
Explore the rest of the special issue here.
See: The end of liberal international order? | G. John Ikenberry | International Affairs
These are not happy times for liberal internationalists. No one can be sure how deep the crisis of liberal…cht.hm
See: US-Chinese power shift and the end of the Pax Americana | Christopher Layne | International Affairs
In this article, I show that far from consenting to be bound by institutions and rules of the Pax Americana, China is…cht.hm
See: US-China relations and the liberal world order: contending elites, colliding visions? | Nana De Graaff & Bastiaan van Apeldoorn
The future of liberal internationalism will be influenced increasingly by the re-emergence of China as a major power on…cht.hm
Will Trump make China great again? The belt and road initiative and international order | Astrid H. M. Nordin & Mikael Weissmann
Under President Xi Jinping's leadership, Chinese foreign relations have moved from keeping a low profile, to a more…academic.oup.com
The appointments of Pompeo and Bolton and the removal of McMaster and Tillerson suggest greater military belligerency and war risks but little substantial change.
The appointments of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton to replace less hawkish members of the White House team comes at the same time as threatened new trade tariffs on China’s alleged theft of American intellectual property, a problem recognised within China, on top of tariffs on steel and aluminium, and the strengthening of US-Taiwan relations.
Those moves appear to be classic Trumpian ‘transactionalism’ – a big rhetorical roar designed to open negotiations and force concessions, or the ‘art of the deal’. This was clearly seen with steel and aluminium tariffs, initially on all states yet from which the European Union, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and Argentina, are now exempt pending talks on trade and military spending. The difference, however, is that the latter are US allies while China has been declared a strategic competitor and revisionist power.
The aim seems to be to leverage US market access and military power against other states to shore up the US’ position, to reverse widely perceived ‘decline’ through America First ‘principled realism’ which US President Donald Trump claims will ‘make America great again’.
A risky strategy
After 14 months in office, it is becoming clearer that President Trump operates at three levels: actually renegotiating great power relations; via transactionalist ‘give and take’ tactics; and simultaneously managing the media optics for parties to negotiation and to his political voter base.
The results may well yield a slight elevation of the US position within the international order in the short to medium terms as there is no alternative pole of global power of sufficient strength, at least for next few decades. China has yet to approach credibility as a rival model to the US-led liberal order per se.
Nevertheless, this is a risky strategy from a seemingly risk-taking stylistically-unorthodox administration. At worst, Trump’s approach risks damaging the rules-based order itself due to selective engagement with its core rules and institutions, testing the loyalty of allies, and presenting opportunities for ‘rising’ powers like China to promote at least the possibility of an alternative axis.
Unsurprisingly, this worries the US foreign policy establishment which, since Pearl Harbor, has worked tirelessly to build the international architecture of US-led order – the United Nations system, US-European and US-East Asian security systems, as well as a string of alliances in the western hemisphere and the Middle East. Establishmentarians worry how far President Trump may go; he’s not ‘one of us’.
But the Trump strategy is politically-convenient, distracting attention from basic domestic sources of the political legitimacy crisis laid bare in the historic election campaigns of 2016. By blaming the foreigner, the outsider, the immigrant, Trump sends a loud and clear message to his political base – ‘America First’ and ‘Make America Great Again’!
Thus far, his core support remains solid – at around 80% favourability among his GOP 2016 voters – but as this base erodes, however slowly, we should expect more xenophobic rhetoric and policies as we approach November 2018.
Likely result? In the end, I doubt the damage that Trump inflicts on the international order will bring about its demise – the order is deeply-embedded and has powerful support among global elites. Yet, the crisis of that liberal order, which predates Trump, will continue to deepen for the simple reason that at a very basic level, the order is not serving well an increasingly larger proportion of the world’s people, including in the West. The political crisis is probably more acute inside the US than elsewhere at this time, though the symptoms are evident in the rise of populist right-wing nationalism and the erosion or near-collapse of the political centre across Europe.
But in the US, the rise of the Left is actually the bigger story, launched by the Bernie Sanders campaign, galvanised into mass opposition since Trump’s inauguration by women’s marches, teachers’ strikes, and since the recent Florida school shooting, among school children more generally. Millennials are on the march, in particular, and they have swung left, and passionately anti-Trump.
The North Korea meet
Pompeo and Bolton might be just the kind of men to advise President Trump as he prepares the optics for upcoming talks with Kim Jong-un. They are Trump loyalists; Bolton was a fervent proponent and facilitator of the Iraq war, as President Bush’s arms control under-secretary. They’re hardliners on Iran, Syria, Russia, China, unafraid to counsel pre-emptive military strikes, as Bolton so disastrously did over non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Yet, if President Trump is serious about an agreement to denuclearise North Korea, how he and his team handle diplomacy and optics with Iran may be key. The renegotiation of the Iran nuclear agreement, for example, is likely to involve its (non-nuclear) ballistic missile programme, as well as guarantees on regime change, which Iran’s leaders fear drives US policy in their region.
But if the aim is rhetorical fire and fury, and a military build-up to boot, to put Iran and North Korea ‘in their place’ then the likelihood of conflict, especially over Iran, increases. China, which is invested in a friendly regime in North Korea, would not accept a pro-American Korean peninsula.
Shifting power balances
With the sacking of Rex Tillerson, the removal of General H.R. McMaster from the National Security Council and the appointment of John Bolton, even the veneer of diplomacy appears to be giving way to military power and the credible threat of the use of massive force, the consequences of which would be catastrophic. Trump, however, appears to be assembling a war cabinet.
As in other regards, however, Trump is hardly the architect of the broader shift from diplomacy to military force in America’s power projection. Since 9/11 in particular, the power balance in US strategy has decisively shifted towards the military and war, towards the Pentagon and CIA, and selective commitment to international law.
With the rise of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, backed by President Trump’s favourite think tank, the Heritage Foundation – which backs robust US leadership vis a vis Russia, Iran, China, North Korea, Isis, Trump would now appear to have embraced a mix of neo-conservative and right-wing conservative nationalism – the very tendencies he attacked and who attacked him as unfit for office during the 2016 election campaign.
President Trump, for all his claims of radical ‘America First-ism’ in foreign and national security policy is now pretty much in the establishment fold. His rhetorical style differs markedly, to be sure, worrying establishment stalwarts, but the substance of President Trump’s policies differs little from theirs.
Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London, and the author of Foundations of the American Century. His twitter handle is @USEmpire
THE ELITE POWER BLOG
On this page one of the EPIC members as well as occasional guests will regularly publish blogs commenting on news and developments in world politics showing the power of elites or the resistance to elite power