“Black lives matter,” stressed Zhao Lijian, deputy spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, when asked to comment on the death of George Floyd and the widespread protests that it has spawned across the United States. “We hope the U.S. government will take concrete measures to fulfill its obligations under the international convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination to uphold the legal rights of ethnic minorities.”
It is not unusual for the peculiarly talented Zhao — poster boy for a breed of relatively young Chinese diplomats labeled by observers as “wolf warriors” — to utter colorful statements. In fact, the inflection of his statements have been routinely taken as an indication of how bleak Beijing’s assessment of Sino-American relations has become. Beyond these usual bilateral dynamics, however, Zhao’s pontification about racial injustice in the United States made me reflect upon the future of the liberal international order, which has guaranteed unprecedented peace and prosperity for the past seventy-five years.
If a diplomatic historian from 1945 would travel by time machine to the exact moment when Zhao talked about how black lives matter, she would have concluded it a victory for the American-imposed world order. It could be seen as somehow akin to how Japan, which had fought a war to eject America from Asia, initially scrambled to keep the United States involved in regional affairs amidst President Trump’s perceived disinterest in Asian concerns; or to how Germany, the erstwhile Nazi empire, has been scrambling to save the Atlantic Alliance amidst some withdrawal of American leadership, and the European Union amidst a revival of British parochialism and European populism.
It has been incredible to see the two former Axis powers demonstrate far greater commitment to the liberal international order than the two major Allied powers that conceptualized and built it, but it is even more incredible to see China invoke the principles of the American-built global architecture in general, let alone a specific element pertaining to human rights. This is especially significant considering that China is probably the only country in the world whose historical psyche is so fundamentally at odds not only with liberal internationalism, but also with the very premise of the Westphalian system of world politics itself.
It is useful to take a step back and appreciate some historical context. Before the United States became the the world’s preeminent power, international relations were underpinned by an amoral system of great power competition. This remains the case today, of course, but only to a certain extent: multilateral institutions and global public opinion temper the prerogative of strong nations. No such constraint was present before 1945. Informed by the laws of nature, the sovereign prerogative of the state was seen as absolute, and all actions taken in the name of its survival were deemed acceptable. The only moral compass was stability — ensuring that no one nation acquires enough power to subdue all the others. As a result, alliance systems were built to ensure a balance of power, and nations routinely went to war to maintain or restore the balance.
Emerging as the strongest nation in the world at the end of the Second World War, the United States went about shaping the world in its image. It rejected the balance of power, designing instead a permanent conference of states that settled international questions not by force but through a set of rules and international law. The Americans also rejected the beggar-thy-neighbor predilection of the old order, creating instead a system of international trade and finance that sought global economic stability. This architecture of institutions became the United Nations system and the Breton Woods organizations, which have today evolved into a complex global governance regime underpinned by multilateral cooperation.
In a way, the emergence of the United States as the preeminent global power accelerated the universalizion of Enlightenment values, such as the inviolability of human dignity and the primacy of human reason. The United Nations has not only outlawed aggressive war, it has also spawned international law that limits the legitimate space for the states’ use of force, regulates state behavior and dictates global standards on many technical spheres, and enjoins all states to commit to human rights, human development, environmental protection, and many other progressive causes. This was consistent with the world envisioned by the visionary American President Woodrow Wilson: One where where all nations adhere to to a universal set of values defined by liberal humanism. This vision sought to modify the Westphalian principle that posited the absolute supremacy of the state.
This is not to say that America has a perfect record of commitment to the liberal international order, of course. The transitory nature of American democratic politics renders the United States perennially susceptible to the occasional myopia that makes it lose sense of its national values. The Vietnamese, the Iraqis and the Nicaraguans know very well, for instance, that America’s record as a responsible power is far from impeccable. Nevertheless, the United States has been generally able to build a rules-based world order through the power of its example.
Instead of subjugating vanquished nations Japan and Germany, for instance, the United States rebuilt them along with other ruined European nations, and reinstated them to their erstwhile place among the world’s first-rate nations. When the United Kingdom and France sought to regain their colonial possessions or impose their hegemony upon weaker nations, the United States rebuffed them, at one point even going as far as to risk the Atlantic Alliance by opposing the Franco-British-Israeli action against President Nasser. On the face of clear Soviet aggression in the immediate aftermath of the war, a vastly superior America opted for prudence when it could have defeated a budding threat through unilateral action.
This initial credibility of American global leadership enhanced international faith in the U.N.-centered world order. Ironically, it also emboldened some to challenge the ultimate actualization of the Wilsonian vision. The most effective challenge came not from the Soviet Union or from China, but from a group of newly created countries in Africa and Asia whose independence had been supported by the Americans.
The Westphalian principle of the primacy of the state, which had been the premise of these countries’ emergence as independent nations in the 1950s up until the 1970s, accords these postcolonial states the right to define their own unique domestic realities. This principle, seen as a necessary extension of the right to self-determination, was jealously invoked by Afro-Asian national elites. In Bandung sixty-five years ago, these countries asserted the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states as the cornerstone of the new international order. These Bandung principles would then become the basis of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Group of Seventy-Seven, which remain powerful blocs in the United Nations today.
The Bandung principles have posed a stumbling block to western attempts to further push the envelope in universalizing Enlightenment principles in general and in expanding the scope of the global governance regime in particular. The western proponents of globalization sought to modify the Westphalian system that guaranteed unlimited freedom for states, so that all states would adhere to a set of universal principles that were often defined by western philosophers. The postcolonial states, wary of perceived neocolonialist designs, naturally opposed such attempts and worked together to preserve the Westphalian guarantee.
Today, many western governments often insist on compelling other governments to institute policies that may only be applicable to contemporary western context. Officials in the vast majority of developing countries often see this as western interventionism masquerading as multilateralism. This has led to an insistence on the part of the middle-sized and smaller powers to jealously guard the primacy of the state in the multilateral process. The Philippine Foreign Secretary, for instance, insists that the United Nations is “a collection of sovereignties but not a sovereign collective.”
China played an instrumental role in forging the Bandung consensus. In doing so, it accumulated a significant measure of goodwill among many Afro-Asian national elites through the years. Informed observers have opined that the communist leadership, true to China’s strategic history, has been cleverly cultivating this residual goodwill with the view to enhancing its efforts to reshape the global governance regime.
It appears to me that China’s strategy towards the American-imposed liberal international order has two prongs. On one hand, China appears to be forging an alternative network of multilateral institutions that revolve around Beijing. This network could one day replace the traditional multilateral architecture that revolves around the United Nations and Breton Woods systems. At the same time, having benefited from the rules-based global governance regime, China appears to be leveraging its influence not only to assertively take the leadership role in the United Nations system, but also to incrementally change the current consensus around the fundamental international norms that it has sponsored. In a modern twist of the Gramscian strategy, China may be seeking to challenge the ideological primacy of the Enlightenment in international affairs, seeing it as a western-imposed hegemonic set of values that is at odds with China’s quest for historic rejuvenation.
Encouraging a subliminal rejection of western claims to the universality of its values, for instance, the People’s Republic has been promoting the so-called Beijing Consensus and the China Model. The former rejects the Washington Consensus around the primacy of the market in favor of policy space for states, while the latter rejects western-style democratic tradition in favor of strong national leaderships. Beijing’s public diplomacy amidst the pandemic revolves around the demonstration of the merits of the Chinese system. Amidst perceived American incompetence in containing the pandemic, for instance, Beijing is demonstrating impressive efficiency through measures deemed anathema to western emphasis on the rights of the individual. Amidst American withdrawal from the World Health Organization, the Chinese are renewing their commitment to global governance in public health.
Zhao’s invocation of an international human rights convention in response to a question about the appalling racism in the United States should be seen in this context. To observers living in western-style democracies, Zhao’s statement was ridiculous. After all, they are familiar with widespread allegations about certain domestic conditions in China, and indeed the recent joint demarche by African ambassadors protesting racism against Africans in the mainland. But Zhao was not speaking to these observers, and he was not claiming Chinese impeccability. He was merely articulating the glaring dissonance between traditional American pretensions to lofty values on the world stage and the current American administration’s perceived inability to uphold those same values on its domestic stage. This dissonance has been exposed for all peoples to see.
In the coming years, the ideological cleavage between the China Model and western values will become more pronounced. The international consensus around Enlightenment principles could collapse if they fail to remain relevant in the context of rapid social changes brought about by the unfolding technological revolution and the coming existential crisis posed by climate change. These two major challenges might require a revisit of the current world order. They could also provide the Chinese the opportunity to propose an alternative set of values and build a new international consensus. Whether the United States can remain a credible defender of the values it has historically championed will greatly depend on its ability to address systemic racial and socio-economic injustices on its domestic sphere, and to overcome the self-inflicted challenges to its political system.