The Chinese Century
By Joseph E. Stiglitz
Ultimately, the Soviet system was to fail (...) The world was now dominated by a single superpower, one that continued to invest heavily in its military. That said, the U.S. was a superpower not just militarily but also economically.
The United States then made two critical mistakes. First, it inferred that its triumph meant a triumph for everything it stood for. But in much of the Third World, concerns about poverty—and the economic rights that had long been advocated by the left—remained paramount. The second mistake was to use the short period of its unilateral dominance, between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of Lehman Brothers, to pursue its own narrow economic interests—or, more accurately, the economic interests of its multi-nationals, including its big banks—rather than to create a new, stable world order. The trade regime the U.S. pushed through in 1994, creating the World Trade Organization, was so unbalanced that, five years later, when another trade agreement was in the offing, the prospect led to riots in Seattle. Talking about free and fair trade, while insisting (for instance) on subsidies for its rich farmers, has cast the U.S. as hypocritical and self-serving.
(...) if we ponder the rise of China and then take actions based on the idea that the world economy is indeed a zero-sum game—and that we therefore need to boost our share and reduce China’s—we will erode our soft power even further. This would be exactly the wrong kind of wake-up call. If we see China’s gains as coming at our expense, we will strive for “containment,” taking steps designed to limit China’s influence. These actions will ultimately prove futile, but will nonetheless undermine confidence in the U.S. and its position of leadership. U.S. foreign policy has repeatedly fallen into this trap. Consider the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed free-trade agreement among the U.S., Japan, and several other Asian countries—which excludes China altogether. It is seen by many as a way to tighten the links between the U.S. and certain Asian countries, at the expense of links with China. There is a vast and dynamic Asia supply chain, with goods moving around the region during different stages of production; the Trans-Pacific Partnership looks like an attempt to cut China out of this supply chain.
Another example: the U.S. looks askance at China’s incipient efforts to assume global responsibility in some areas. China wants to take on a larger role in existing international institutions, but Congress says, in effect, that the old club doesn’t like active new members: they can continue taking a backseat, but they can’t have voting rights commensurate with their role in the global economy. When the other G-20 nations agree that it is time that the leadership of international economic organizations be determined on the basis of merit, not nationality, the U.S. insists that the old order is good enough—that the World Bank, for instance, should continue to be headed by an American.
Yet another example: when China, together with France and other countries—supported by an International Commission of Experts appointed by the president of the U.N., which I chaired—suggested that we finish the work that Keynes had started at Bretton Woods, by creating an international reserve currency, the U.S. blocked the effort.
And a final example: the U.S. has sought to deter China’s efforts to channel more assistance to developing countries through newly created multilateral institutions in which China would have a large, perhaps dominant role. The need for trillions of dollars of investment in infrastructure has been widely recognized—and providing that investment is well beyond the capacity of the World Bank and existing multilateral institutions. What is needed is not only a more inclusive governance regime at the World Bank but also more capital. On both scores, the U.S. Congress has said no. Meanwhile, China is trying to create an Asian Infrastructure Fund, working with a large number of other countries in the region. The U.S. is twisting arms so that those countries won’t join.
We should take this moment, as China becomes the world’s largest economy, to “pivot” our foreign policy away from containment. The economic interests of China and the U.S. are intricately intertwined. We both have an interest in seeing a stable and well-functioning global political and economic order. Given historical memories and its own sense of dignity, China won’t be able to accept the global system simply as it is, with rules that have been set by the West, to benefit the West and its corporate interests, and that reflect the West’s perspectives. We will have to cooperate, like it or not—and we should want to. In the meantime, the most important thing America can do to maintain the value of its soft power is to address its own systemic deficiencies—economic and political practices that are corrupt, to put the matter baldly, and skewed toward the rich and powerful.
A new global political and economic order is emerging, the result of new economic realities. We cannot change these economic realities. But if we respond to them in the wrong way, we risk a backlash that will result in either a dysfunctional global system or a global order that is distinctly not what we would have wanted.