April 23 2018
By John LLoyd
Who will rule the world? It’s a subject that more and more becomes the conversation among Western politicians and policy makers – and its content darkens with every passing month. The consensus, if there is one, is that the world sits uneasily in a gulch formed by the withdrawing roar of the United States, the flatlining or descent of Europe and the rise and rise of China.
The European Union, whose most enthusiastic proponents once saw it as replacing the United States as a center of soft power and dynamism in the 21st century, is now wallowing in uncertainty and powerlessness. Only France has a strongly supported – for the moment – leader with a project to both lift domestic economic performance and to reboot the European project by greater centralization of economic policy and banking systems, and by creating pan-European parties to replace the nationally-rooted party delegates who presently occupy the largely powerless European parliament.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron presented these ideas at the European Parliament’s April 17 session in Strasbourg, calling for a move away from “selfish nationalism.” He knows, however, that the necessary support from Germany is lacking – and that France is presently mired in strikes. Europe is a divided, fractious continent with no immediate prospect of being anything other.
The democratic world admired Obama for his grace, diplomacy and support of liberal causes and institutions. Trump attracts the opposite sentiments, and has left allies floundering as to how to comport themselves in relation to a nation which had presented itself as indispensable.
No doubt, now, that China is the coming power, and it’s becoming increasingly clear what a future China wants to be. China expert Elizabeth C. Economy believes that Xi, as China’s leader, actively seeks to shape international norms and position himself as globalizer-in-chief. “As Xi colorfully put it in a 2014 speech,” writes Economy in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs magazine, “China should be capable of ‘constructing international playgrounds’— and ‘creating the rules’ of the games played on them.”
Xi’s confidence has a solid basis. Although the United States retains dominance in East Asia, in large part through its projection of military force, China may soon, on current trends,supplant it. This will be no passing of the baton from one great power to another – as happened, more or less peacefully, between the fading British Empire and the rising power of the United States after World War Two. In his book, “Destined for War,” Harvard political scientist Graham Allison draws a grim picture of an existential treat to the globe. Allison believes that “tensions between American and Chinese values, traditions, and philosophies will aggravate the fundamental structural stresses that occur whenever a rising power, such as China, threatens to displace an established power, such as the United States.” China, not Russia, is now described as the “peer competitor” to the still greater military strength of the United States.
Anything to be done? Only that which at present seems remote: an agreement between Beijing and Washington to share hegemony – a cooperative relationship which allows adjustments, in a constant negotiation, of their respective areas of power and influence, and a concentration on lowering what Allison describes as the “tensions” between their values. It presently seems remote because, in China, the ideology is becoming more ironclad and anti-democratic, and the projection of force more aggressive.
Yet – unlike the East-West confrontation when the Soviet Union still existed – China is an enthusiast for free trade and is largely capitalist (or, as it prefers to describe it, communist with Chinese characteristics). Though it suppresses, imprisons and tortures dissidents, its rising middle class, which is increasingly being educated in the West, constitutes a large, more skeptical and sophisticated group than was allowed to exist in Soviet times.
(John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and “Journalism in an Age of Terror”. He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine. – Reuters)