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Kissinger's folly: The threat to world order is China

The old joke that doctors bury their mistakes should be amended, because former statesmen sometimes try to do so as well. Claims advanced by Henry Kissinger, the doyen of the U.S. foreign policy community, that the coronavirus is a danger to the liberal international order are correct, especially since the virus has killed tens of thousands around the world.

But the specter that is haunting the world order is not the virus that originated in Wuhan. It is the rise of dictatorial China. And it was Kissinger, the former U.S. secretary of State and national security adviser, who contributed mightily to this threat as one of the major creators and advocates of the decades-long U.S. strategy towards China emphasizing cooperation, “bringing China in” to the international order, and fostering its growth so that it could become a “responsible stakeholder.” 

The expectation was that China would cooperate with the West to preserve the present liberal order of global politics. This approach was a profound mistake: In a historically unprecedented act, the West actively contributed to the creation of its most formidable peer competitor. China hid behind a false promise to abide by Western rules and norms to forestall balancing against it, while it rapidly developed economically and militarily — and was creating a new international order to replace the one that is so rightly valued in the West.  

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Long before COVID-19, China labored to replace the world order while working inside to achieve it. Despite claims to the contrary, China is not a status quo great power. It is a revolutionary great power that seeks fundamental and permanent changes to the contemporary order in international politics. If it achieves its objectives, it will be the death of the existing liberal order. That indeed will be a new epoch in global politics. 

Put directly: The school of thought advanced by Kissinger made this possible. Since the 1990s, political and economic interest in the West actively worked with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to support its growth. If the liberal order is to be saved, it will be by confronting and defeating China’s challenge. Until recently, the confrontation largely has been one-sided. China acted vigorously to undermine the position of the West, while the West’s response was mostly absent, inchoate or actually pernicious to itself. 

The West did not respond to the challenge for three reasons. First, the economic interest of Western business communities. China’s rise was aided by its ability to influence Western firms in China, trading access to the People’s Republic of China’s enormous market in return for the firms’ technology and processes. At the same time, China employed the firms’ influence with their domestic governments to ensure support for China — and thus China was on the path to becoming an economic power.  

Second, what the Chinese government could not willingly receive from economic cooperation they might steal through the development and employment of advanced cyber capabilities.  

Third, the rise of China was met by a historically unique case of threat deflation in the West. This was because of China’s deception through its projected image as a benign power and responsible great power that fully embraced the liberal international order. The West, and the U.S. particularly, consistently and gravely underestimated the implications of China’s rise — including how it will change international politics and its ability to hold at risk longstanding U.S. interests. U.S. policymakers and strategists should expect that Clio, that muse of history, will be harsh in her verdict: The willful ignorance of the China threat was the greatest U.S. strategic blunder certainly since the Cold War, and likely the most significant in U.S. history. Countless academics, think thank denizens, Silicon Valley and Wall Street gurus, and policymakers contributed to this. Yet curiously, Kissinger, who was famous early in his career as an advocate of realpolitik and the balance of power, missed it too.

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The global community must expect that China’s world order would be fundamentally different in every respect. China would use economic institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Belt and Road Initiative, its influence in the developing world, and its growing military influence in key regions to establish a new model of global governance that would be defined by firm hierarchical relationships between states, with China on top of that hierarchy.  

The world has witnessed how China’s order has radically altered the global community’s conception of human rights. The rebirth of concentration camps for China’s Muslim minority compels the recognition that few people — China experts, business people, foreign policy experts, strategists or politicians — have recognized the CCP for what it is: a dangerous, supremacist superpower. It is intent upon replacing the United States as the world’s dominant state. If China succeeds in doing so, the values and political principles of today’s international order will be lost. 

The ideological struggle is not over, but has experienced a renaissance. Unfortunately, the liberal international order was not well defended by strategists and policymakers. Any new epoch or shared future that does not include China’s defeat will be one in which the rest of the world adapts to serve the interests of Beijing. This scenario would be defined by illiberal political principles: It will be less free, less diverse, and far more hierarchical and oppressive than the present one.

Perhaps a positive outcome of the coronavirus pandemic is that it has opened Western eyes to these dangers — and it is not too late for the West act. If the liberal world order is to be preserved and protected, it is incumbent upon the United States to defend the international order against China’s ambitions. An element of this defense must include calling to account those in the West who caused us to be in our current situation, especially those who proclaimed themselves to be “strategists” who advanced and supported China’s ambitions.

Bradley A. Thayer is professor of political science at the University of Texas-San Antonio and the co-author of “How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics.” 

Lianchao Han is vice president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, he was one of the founders of the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars. He worked in the U.S. Senate for 12 years, as legislative counsel and policy director for three senators.