President Joe Biden’s economic and foreign policy may be a sharp departure from that of his predecessor, Donald Trump. But when it comes to relations with China, Biden has largely upheld Trump’s hardline — refusing, for example, 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 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 extends 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 decarbonizing 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 compete 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, as great powers (the United States) 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.”
“Realistic” theorists of international relations like 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, it didn’t make the country less democratic or less inclined to fight 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 states can put national security and survival above all else, there is a big 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, misleadingly and dismissively labeled “isolationism.” China’s territorial integrity will remain unchallenged, even without saber clattering 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.
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 seen 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 the rivalry between the major powers (US and China) is structural,” he writes, “meaning that the problem cannot be eliminated with smart policy making.” But structure does not completely determine the balance in a complex system where the definition of national interests, the strategies followed and the information available to actors depend to some extent on our choices.
The structure of rivalry between great powers may preclude 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 these extremes. Structure is not destiny: we keep the agency to create a better (or worse) world order.
The writer, professor of international political economy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is:
President of the International Economic Association. © Project Syndicate.