At a recent social gathering near Geneva attended by academics and international civil servants, a visiting American scholar chortled: “This may be the last bastion of liberal internationalism.” The United States was the dominating force behind the creation of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions – the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. After 1944, the U.S. tried to establish a liberal international order that focused on democracy, the rule of law, human rights and multilateral organizations.
Is that order coming to a close?
The visit of the Chinese President Xi Jinping to the United Nations Office in Geneva in January and his subsequent Davos speech praising multilateralism were clear signs of Chinese interest in a new world order. The recent May 14-15 Chinese summit on the Silk Road initiative was another indication. The project - part of the ambitious “One Belt, One Road” dream of recreating the ancient route through a network of commerce to link East and Central Asia and beyond - promises more than $1 trillion in infrastructure investments in over 60 countries in Europe, Asia and Africa. The Chinese government has already announced that its businesses have signed projects worth $304 billion in Belt and Road countries between 2014 and 2016.
While China continues to expand its economic interests, the United States is embroiled in a serious domestic crisis over President Trump and his associates possible collusion during the 2016 presidential campaign as well as possible charges of obstruction of justice. A special counsel has been named to investigate. In the foreseeable future, all eyes in Washington will focus on internal American politics.
Even without the current scandals, Trump’s campaign promise of “America First,” and his questioning of trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) make it obvious that the United States and China are heading in opposite directions. The U.S. is looking inward, China is looking to expand.
What is the relationship between the liberal international order promoted by the United States following World War II and the Chinese trade expansion? The first was an economic outreach as well as a political and military hegemony. For the moment, the Chinese are not touting any form of political global outreach; they profess to be interested only in infrastructure assistance to guarantee their access to raw materials and markets.
But is it possible to separate the two? The United States’ liberal internationalism was comprehensive. It was political, economic and military. The Chinese are selling the idea of decoupling the three.
Whether this is possible or not pragmatically is not evident for the moment. The Chinese, unlike Soviet communists, seem to have no ideology to sell. What they are selling is enormous investment in infrastructure in countries that are turning away from traditional lenders because of linkages between money and politics, such as democratic reform and human rights.
Chinese terms are very attractive. Swiss President Doris Leuthard attended the recent summit and signed several agreements. This is, after all, the year of China-Swiss tourism and the two presidents are working on a larger free trade agreement. The Swiss president gave the usual assurances that human rights were discussed, but as U.S. leadership in liberalism fades, by example and rhetoric, a new order is emerging rather quickly.