Over the past week (since October 14), John Mearsheimer, a well-known offensive realist, has made a whirlwind tour in China. According to his arguments in several Chinese universities, the United States has made all efforts including military means to “remake the world in America’s image” since the end of the Cold War. To that end, the White House has carried out its highly ideology-oriented foreign policy doctrine with a view to securing its supremacy in the world order which has been built on the liberal democracy and the values that the Americans have held.
Yet, since President Donald Trump came into office, he has targeted U.S. allies, foreign adversaries, disregarded human rights, and hinged his policies on whether the move will benefit the U.S., especially financially. As Professor Mearsheimer has noted, the U.S.-led liberalism trumped by nationalism and realism, especially by nationalism, has threated to undermine the American crusade. Even though Trump does not think this way, he does embody such ideology and approach to politics. In effect, he ran an anti-liberal democracy campaign with heavy focus on the distrust of international institutions and the free trade regime based on the liberalism and multilateralism.
An American scholar, Mearsheimer makes sense to argue that nationalism pushing back against the U.S.-led liberal crusade has been long in the making. There are two sides to the story. First, Trump’s recent predecessors, either Obamar or G.W. Bush, Jr., tried to shape the world in America’s image. However, the Bush Doctrine and the entire U.S. foreign policy in Middle East, the expansion of the EU and NATO, and engagement with China have all turned out to be different from what the policymakers have envisioned. American people then had enough of spending moneys and sacrificing soldiers for countries thousands miles away and brought no reward for the country. As an exceptionally smart businessman, Trump saw this, he tapped into this, and he landed in the White House because of this.
Yet, externally Trump has made mistakes repeatedly. Since no countries like to be intervened in their own affairs, China, Russia and many others who have been targeted by U.S.’ desire to reshape the world are now full of nationalistic sentiment that despises U.S. intervention. The interference in Russia’s elections, in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet have all incited nationalism. This becomes the strongest pushbacks against American liberal crusade across the globe. True, it is controversial that to credit the end of the crusade to nationalism and realism might not paint the full picture, argued by Yan Xuetong, a well-known Chinese scholar in “moral realism”. He said that individual leadership style is incredibly important in international politics. Since Trump’s political deed is modeled on his business experience, his personality is much more for financial benefits than ideological drive. Consider this, it might be true that Trump himself single-handedly ended the American liberal crusade.
Here, either Mearsheimer or Yan have seemed to ignore the fact since 1997 and in particular the beginning of the new millennium, the so-called “Establishment” view has rapidly regarded China as a morally flawed inevitable adversary, if not a well-termed foe, at the moment with regard to Taiwan, eventually the Western Pacific, and in time the global equilibrium. According to this school of thought, the United States should therefore act toward China not as a strategic partner but as it treated the Soviet Union during the cold war: a rival and a challenge, reducing trade wherever possible to nonstrategic items, creating an alliance of Asian states to contain China or, if failing that, building up Japan to help American share the burden for the defense of Asia and the containment of China. Advocates of this point of view go even farther to argue that the United States should treat Taiwan as an independent state and a military outpost and in practice to scrap the “one-China” policy on which Sino-American relations have been based since their rapprochement started in 1971.
Almost 20years ago, Henry Kissinger patently put it, for the part of the United States, any hostile policy that designated China as the foe or potential enemy primarily came from China’s rapid growing economy and its firmly-held ideology. This is totally unrelated to Trump’s personal style or liberal values that the Americans have entertained traditionally. In effect, the United States on many occasions seeks to convey to China that opposition to hegemony is coupled with a preference for a constructive relationship and it facilitates and not obstruct China’s participation in a stable international order. Confrontation with China should be the ultimate recourse rather than the strategic choice. For sure, the challenge to Chinese leaders is to learn to discern the constraints of American values and public opinion. Due to this, China and particularly the current leadership have reiterated that the future development of China can’t be realized in isolation from the world. In doing so, Beijing has vowed to act as a rising power to take the proper responsibility in the global affairs.
Another misperception by Mearsheimer of China is that since China’s rise is inevitable in the near future, many Americans see it as a challenge to the U.S. dominance. With “multipolar” gradually replacing “unipolar” now, major powers began to change their policies in view of shifting reality. He further assumes that since the international system in which states exist is anarchic, they prefer using military capability to pursue their own interests while keep their intention unknown. Also as states are rational actors, they like to think and act strategically rather than narrow-mindedly. It tempts the United States to follow Great Britain in history to see the rise of China like that of Germany. Though badly flawed historical analogies, it is true that in both China and the United States, perceptions of each other have been heavily colored by domestic politics, particularly the United States. In comparison, China still lags behind the United States in terms of the high-technology innovation and capacities, its policies primarily on its bordering areas and economic drive; and its official communist ideology holds little appeal to other countries but fundamentally for its domestic needs.
Chinese official line holds that the world is undergoing profound changes unseen in a century. While China is determined to realize its national dream by the mid-century, it will continue to follow its well-laid tenets of peaceful reemergence and win-win cooperation. Over the past 70 years, China has achieved tremendous growth, but its original goal remains to aspire for a great power, a reliable defender of world peace and a responsible builder of the global governance. True, China’s role in the world has changed accordingly in terms of its second largest economy of the world. Yet, China’s future prosperity has obviously hinged on its increasingly relevant stakeholder in broader global affairs. Due to this transition, China’s foreign policy has placed a growing emphasis on multilateral forms of engagement and cooperation. This is not a lip-service but a solemn promise by China to the world community.
Despite the divergences between China and the United States, and the different opinions on the current world order, it is well understandable that the academic dialogues between John Mearsheimer and its Chinese counterparts may act as an enlightenment for the world’s two largest economies to work together to avoid the desperate and groundless fatalism.