US President Joe Biden’s economic and foreign policy may differ greatly from that of his predecessor, Donald Trump. But when it comes to relations with China, Biden has largely upheld Trump’s hardline — for example, refusing to reverse Trump’s tariff hikes on Chinese exports and warning of further punitive trade measures.
This reflects the widespread hardening of US attitudes towards China. When Foreign Affairs magazine recently asked leading US experts whether US “foreign policy has become too hostile to China,” nearly half of respondents (32 out of 68) disagreed or strongly disagreed, suggesting a preference for an even more hostile one. tougher US stance on China.
For economists, who view the world in positive terms, this is a puzzle. Countries can make themselves and others better off by working together and avoiding conflict.
The clearest application of this principle is in the profits from trade that countries make – the bread and butter of professional economists. It is generally to the advantage of each country to open its domestic markets to others. But the same idea also applies to policy areas where tensions can exist between domestic and global interests. Yes, countries could adopt beggar-thy-neighbor policies, such as restricting access to home markets to improve their trading conditions, or piggybacking on global public goods such as decarbonization policies. But wouldn’t it be better if they abstained from such actions so that they could all do better collectively?
Geopolitical strategists, on the other hand, tend to see the world in zero-sum terms instead. Nation-states vie for power—the ability to bend others and pursue their interests unimpeded—which is necessarily relative. If a country has more power, its rival must have less. Such a world is necessarily conflicting, if great powers (the US) or emerging powers (China) strive for regional and global dominance.
In a recent article, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago provides a powerful articulation of this view. Mearsheimer was among those in the State Department’s investigation who strongly disagreed with the statement that US policy may have become too hostile to China. “All the great powers, whether democracies or not,” he writes, “have little choice but to compete for power in what is essentially a zero-sum game.” The implications for US-China relations are bleak: China will undoubtedly want to expand its power, and the US has no choice but to try to contain that power. This perspective poses a major challenge to economists and others who believe in the feasibility of a stable, peaceful, and largely cooperative world in which the US and China can thrive together.
“Realistic” theorists of international relations such as Mearsheimer and my colleague Stephen Walt at Harvard University are clearly right when they argue against the “liberal” assumption that US open markets and rules-based multilateralism would produce a China that is “more like us.” ‘. The US policy of engagement with China, which lasted until the Trump administration took over, may have made China richer, but it didn’t make the country more democratic or less likely to compete for power and influence.
But does a China with a distinctly different economic and political system and its own strategic interests imply an inevitable conflict with the West? Maybe not. The realists’ argument about the primacy of power depends on assumptions that must be qualified.
First, while nation-states may prioritize national security and survival above all else, there is a wide gap between achieving these narrower goals and maximizing power. The US would be safe from destruction or invasion even without a military presence on every continent. Historian Stephen Wertheim has argued that the expansionist view of US foreign policy has always competed with a more restrained approach, often misleadingly and dismissively labeled “isolationism.” China’s territorial integrity will remain unchallenged, even without saber rattling towards neighbors. Beyond a baseline of security, the pursuit of power competes with other national goals, such as domestic economic prosperity, which require less harassment on the global stage.
It is true, as realists like to point out, that the world lacks an enforcer of rules. There is no world government that makes states act in accordance with rules that they may have an interest in enacting, but little interest in following. This makes it more difficult to collaborate, but not completely. Game theory, real-world experience and lab experiments all suggest that reciprocity leads to collaboration. A third enforcer is not necessarily required to elicit cooperative behavior in repeated interactions.
Finally, uncertainty and the risk of misinterpreting the intentions of other states complicate the prospects for international cooperation between major powers. Purely defensive measures, both economic and military, are likely to be perceived as threats, piling up in a vicious circle of escalation. But this problem can also be mitigated to a certain extent. As Walt and I have argued, a framework that facilitates communication and encourages mutual justification of actions that could be misinterpreted by the other party could help.
Mearsheimer is skeptical that creative institutional design can make a big difference. “The driving force behind [US-China] rivalry between major powers is structural,” he writes, “meaning that the problem cannot be eliminated with smart policy making.” But structure does not fully determine the balance in a complex system where the definition of national interests, the strategies followed and the information available for actors are all dependent to some extent on our choices. The structure of rivalry between great powers may exclude a world of love and harmony, but it does not require a world of immutable conflict. It does not exclude any of the myriad alternatives that lie between extremes Structure is not destiny: we keep the agency to create a better (or worse) world order. ©20201/Project Syndicate
Dani Rodrik is professor of international political economy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and author of Straight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Sane World Economy.
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