China, Latin America, and the United States in the Changing World Order

Remarks at the Kissinger Center

I had a feeling that Stape Roy didn’t invite me to speak this morning because I have a degree in Latin American studies — though I do.  I suspected he wanted me to talk about the evolving global order and the place of China, Latin America, and the United States within it.  I accept this challenge.  But as I try to meet it, I’m afraid it will become evident that I do not share either the complacent or alarmist assumptions of most in Washington.  To be specific, I do not think that eternal deference to U.S. leadership of world affairs is in the cards.  Nor do I believe that China is destined to displace the United States as a global hegemon.        

It is true, of course, that profound shifts in relative economic, financial, political, and — to some extent — even military power are in progress both globally and regionally.  These shifts are creating new balances of influence.  They are altering the international geometry within which nations great and small must conduct their foreign policies.  But the new geometry is inconsistent with global dominance by any single power or alliance structure.   It also demands major adjustments in nations’ world-views and strategies not just in relation to each other but in relation to third parties and regions as well as to issues of global governance.  In this new context, I do not believe that inherited approaches are likely to work at all well for my own country, for China, or for the newly assertive powers of regions like Latin America.  Substantial, ongoing adjustments to current policies will be forced on us.   In some cases, entirely new policies may be more appropriate and efficacious.

The last time that the international environment saw massive shifts in wealth and power comparable to those underway today was sixty to seventy years ago, during World War II and its aftermath.  The world then rose to the challenge of the geopolitical and institutional innovation needed to sustain global peace and development.  Major new systems of international governance and rules of behavior were created.  These were exemplified by — but not limited to — the United Nations Charter, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the Bretton Woods Accord, multinational regional alliances, and the institutions that implemented these.  The United States led all these developments, which formed the world of the past half century.  The United States also formulated the global grand strategy, known as “containment,” which walled off the Soviet Union until it eventually collapsed of its own infirmities.  The system that saw us through the last half of the 20th Century was largely “made in USA.”

But the institutions and policies the United States and the other victors of World War II created sixty-some years ago are no longer congruent with relevant configurations of global and regional political, economic, financial, cultural, and military power.  European representation in these bodies remains both seriously overweighted and unreflective of Europe’s post-Cold War reorganization and evolution.  Powers like Brazil, China, Germany, India, Indonesia, and Japan are underweighted, unrepresented, or both.  So are African, Arab, and Islamic interests.  U.S. dominance, even as the United States exempts itself from many of the rules it helped write, is now widely seen as both an anachronism and an overweening abuse of power.  And approaches to world affairs forged in hot and cold wars seem increasingly unproductive or even counterproductive.

The misalignment of existing institutions with emerging realities is relentlessly sapping their legitimacy. They no longer seem capable of managing the political and economic domains they were established to oversee.  The resulting crisis in global governance has been evident over the past two decades.  The inherited system is proving inadequate to deal with an expanding range of issues.  The attempt to substitute unilateral U.S. military power for multilateral diplomacy has been a particular disaster.  Meanwhile, the failure of any country or group of countries to attempt to lead the world to solutions to its problems, as the United States did more than a half century ago, simply underscores the bankruptcy of existing mechanisms for managing peace, prosperity, and progress.  The incapacitation of global decision-making is not something with which any of us should be comfortable.

Neglect is visibly ripening some issues into comprehensive disasters.  To cite a few examples:  No doctrine or system has been developed or agreed to curtail the human toll of anarchy in failed and failing states in Africa, Southwest Asia, or elsewhere.  Consensus on key elements of the rule of law is breaking down and yielding to scofflaw practices based on the concept that “might makes right.”  Ancient threats to human freedom like piracy and trafficking in the enslaved or indentured are reappearing.  Very consequential issues of political transition in places like parts of the Arab world, Cuba, Korea, and other trouble-spots draw no coherent international response.  No serious effort is being made to replace an increasingly wobbly international monetary and financial system with one that can sustain global prosperity.  Efforts to liberalize and expand global trade and investment flows have halted.  There is no strategy or agreed mechanism for mitigating or managing climate change. Environmental degradation — including mounting pollution of the world’s oceans and the collapse of fish populations as well as their underlying food chains — is subject to no agreed countermeasures.

Meanwhile, the role of the United States in the maintenance of global and regional order is increasingly problematic.  The U.S. commitment to a rule-bound international system administered by multilateral organizations has faltered.  The network of U.S. alliances, which has assured much-needed predictability in world affairs, is losing coherence and cohesion.  International deference to U.S. management of  international organizations and leadership of regional political orders is receding.  U.S. economic advice is more often derided than followed abroad.  It has been quite a while since anyone in Washington put forward a visionary proposal on a major international topic.  But no other country — certainly not China or any other emerging great power — shows any sign of even trying to step into a global leadership or order-setting role.

It is telling that no international actor has outlined any principles, articulated any vision, or formulated any strategy for the reform of international institutions and practices, fiscal and monetary adjustments, or the maintenance of a peaceful international environment.  So far, the United States — to which the world once looked for political leadership and policy innovation — has cast itself as the almost exclusively military defender of vested interests in a crumbling status quo.  It has not sought to craft a new strategic order or a more effective international system.

Out of necessity, rising powers are filling the political vacuum left by declining deference to both global institutions and U.S. hegemony.  In doing so, they are recrafting regional orders to suit their interests rather than those of the United States, the European Union, China, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, or other external actors.  This trend is readily apparent in Latin America, where, for the first time since the emergence of the United States as a hemispheric superpower, other nations are openly taking leave of U.S. tutelage and charting assertively independent courses.  They are doing this without geopolitical stimulus from extra-hemispheric powers, the acceptance of alien ideologies, or the accommodation of foreign bases on their soil.  (The international geometry is now much more complex than it was in the last century and, whatever he may be, Hugo Chávez Frías is neither Maximiliano I, Getúlio Vargas, nor Fidel Castro.) 

In default of global action to address their interests, regional actors are also reaching beyond their immediate environs to buttress each other’s efforts to manage affairs of concern in each other’s regions.  A recent case involving Latin America was Brazil’s backing for Turkey’s diplomatic intervention in the Iranian nuclear issue.

In the Western Hemisphere, the “American system” symbolized by the Monroe Doctrine, the Rio Treaty and the Organization of American States is breaking down.  No one can yet say what will replace this system, but many expect that whatever succeeds it will be largely made in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America rather than here in Washington.  The emerging order seems destined to recognize the fact that South America is a distinct geopolitical region, less connected to North America by history, strategic interaction, or lines of communication than Europe is to Africa or Asia.   Inevitably, also, some of the new hemispheric system will be determined in partnership with China, Europe, India, and other places in the “old world” rather than solely with the United States. 

Meanwhile, the final collapse of the World Trade Organization’s sputtering “Doha Round” has accelerated a trend toward the liberalization of trade and investment through regional and bilateral rather than global trade agreements.  This trend is reflected in the development of MERCOSUR and the establishment of UNASUR in South America.  Latin Americans are building more robust commercial relationships with China, Europe, India, and the Islamic world.  China’s rise in bilateral trade with Latin America is the greatest of any region in the world — an astonishing 18-fold increase over the past decade, thanks mostly to exports of raw materials from the region.  North American goods and services must now compete with those of  indigenous Latin American companies as well as Asians and Europeans.   The combination of regional economic integration and globalization has caused U.S. market share in the region to fall dramatically.

Having rediscovered both its Islamic roots and its diplomatic centrality in West Asia, Turkey is exploring new partnerships and markets in the Americas as well as in Africa.  Empowered by U.S. and Israeli blunders in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine, Iran too is building ties to the newly assertive power centers of the Western Hemisphere.  Russia, though largely inactive outside Eurasia for most of the past two decades, is again beginning to reach beyond its near abroad.   India long ago consolidated an assertively dominant position in South Asia similar to that which the United States proclaimed nearly two centuries ago in the Western Hemisphere.  Now India too is exploring new political and economic relationships with Latin America.  And Africans increasingly look to Asia and Brazil rather than Europeans or North Americans for investment and other forms of economic collaboration.  In the aggregate, these developments amount to a major reordering of world affairs.
They are also a reminder that, in these changing times, China is not alone in rising to greater wealth, power, and influence.  Brazil, Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and South Africa, among others, are now preeminent participants in shaping new regional orders that slight the stated interests and policies of great powers outside their immediate environs.  In this context, the United States is not the only established power to suffer something of a crisis of self-confidence.  Japan is stuck in the economic and political doldrums.  It is troubled by the need to to cope both with China’s eclipse of it in Asia and with the ebbing global prestige of its American ally. Britain is cutting its military power and diluting its reliance on the United States while building new links to Brazil, India, and even France.   Even before the current severe strains in the European Union’s fiscal and monetary consensus, Europe was self-absorbed, less than the sum of its parts, undecided about its relationships with Russia, Turkey, and North Africa, resentful of the Muslim presence in its midst, and out of sorts with both the United States and China. 

As Asia returns to wealth and power, the Islamic world reasserts itself, and other regions, like Latin America, successfully insist on ordering their own affairs, it is unclear how many of the key ideas and elements of the existing international system will survive. The irony of this should be especially evident to any Chinese statesman or scholar. What is in jeopardy, after all, is the peaceful world order that China embraced to enable it to climb to renewed wealth and power. In the absence of rules, fortune favors the fierce.  Disorientation, denial, and dysfunctional politics are not an appropriate or effective response to change.  It is not out of the realm of possibility that the world may be in the process of reverting to levels of regional disorder, anarchy, and strife that have not been seen since the Pax Americana was instituted sixty-five years ago. This would be the very opposite of the harmonious world China says it sees as in its interest, that Latin America needs in order to play its proper role in global affairs, and that the United States cannot do without in straitened times.

In many ways, we seem to be on the verge of a world in which there will be no globally paramount power or institutions.  In such a world, the responsibility for global governance seems to be devolving willy-nilly to regional sub-orders and cooperation between them. Increasingly, problems of common concern are addressed — if at all — by shifting confederacies of regions and their leading powers and by ad hoc conferences rather than through standing bodies at the global level.

In the end, global dominance is unaffordable even for a country as rich as the United States or as China may in time become.  Washington will sooner or later abandon the pursuit of worldwide military supremacy.  Beijing has repeatedly declared that it does not aspire to it.  There is no other claimant in prospect.  The only real question is whether, in yielding ambitions for dominance that it cannot sustain, the United States will use its power to shape a more advantageous future for itself and the rest of the global community.

As the transition to a less centralized world order proceeds — however it is configured — many questions arise.  Among them, who will act to sustain the peace in increasingly divergent regions and how will they do it?  Will the United States seek partners to share those strategic burdens it can no longer afford or will it turn inward and walk away from its global role as a provider of free “public goods” to the world?   In either case, will China take an active role in sustaining a harmonious international order?  What role in reordering and sustaining stability in global and regional affairs will the major nations and regional groupings of Latin America play?   The difficulty of pursuing peace and development amidst uncertain changes in the international system should not be underestimated.  How the United States, China, and Latin America might best cooperate is no longer a moot or irrelevant question.

The United States has long taken its dominance of the Americas for granted and routinely neglected the views of other American nations.  It can no longer afford to do so.  It is not just that Latin America is now growing in independent wealth and power, that it has alternatives to reliance on North America, and that its interests are best served by the forging of mutually respectful relations with extra-hemispheric great powers.  In the past, external forces shaped Latin America and defined its global role.  Now Latin America will, for the first time in its history, participate in reshaping the prevailing orders in both its own region and the rest of the world.  China cannot ignore this dynamic any more than the United States can.

It is in the world’s interest to craft a new basis for global  “peace and development,” but this will not be easy.  For China, cooperating with the United States and with Latin America and other regions to accomplish this will demand levels of activism, imagination, and diplomatic leadership that contrast with a reactive Chinese foreign policy tradition of passivity, reticence, and risk aversion.  Latin Americans must acquire a new spirit of self-confidence amidst acceptance that with greater wealth and power come greater responsibility and accountability for both global and regional affairs.  The United States is called upon to demonstrate a measure of humility and respect for others’ interests  that have been largely absent from U.S. foreign policy in recent decades.

We North Americans as well as Chinese and Latin Americans all have a self-destructive tendency to construe each other’s activities as part of some sort of zero-sum imperial adventure or strategic game. Suspicions sometimes run high. Building a basis for cooperation will require mutually considerate dialogue between us. Without such dialogue, we will be unable to respond effectively to the challenges of the rapidly evolving global and regional environments.  We owe it to ourselves to try harder to discover our common interests and to work together to protect and advance our prosperity, domestic tranquility, and our differing values as societies.  If today’s discussion marks a step toward such a dialogue, it will have been very worthwhile.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)

Washington, D.C.

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