Washington is debating the benefits of continued trade and extensive economic engagement with China. Donald Trump, long a skeptic of such policies, is now in a position to do something about them. The National Security Strategy, released in December, states:
[T]he assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners … turned out to be false.
The National Defense Strategy, released earlier this month, labels Russia and China as “strategic competitors” and Secretary of Defense James Mattis has explained that the United States will prioritize “great power competition” over other foreign policy missions, such as fighting terrorism or blocking rogue states like Iran and North Korea (though those are also important).
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that “Lawmakers are moving to stanch the flow of U.S. technology to foreign investors, creating potential problems for a number of American companies that have bet big on partnering with China.”
This is not the first time that Americans have questioned the direction of U.S.-China relations, and particularly the value of close economic ties. In the spring and early summer of 1989, President George H. W. Bush weighed how to respond to the pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing. In a new book, When the World Seemed New: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War, historian Jeffrey Engel notes that the Chinese crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 influenced how Bush approached popular uprisings in Europe.
In his review of Engel’s book, which appears in the current print edition of the National Interest, Derek Chollet explains: “Bush thought he understood China—having led the diplomatic mission in Beijing in the 1970s, he had close relationships with many of its key leaders, especially Deng Xiaoping—and believed that China was on the right track.”
There was a quiet confidence in the way that George H. W. Bush approached the world, in stark contrast to his sometimes uncertain grasp of mundane domestic matters. Engel explains that he believed in “democracy’s inevitable triumph.”
To be sure, so did many other Americans, including H. W.’s son. But George W. Bush was more impatient. Presented with what seemed like an opportunity to accelerate the democratic tide in the Greater Middle East, after the shocking events of September 11, 2001, Bush 43 overreached. Public revulsion to open-ended military adventures in that troubled region continues to cast a long shadow over the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.
But what about democracy promotion in other parts of the world? The title of the chapter in Engel’s book that first explores these questions—“We know what works”—is taken from George H. W. Bush’s inaugural address. By that Bush meant, we in the West (loosely defined) knew that liberal democracy and free market economics would eventually prevail over illiberalism and autarchy.
Is that necessarily true? Recall that in that same year, Francis Fukuyama, also in the pages of The National Interest, asked aloud if we had reached the end of history.
This question seems particularly relevant with respect to China. In the summer of 1989, Engel notes that “Bush worked so hard to keep the ‘butchers of Beijing’ a part of the world.”
Was that wise?
As noted, some in the Trump administration don’t think so. But such concerns are not limited to a handful of Trump national security officials. There are shades of such pessimism in Tom Wright’s new book, All Measures Short of War. Wright explains that globalization was the most powerful idea of the 1990s and 2000s. In those days, foreign policy experts and corporate CEOs believed that “as countries embraced globalization, they would become more ‘responsible’ members of the liberal international order and would, over time, liberalize domestically.”
The Brookings Institution scholar calls it “the convergence myth.”
Convergence meant that major powers would stop treating each other as rivals and begin to work together to tackle common challenges.” That has not happened. The collapse of this idea, Wright explains, “has left U.S. strategy unmoored, allowed the reemergence of geopolitical competition between the great powers, and raised serious doubts about the future of the liberal international order.
So, who is right?
For my part, I believe it is too soon to say that liberal democracy will never follow rising prosperity, in China or other places, but it is not too soon to wonder whether it necessarily flows that way. At this particular moment, the answer seems to be no.
Xi Jinping has consolidated political power, the Chinese state is cracking down on dissenters, and the Chinese Communist Party is dusting off propaganda techniques from the Mao era. Beijing is even putting considerable pressure on American companies doing business there.
For now, however, the benefits of continued engagement with China outweigh the costs and risks. More importantly, labeling China a strategic competitor, or focusing on the adversarial aspects of U.S.-China relations, while downplaying or ignoring the areas of continued convergence, risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that could prove disastrous for American prosperity and American safety.