America versus China: Things aren’t as uncertain as they may seem - Jay Revell
Since World War Two, America has repeatedly reconsolidated itself as the global hegemonic power. It has pulled states under its influence through a mutually beneficial politics of economic growth, and by establishing and playing a vital role in international institutions such as the United Nations (UN), World Health Organization (WHO), and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The presidency of Donald Trump has altered this, declaring a trade war with China, toying with the idea of NATO withdrawal, referring to the EU as a “foe” and denying the scientific consensus on climate change. Experts today rank America as 5th in terms of global soft power, shifting from holding a strong 1st prior to Trump’s election.
As America withdraws into isolationism, China has taken the opportunity to assert its presence globally, with President Xi committing China to global free trade and the upholding of the Paris Climate Agreement. With the US executive tarnishing America’s soft power, Xi has utilised a dialogue built around the liberal status quo that Trump has rejected. Whilst the US talks of withdrawing from international organisations, China upholds them; when the US talks of building walls, China is in the process of building the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious trade route connecting Asia, Africa and Europe over land and sea.
The BRI does, of course, reflects China’s dependence on exports to other countries, and China will have to diversify its economy to sustain this growth in the long term. However, its position on the global Soft Power Index moved up five places after the inauguration of Trump (from 30th in 2015 to 25th in 2017) indicating that their seizure of the ideological hole created by a Trump presidency has, to an extent, been successful.
Nevertheless, Xi’s liberal dialogue can only be taken at face value, as China comes under increasing international pressure over its treatment of Uighurs and human rights violations in Hong Kong. Despite paying lip service to the Paris Agreement, the BRI is acknowledged to have caused swathes of deforestation and carbon emissions across three continents. By 2019, China’s position on the Soft Power Index had fallen back to 27th, with the decline being attributed to its lack of individual freedoms and liberties.
Although it would be tempting to place the fate of American soft power on a knife edge between the election of Trump and Biden, this is too simple an analysis. Even if Trump is re-elected, no president could undo the soft power resources of the US during only two terms in office. Yet, if America’s diplomatic policies continue to be perceived as “unpredictable at best and untrustworthy at worst”, US soft power could continue to decline.
During the Coronavirus pandemic these unpredictable dynamics have been exacerbated. The nation that usually offers a guiding hand during international crises and plays a proactive role within international institutions continues to be capricious. Despite Trump’s labelling of the virus as the “China flu” in an attempt to blame the Chinese regime, the President has failed to fully grasp the ample opportunities given to him by the pandemic. Instead of emphasising China’s poor-regulation of unsanitary wet markets or the alleged initial cover-up of the pandemic, Trump has laid out a plan to formally withdraw the United States’ WHO membership.
The certainty and normality of American soft power has been thrown into the air and, although it is arguably here to stay, it has been affected at best and damaged at worst by Trump’s abnormal attitude towards US allies and institutions. Nevertheless, one thing is certain: China will not replace it.
Despite China’s rising economic power and ever-increasing GDP, President Xi has failed to live out the liberal promises to which he repeatedly pays lip-service. China will continue to talk-the-talk while failing to live by liberal norms and, if Trump is re-elected, the institutions that America helped to create will continue to function without the US as a member. Citizens and nations all around the world will continue to be guided by the liberal status quo, and the American values that crafted and defined the state of international relations today are likely to live on in hearts and minds. American soft power is here to stay.
Jay Revell is a graduate from the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London and winner of the Mile End Institute Research Prize.