‘America first’ thinking won’t survive in a hyperconnected world
Andrew Leung believes the forces for convergence are stronger than the trends pulling the world order apart
The world order is at a crossroads. For evidence, look no further than the iconoclasm of US President Donald Trump, the leader of the free world; a fracturing European Union, once a pillar of peace in Europe; the resurgent powers of Russia and China and rising Islamophobia, which may precipitate Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilisations”.
Some, like Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution, think American exceptionalism backed by military dominance is the answer. Some, such as historian Niall Ferguson, proffer the idea of a tri-polar condominium between the US, Russia and China. Others, like Charles Kupchan of the US Council on Foreign Relations, think that the end of Pax Americana will usher in a “No One’s World”.
Trump seems inclined towards a detente with Russia as a possible counterweight against China. However, Russia is unlikely to get too close to the US, its cold war nemesis responsible for the collapse of the former USSR. Nor would Russia sacrifice its relationship with China, which is its largest energy customer by far, and a useful strategic hedge against American hegemony.
Smoke and mirrors aside, the tide of history seems to be flowing towards what I would call a “common destiny with diversity”. The signs are manifold.
First, military hegemony doesn’t work in an age of advanced nuclear powers. Even though the US has the world’s most powerful military, both Russia and China possess sophisticated short- and long-range nuclear deterrence capabilities. Redoubling America’s military is likely to trigger an asymmetric arms race, encompassing cyber and space. This would boost mutual deterrence between the great powers.
Nor would trade protectionism and coercion work to secure Trump’s “America first” policy. For a start, trade protectionism has never worked historically. Now, with global supply and value chains straddling different economies, any tariffs will raise the costs of imported materials for home production, making it even less competitive. Likewise, relying on bilateral trade agreements will lead to fragmented trade flows through globalised value chains. This is bound to affect profitability.
What is more, we now live in an age of ubiquitous digital connectivity. This has ushered in a “fourth industrial revolution”, changing how jobs are created and how cities are managed. People and countries are more interconnected than ever before. For example, through a dense network of transportation, energy and communications infrastructure, what global strategist Parag Khanna calls “connectography”, megacities are linked across geographical boundaries. China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative will further this global trend.
Trump has appointed oil-and-gas-friendly, dyed-in-the-wool climate change doubters to his cabinet. He may dilute, if not retreat from, America’s obligations under the historic Paris agreement concluded by 195 countries. However, even without the United States, global momentum for adaptation to climate change and mitigation of its impact is unlikely to dissipate. China, as the world’s worst polluter, will continue to forge ahead with the agreement, given the extent of its environmental problems and the attendant risks to its social stability.
In fact, climate change is poised to bring the whole world closer together as one Planet Earth.
Trump has filled his team with multibillionaires and big-business interests close to the “military-industrial-financial” complex. He has avowed drastic tax cuts and revolutionary deregulation, which are destined to make the mega rich even richer.
Meanwhile, gross inequalities are rising in many parts of the world, whether under libertarian conservatism or authoritarian capitalism. Thomas Piketty’s feared tipping point of the French revolution may yet happen again. Before long, an angry movement against the 0.01 per cent is likely to demand a fairer social contract in the most unequal countries.
Indeed, trust in governments worldwide is receding while civil society, even where suppressed, is on the ascendant, empowered by the internet and transnational networks. This bodes well for more social inclusiveness, diversity, intellectual exchange, and defence of human values in defiance of conformity and elitism.
Another dimension is cultural cross-fertilisation. China’s Dalian Wanda Group, for example, is expanding rapidly in the US, having acquired two national cinema chains. It is building the world’s largest, most advanced filmmaking studio in Qingdao (青島), in partnership with Hollywood. The vision is to make films that sell not only in China but across the globe, in cooperation with America’s producers, scriptwriters, actors and cinematographers.
As for religion, in Islamic Spain during the golden age of Islam, Jews, Muslims and Christians lived in relative harmony. Many modern cities, Hong Kong included, are open to different religions. According to The Telegraph, China is on course to become the “world’s most Christian nation” within 15 years. Religious tolerance, if not assimilation, is likely to endure, anti-immigrant xenophobia notwithstanding.
From Trump’s troubles to Islamic State inroads, networks can destroy as well as build in a connected world
As regards political ideology, “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is proving to be more like “capitalism with Chinese characteristics”. Some Scandinavian countries look more socialist than capitalist. With Brexit and Trump, the nature of democracy is now open to reflection. Ideological exceptionalism is losing steam. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Trump adopts a transactional approach to relationships. Forsaking ideals that define America as a “shining city on a hill”, he seems to be closing America’s door to the world. Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping (習近平) has been selling the idea of a global “community of common destiny”. His brainchild, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, has proved much less “scary” as some initially thought. It has been following international norms in partnership with existing institutions, including the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. This inclusive vision seems to chime with Theresa May, the British prime minister, wanting to create a “Global Britain” post Brexit.
Yes, storm clouds are gathering. Confrontation and even clashes may be unavoidable. However, being a cautious optimist, I think there are enough powerful currents that will push history towards a common destiny with diversity.
Andrew K.P. Leung is an international and independent China strategist