In the aftermath of President Trump’s announcement that the US would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, The New York Times ran an article entitled, “Trump Hands the Chinese a Gift: The Chance for Global Leadership.” The article stated, in part, “In pulling out of the Paris climate accord, Mr. Trump has created a vacuum of global leadership that presents ripe opportunities to allies and adversaries alike to reorder the world’s power structure.”
A recent US Defense Department annual report, moreover, noted that China was likely to develop foreign military bases in the future. It already has an outpost in the small African nation of Djibouti (The US also has a base there.), but there is rumor of a major Chinese military presence in Pakistan to support the Belt and Road regional infrastructure initiative that is a cornerstone of President Xi Jinping’s development agenda.
Beijing dismissed the Defense Department report as “irresponsible”, reinforcing the general perception that both stories are essentially negative in perspective. The narrative seems to be that President Trump is both crippling the US and enabling an enemy.
Why? Not why did President Trump do it, but why is China as an emerging power a threatening narrative?
Many people are deeply critical of Trump’s perceived attempts to redefine and constrict the doctrine of globalism that has defined US foreign policy since World War II. The opening line of the Times article noted above reads, “President Trump has managed to turn America First into America Isolated.”
But what is globalism? Does globalism require the US to be the world’s sole superpower? And what about Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”? Isn’t competition supposed to be a good thing to free market advocates?
The irony, of course, is plentiful. The US currently has approximately 800 foreign military bases, or base sites, in approximately 80 different countries. According to The Nation, “The United States probably has more foreign military bases than any other people, nation, or empire in history.”
Many people believe that’s okay because, the argument goes, the US will use its military power responsibly. Wherever you come down on that belief as an American, however, I can tell you from firsthand experience that few outside of the United States share that conviction. And if the objective is global leadership rather than global arm-twisting, shouldn’t we care about what the rest of the world thinks?
If we put the issue in its larger context, I do think that the US, with exceptions, uses its military might with discretion. And our political system and our culture are part of that restraining context.
China, however, offers a similarly restraining context. This is not the Soviet Union, which attempted to put missiles 90 miles from our shores. And it’s not the Third Reich. Virtually all of their disputed territorial claims, including the South China Sea, have arguably been in the interest of defense of China’s sovereignty or to reinstate some perceived historical reality.
Part of that context, of course, is the simple fact that China has been repeatedly invaded by foreign powers. The Century of Humiliation I have talked about before is vivid in the collective Chinese consciousness. Even the youngest Chinese have heard of the Nanking Massacre.
China is attempting to assert global leadership in the arena of climate change. And I believe it is sincere. Having said that, it is also clearly in China’s best interests to do so. They have a huge environmental problem that must be corrected if the Communist Party is to remain in power. And there is a lot of money to be made.
Climate change will ultimately be conquered with technology. That’s not to say we shouldn’t do everything we can in the meantime. But climate technology will be the next big technological revolution. That seems almost certain.
And climate technology will provide a much more sustainable and robust economic opportunity than sneakers and toys. I believe that the Chinese are absolutely correct in pursuing it.
Without supporting the decision, I do think President Trump, in a way, is attempting to take a page from the Chinese handbook of promoting their self-interests. The United Nations Green Climate Fund, set up by the Paris agreement to help poor and developing nations deal with the consequences of climate change, has been, to date, funded solely by the United States. The US has given $1 billion to the fund as of May of this year. Russia, China, and India, for their part, have collectively given nothing.
The argument in support of that disparity is that the US also has the largest GDP in the world. And that’s true. But when you consider that much of our government spending is supported by debt that will have to be paid off by future generations, and the fact that income and wealth have become indefensibly polarized in America, that argument doesn’t carry the same weight that it did thirty years ago. In total, we can clearly afford it. That’s not to say, however, that the average American can.
But I think it’s a specious argument anyway. As is the question of whether or not humankind is causing global warming. The more legitimate question, in my mind, is whether or not we are living as environmentally responsibly as we can without materially sacrificing our quality of life? And the answer, I believe, is a resounding “no.”
And in this regard, I think, China offers some valuable lessons. Whether it’s public transportation, high-speed rail, powering buses and taxis with natural gas, recycling, or simply using cloth bags when you go to the grocery store, China does many environmentally responsible things quite well. And while all of these things came to be within a larger context of poverty, development, culture, and the Chinese political system, they are what they are. We can still learn from their example.
I am thrilled to be back in the American Midwest where I can go for a walk without a breath mask and I can drink the water straight from the tap. I know from experience what that is worth in terms of the quality of life. Too many people, I think, take it for granted.
I am not in any way afraid of China’s emergence as a global leader, however. I think it’s a good thing. I may change my mind in the future, but it has demonstrated no intent to expand its influence militarily beyond its own geographic theater to date.
And, yes, “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is built on a one-party political system. The Communists fully recognize, however, that if they are ever driven from power that will be it for them. In the US, by contrast, a losing political party has only to wait until the next election cycle. And that’s even if you accept that we still have a legitimate two party system.
History is not a post card. It is a motion picture. Look at a political map of Europe in time-lapse over the last one thousand years and it will surely make you dizzy.
That observation is not meant in any way to endorse territorial aggression. It is to say, however, that change is inevitable and everything has to be viewed in context. I believe in globalism. It is the reality of the world we live in. But I also believe that if we can convince more responsible governments to assert their leadership and share in the responsibility of moving the world forward, the better off we’ll all be.
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