May 21, 2020 - World

U.S.-China rivalry chips away at global order

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opened a press conference on Wednesday with a remarkable statement: "The media’s focus on the current pandemic risks missing the bigger picture of the challenge that’s presented by the Chinese Communist Party.”

Why it matters: In the midst of a global crisis with more than 300,000 dead and no end in sight, American foreign policy seems absorbed with China's actions at the start of the outbreak, rather than a global effort to contain and eventually end it.

  • Anger over China's slow and secretive response clearly extends beyond Washington, and 62% of Americans now consider China "unfriendly" or an "enemy," according to a Morning Consult poll. That anger is already a core feature of President Trump's re-election campaign.
  • Some of America's allies, notably Australia, have joined the call for more accountability for China in international institutions like the United Nations and World Health Organization.
  • But another sentiment is bubbling up in Washington: that the international system has been so toothless in the face of China's transgressions, and so warped by China's participation in it, that it's time for America to walk away.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who is often floated as a 2024 presidential prospect, gave voice to that view in a speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday.

  • He argued that the existing global order served America's interests through the end of the Cold War, but has more recently come to facilitate China's rise.
  • Maintaining it now, Hawley contended, would doom America to “second place to the imperialists in Beijing.”

Hawley's primary target is the World Trade Organization, which admitted China in 2001 in what many hawks now consider the original sin of America's China policy. Hawley has introduced a joint resolution to pull the U.S. out.

  • Hawley's proposal has little chance of passage, and an assortment of trade experts and pro-business groups have warned of dire economic consequences if it did.
  • "Dismantling the WTO would turn the global economy into the Wild West," says Fred Hochberg, former chair of the Export-Import Bank (2009–2017).
  • Hochberg agrees that the WTO needs reform, but says the U.S. has "benefited enormously" from the principles underpinning global trade, which it played a decisive role in shaping.

That's not to say Hawley is merely shouting from the margins. Blowing up multilateral agreements and institutions to thwart China has become central to American foreign policy.

  • Trump has announced a total funding cut to the WHO in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century because the organization has refused to criticize China.
  • On climate change, even some who acknowledge the threat argue the U.S. should not be constrained by international accords that seek sharper reductions from America than from China — still considered a developing nation.
  • On arms control, the U.S. is threatening to walk away from the lone remaining treaty constraining the world's two largest nuclear arsenals unless China — which has one-twentieth as many warheads as the U.S. or Russia — signs on.

Breaking it down: "We have to face the reality that the existing organizations have not kept up with the current challenges," says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The World: A Brief Introduction."

  • That's certainly true of the WHO and WTO, he says. "But before you go about ripping them up, you had better be confident that you can replace them with something better."
  • "To begin with the assumption that all is lost and the best way forward is to destroy what exists is the foreign policy equivalent of blowing up Obamacare before you have anything to replace it with," Haass says.

The big picture: The U.S. largely led the world into the current global system. Few countries appear prepared to follow America out of it.

  • That may not matter to Trump. His withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord and threats toward the WHO show he's willing to stand alone.
  • And the rhetoric from a number of ambitious Republicans — Hawley, Pompeo, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) — suggests "America First" will live on beyond the current administration.

The bottom line: The stage is set for a momentous debate: Is abandoning the existing global order the only way to halt America's decline, as Hawley argues — or would it only hasten it?

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