Home inFocus COVID-19: The More Things Change... The World Needs American Leadership After COVID-19

The World Needs American Leadership After COVID-19

Mark Meirowitz Summer 2020

International affairs are not currently a high priority. Instead, Americans are focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, its impact on the U.S. economy, and on the domestic turmoil in the nation. However, it is imperative for America to address the immediate and fundamental issue of whether the United States will continue to lead the world following the pandemic to ensure world stability and the rule of law, or whether a China-dominated world order will prevail.

The pandemic has awakened Americans and the world from wishful thinking concerning China’s actions. China withheld vital information about the origins of the COVID-19 virus in China. Further, Beijing co-opted the World Health Organization (WHO), which failed to properly address the pandemic because China’s actions might come under criticism or be exposed. China acquiesced in a resolution at the World Health Assembly (WHA) to look into the causes of the pandemic, a useless gesture since President Xi Jinping’s government will likely never cooperate with such an investigation.

In addition to its internal repression, and its actions and claims regarding Hong Kong and Taiwan, China has expanded its power and influence through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), involving infrastructure development and investments throughout the world.

Further, in the South China Sea (SCS), China has sought to assert wide-ranging legal rights over the resources of the SCS, ridiculing international legal decisions debunking China’s arguments for the expansion of its regional rights (such as the so-called “nine-dash line”). For example, a Chinese official called the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling against China in the Philippines case related to the Scarborough Shoal a “piece of trash.”

China does not countenance criticism or challenge to its rising power and influence. When Australia called for an investigation into the causes of the pandemic, China, Australia’s largest trading partner, imposed crushing tariffs on Australian barley imports and stopped accepting beef from various Australian producers. Indeed, a Chinese official was quoted saying that Australia is like a piece of chewing gum on the bottom of one’s shoe that needs to be kicked off.

China has used its veto in the UN to prevent actions being taken that it opposes. In international institutions, Chinese involvement has concentrated on ensuring Chinese influence and control.

China has used its “sharp power” to undermine democracies and democratic institutions worldwide. “Sharp power” has been defined by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) as the “aggressive and subversive policies employed by authoritarian governments as a projection of state power in democratic countries, policies that cannot be described as either hard power or soft power.” The NED report highlighted that “China has spent tens of billions of dollars to shape public opinion and perceptions around the world, employing a diverse toolkit that includes, but is not limited to, thousands of people-to-people exchanges, wide-ranging cultural activities, educational programs (most notably the ever-expanding network of controversial Confucius Institutes), and the development of media enterprises with global reach.”

What should be done to address these and other challenges and threats to American leadership?

International Institutions

The United States needs to follow China’s lead and remain in these institutions to influence and control them. Pulling out is not effective since, as we saw with the WHO, when the U.S. pulled out, China jumped in with a $2 billion commitment to fight the coronavirus.

We must restructure international institutions. The UN was formed after WW II based on a specific threat from the Axis powers and was oriented toward collective security. The UN has, for the most part, not satisfied this objective. Indeed, China has been among the main malefactors, hiding behind the veto. We can no longer allow China to use its control of international institutions such as the WHO to empower or protect itself. Perhaps the entire UN structure needs complete revision. If the world body is a debating society, remove the veto, let debate ensue, and don’t allow the organization to take actions (or prevent actions) to empower China. Former U.S. Senator and UN Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan even called the United Nations “a dangerous place” due to the damage of which the UN was capable.

Trump Doctrine 2.0

What we need now to assure continued American leadership in the world and the preservation of the rule of law is a “Trump Doctrine 2.0” which asks our allies to join with the U.S. to counter China’s rising influence, since America can’t do this alone. We can have American leadership without globalization, internationalism, and without ineffective arrangements like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or the Iran Deal). The Trump Doctrine emphasized “America First” and also insisted that allies must be supportive of American interests and pay their fair share of regional arrangements such as NATO. By working with America’s allies, the Trump Doctrine 2.0 can become a sort of “America First Plus,” where American leadership in the world is empowered by America’s allies, and which will be indispensable to world peace and stability.

Some possible areas of cooperation are as follows:

Countering China’s 5G efforts – We need to form a coalition between America and its allies to push back against China’s 5G efforts. China threatened to punish the British bank HSBC and to break commitments to build a nuclear plant in the United Kingdom unless London allowed Huawei to build its 5G network. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently stated that China’s “aggressive behavior shows why countries should avoid economic overreliance on China and should guard their critical infrastructure from CCP [Chinese Communist Party] influence.” A Heritage Foundation report recommended a three-fold approach: establish a transatlantic 5G consortium; block untrusted companies; and build a coalition to confront China’s “military-civilian interaction.”

Countering China’s Belt and Road Initiative (“BRI”) – Washington should support countries that resist the overreaching of the BRI. The BRI has been promoted by China in the guise of “soft power” intended to be beneficial especially to poorer countries, yet when looked at more carefully, and as a result of the economic catastrophe engendered by the pandemic, many of these projects have been halted. China has made billions of dollars worth of loans and grants for infrastructure throughout the world. Many state beneficiaries of China’s BRI are now unable to repay these loans, their economies having been destroyed by the pandemic. In many cases, the loan arrangements are being cancelled or reviewed.

The BRI conundrum is exemplified by Tanzania’s president canceling a $10 billion port project signed by his predecessor that provided China would gain full control of the port with a 99-year lease (Tanzania’s president stated that these were conditions that only a “drunkard” would accept). As with the other BRI projects, China clearly intends to achieve control, not benefiting the people of Tanzania.

Countering China’s Influence and Expansion in the South China Sea (SCS) – The United States should create a South China Sea alliance with countries in danger of losing their SCS rights to resources to China, and to prevent China’s militarization of the SCS. How ironic that Vietnam, which fought a war with the United States, now seeks American help and that of the international community in countering China’s legal claims in the SCS. Their concerns are exacerbated by the ramming and sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat by a Chinese vessel near the Paracel Islands.

China’s SCS claims were rejected outright by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) and found to be without any basis in international law. Washington must support states that stand up to China’s claims of sovereignty over continental shelf resources. The United States should also continue freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) which provide the clear message that international law must prevail in the SCS.

Containment 2.0

The words of George F. Kennan in his famous 1947 “X” telegram relating to the USSR surely have applicability to China. “It will be clearly seen that the Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy, but which cannot be charmed or talked out of existence.” We need a “Containment 2.0” that counters and challenges expanding Chinese influence and that will help to ensure American leadership in the world. America does not, however, need a “Cold War 2.0” with China, merely a way to push back and counter China’s influence, working with America’s allies. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd observed that “it may not yet be Cold War 2.0, but it is starting to look like Cold War 1.5.”

Accordingly, the United States must be careful to use “smart power” strategies (combining “hard power” and “soft power”) to counter China, and not allow the competition with China to descend into a purely “hard power” conflict. China also must be cautioned that the world will not countenance aggression in Taiwan, repression in Hong Kong or, for that matter, the continued utilization of “sharp power” by China to undermine world democracies. American leadership, supported by America’s allies, is indispensable in this effort.

Since, as Kennan said, these issues can’t be “charmed or talked out of existence,” America and its allies must take immediate steps to re-assert American leadership in the world and ensure the continuation of an American-led anti-totalitarian world order and the preservation of the rule of law.

Mark Meirowitz, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Humanities at SUNY Maritime College.