Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with US Vice President Joe Biden (L) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on December 4, 2013.
Lintao Zhang | Reuters
Who will organize the world? And what forces and whose interests will shape the global future?
These were the basic issues behind the two events of the past week, one in Washington and the other in Beijing, which laid the foundations for the geopolitical competition of our time.
DC’s part was the release of “Joe Biden”Interim strategic guidelines for national security, “unprecedented at this stage in the new administration. Biden ‘s purpose was to provide early clarity on how he intends to set and execute priorities in a rapidly changing world.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken outlined the thoughts behind the guidelines in his first direction speech from entering the office. It was compelling, emphasizing the urgent need to foster American democracy and revitalize American alliances and partnerships.
“Like it or not, the world isn’t organized,” Blinken said. “When the US withdraws, one of two things is likely to happen: either another country is trying to take our place, but not in a way that promotes our interests and values; or perhaps equally bad, no one is doing anything, and then we have chaos and all the dangers it creates. In any case, it’s not good for America. “
Relations with China, which Blinken called “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st yearst century, “are key in this organizational thinking.
Blinken said: “China is the only country with economic, diplomatic, military and technological power that seriously challenges a stable and open international system – all the rules, values and relations that make the world work the way we want, because it ultimately serves the interests and reflects the values of the American people. “
Biden’s biggest departure from Trump’s approach to China is an emphasis on working with partners and allies. This week’s move by the United States and the European Union alleviate trade tensions,, suspension of a long list of tariffs and the Airbus-Boeing dispute over state subsidies, underscores the seriousness of President Biden’s purpose.
Not surprisingly, Beijing is offering a different view of the future around another key event last week, the National People’s Congress convened on Friday and to continue next week.
President Xi see momentum on the side of Beijing in a world where “the East is rising and the West is falling.” His argument is that China offers order as opposed to the chaos of the United States and effective governance as opposed to Washington’s inefficiency, which shows how much better it has dealt with the pathogen it has released.
Xi’s most comprehensive review of how China will organize the world came in late January at this year’s convened World Economic Forum. The speech title he emphasized his overarching ambition: “Let the torch of multilateralism illuminate humanity’s path forward.”
If Biden’s vision is for the U.S. to create a band of restored Democratic sisters and brothers, inspired by the revitalized United States, Xi’s vision is a world where everyone’s political system, culture, and society are their own business.
In this world, American value judgments are transient.
The subtext for Xi is simple. How states are organized internally, with any authoritarian austerity and human rights violations involving – whether it is against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang province, democratic activists in Hong Kong or perhaps even ultimately regarding Taiwan’s independence – is just not a Washington issue .
“Each country is unique with its own history, culture and social system and none is superior to the other,” Xi told a virtual crowd of Davos. “The best criteria are whether the country’s history, culture and social system suit a particular situation, whether they enjoy people’s support, whether they serve to achieve political stability …” Xi made it clear that this approach is intended to “avoid interfering in the internal affairs of other countries.”
In contrast, President Biden wrote in a letter that followed the strategic guidelines this week: “I firmly believe that democracy holds the key to freedom, prosperity, peace and dignity … We must ensure that our model is not a relic of history; it is the only best way to achieve promises of our future. And if we work together with our democratic partners, with strength and confidence, we will meet every challenge and surpass every challenger. “
The context of these competing visions was this week’s release of Freedom House’s annual survey, which said, “less than 20 percent of the world’s population now lives in a free country, the lowest share since 1995.”
U study, called “Democracy under Siege,” wrote Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz, “while a deadly pandemic, economic and physical insecurity, and violent conflict ravaged the world in 2020, defenders of democracy suffered great new losses in their fight against authoritarian enemies, shifting international balance in favor of tyranny. “
It was the 15thth a consecutive year in which countries with declining political rights and civil liberties are greater than those that have made a profit. The report says nearly 75% of the world’s population lived in a country that faced deteriorating democratic freedoms last year.
It may seem that the time is absolutely wrong to expect world democracies to come together to shape the global order. Yet the opposite is true: at a time when democracy is being tested around the world, what better time to work together to address the challenges and ensure global gains of freedom over the past 75 years will not continue to erode.
Mowed by the global situation, the Biden administration knows that it must start its business at home. Blinken was also modest about the way the United States would move toward the progress of democracy.
“We will use the power of our example,” he said. “We will encourage others to make key reforms, overthrow bad laws, fight corruption and stop unjust practices. We will encourage democratic behavior.”
What the U.S. will not do is promote democracy “through costly military interventions,” Blinken said, “or by attempting to violently overthrow authoritarian regimes. We have tried this tactic in the past. As well-intentioned as they are, they have failed.”
In the end, the world will not organize either a Chinese or an American fiat, but a concert of national interests, influenced by the trajectory of the two leading world powers.
Xi bet that the Chinese momentum was unstoppable, that the world was sufficiently transactional, and that its economy had become necessary to most American allies. President Biden must not only redirect that narrative, but also work for the common goal of reversing the reality of democratic weakening.
Frederick Kempe is the best-selling author, award-winning journalist, and president and CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States ’most influential think tanks on global affairs. He has worked for The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant editor-in-chief and as the longest-serving editor in the European edition of the paper. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was the New York Times best-selling book and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look every Saturday at the main stories and trends of the past week.
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