The US fears competition. Its status as head of the global order must now be rethought

Chandran Nair | South China Morning Post
  • American pre-eminence was sustained by a grand bargain: it could sit at the top if it did not abuse its position – or it kept its abuse to bearable levels
  • Now that it no longer wants to behave responsibly, a more multipolar world which works for the benefit of all must be devised, argues Chandran Nair.
Make America Great Again may be US President Donald Trump’s rallying cry to his base, but it should also be recognised as a by-product of a much more significant trend: America’s fear of competing in a post-Western world.
Every week, if not every day, there seems to be some new American policy targeting China. Sanctions against Huawei and ZTE. Executive actions against TikTok and WeChat. New scrutiny of Chinese companies on US exchanges. Arrests of Chinese – and Chinese-Americans – accused of espionage.
Threats to expel Chinese journalists. Designating the Confucius Institutes as foreign missions. Sanctions on Chinese officials. Shutting down the Chinese consulate in Houston. One Chinese government official has referred to it as the “US hunting down the companies” of other countries.
Taken together, it’s now clear the United States is pursuing a policy to sanction and contain China in an attempt to arrest its rise, leveraging its financial and – for now – technological superiority against the country.
All of this points towards a US that has developed a fear of competing with others. Everyone is a threat, not a worthy competitor. Every competitor is accused of copyright infringements, of taking advantage of US technology, and of being a threat to national security. They are all eventually sanctioned in ways that only the US has the power to enforce.
European and Japanese firms have experienced this as well, but China is the first real competitor to the US that is not part of its security framework and thus will not take these actions sitting down.
Rather than compete on an equal footing, the US is resorting to sanctioning these potential competitors, and encouraging its allies like Britain to do the same. It is abandoning positions it has held and demanded of others for decades – such as calls for an open internet – when they no longer suit its interests.
To use the words of former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, there is a feeling that America “dropped the ball” when it comes to innovation and research. And rather than pick the ball back up and compete for the basket, it wants to disqualify the competition. This has resulted in actions unbecoming of a superpower, which will sow the seeds of its own decline.
This insecurity, rooted in an almost religious belief in its own exceptionalism, is fostered by the realisation that the US has lost much of its global leverage over the past few decades. Along with its reckless disregard for even trade rules, this has ushered in a new era of global instability.
In the aftermath of the war in Iraq, the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, and now the coronavirus pandemic, it has lost its moral superiority. Other countries took the US seriously not just because it was powerful, but also because there was the perception that it knew what it was doing. That perception is no longer held.
The rise of the rest has also weakened America’s economic supremacy: the US is no longer the only large market in town. Europe, China, the Asean region and others provide their own large markets and access to capital. The US makes up about 11.5 per cent of global trade, while China makes up 12.4 per cent and the European Union, 16 per cent.
America’s military edge has also been weakened. With the rise of China and exhaustion from its endless wars, the US can no longer project power globally as easily as it could even just a decade ago.
All that’s left is its position at the head of the global order, underpinned by the global use of the dollar. The current administration is ready and willing to use this position to pursue its own interests, no matter the collateral damage. This is untenable and the world needs to act with urgency.
American pre-eminence was sustained by a grand bargain: the US could sit at the top, yet would not abuse its position – or, at least, keep its abuse of the system at bearable levels. The US clearly benefits from its position as the sole superpower, and when it built this order after World War II, no other country was really in a position to dictate terms.
When faced with the risk calculus of trying to create a different system, most governments probably felt the effort and conflict with the US wasn’t worth it. American meddling was mostly kept within tolerable levels, and usually targeted at countries on the periphery of the global system – and the US-led system provided enough benefits that countries decided to tolerate it.
Washington’s recent actions against China, however, reveal that the US is now willing to pursue what it sees as its national interest against any major economy it deems to be a competitor.
There are those within the current US administration who understand that certain actions should not be taken. At one point, for example, the White House reportedly considered trying to break the Hong Kong dollar’s peg to the US one – only to be convinced otherwise by panicked aides worried about destroying the entire dollar-based system.
In some ways, it doesn’t matter what the outcome of this year’s election will be: even if the US does go back to being more restrained – and it won’t in practice when it comes to several countries – no one can dismiss the worst-case scenarios any more.
It has to return to its core values and be willing to compete so that it can earn the right to lead. No country has the right to lead by breaking all the rules and sowing the seeds of instability across the world. So what happens now?
The fundamental flaw in the global system is that it relies on one country behaving responsibly – or, at least, responsibly enough for people to tolerate it. It should be clear to all that this simply cannot go on.
Yet losing any kind of global structure is also dangerous: the world needs global cooperation for peacekeeping, managing the global economy, and combating global problems like climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The answer is not in hoping that there will be more enlightened US leadership, but instead in creating a multipolar world with the US, China, Europe and two or three regional blocs like the African Union.
Whatever system replaces the current one must avoid being reliant on one country. But an alternative is desperately needed. That means a greater presence for non-American voices. European governments are key to this and need to step up and take responsibility, and not settle into their comfortable role following the US.
It has been 75 years since World War II: the Europeans have to stop romanticising the “special” transatlantic relationship. Rising countries like China and India need to determine what they want the world to look like, and what it means to be a responsible global citizen – both for themselves and for others.
And the US needs to be willing to let go of its sole leadership role, which, in truth, has had its own negative effects on ordinary Americans.
It is time the United Nations started the process of redesigning the global system. This could begin with a high-level conference involving the General Assembly. Initial proposals could be introduced and discussed at regional forums, before being refined by key regional blocs like the EU, Asean and the African Union.
They should examine two critical options. The first is to allow the US dollar to retain its current position, but with a complete overhaul of the conditions attached so that the US is restricted in its ability to “weaponise finance” as part of its foreign policy.
The second, more challenging, option is to design a system that does not allow any one country to abuse it for that country’s own ends, replacing it with a different structure based on something like a basket of currencies.
This will be a painful and messy transition as Americans will find it difficult to accept that they are not the only game in town. The world must be united and prepared in anticipating their angry reaction, but also in enduring the pain of the transition to another system.
This transition is necessary, if the world is to have a more resilient global system that cannot be hijacked by any one country’s national interest. There is opportunity here, the likes of which has not been seen for decades, and it must be seized to bring the world together and address the existential threats facing humanity in the 21st century.
We must not shy away from it just because it has never been done before. Perhaps it will even be supported by a more enlightened US leadership, as part of a new road map to “making America great again”.