Multilateral international institutions were set up after World War II to ensure peace, stability, and cooperation on the basis of a shared commitment to fundamental human rights principles. While the Trump administration has distanced itself from multilateralism with an “America First” approach, the Chinese communist regime has sought to promote and exploit multilateralism in pursuit of a “China First” policy, one that is at variance not only with America’s national interests, but with those of the rest of the world’s sovereign states as well.

Today, as American policymakers look toward renewed engagement in these institutions and processes, the dark side of multilateralism—driven by the malfeasance of authoritarian regimes that typically distort human rights principles to protect their power—obligates a nuanced approach to multilateralism in meeting China’s challenge and, more generally, promoting freedom and international security.

Multilateralism with Chinese Characteristics

From the founding of the People’s Republic of China to the present, multilateralism has always featured prominently in the country’s core rhetoric of international relations. As a relatively weak world power, in comparison to the Soviet Union and the United States, yet one with superpower ambitions, China’s strategy of promoting multilateralism has always been the same: to use it as an “equalizer” uniting the “small and weak” to balance the influence of the superpowers, mainly America.

While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has adhered to a diplomatic strategy of promoting multilateralism to serve national interests, the immediate goals of the strategy have varied. Under Mao Zedong, China actively drew in countries from Asia, Africa, and Latin America in an effort to gain a seat at the United Nations. Under Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, China strove to expand multilateral cooperation in economic matters and was more passive about following internationally accepted rules. Under Hu Jintao, with China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), China’s ties with the rest of the world became increasingly close, and multilateral diplomacy, economically pragmatic and politically modest, was still defense-oriented.

During Xi Jinping’s rule, the strategy changed. China has used its economic strength to proactively advocate for multilateralism as a vehicle to export the “China model” in the economic, political, and even human rights fields, and as an ideological weapon against the United States. Xi thinks China is done “biding its time,” as Deng advised; China has never been closer to becoming a superpower and is clearly making its move—again, exploiting multilateralism as a cover giving China’s efforts a false moral facade.

In the face of American ambivalence toward or outright rejection of multilateralism during the Trump administration, Xi Jinping thus saw an opportunity to replace the United States as the world’s prime defender of the “rules-based international order,” and has assumed the position of defending the international community against “unilateralism.” At the seventy-fifth UN General Assembly, Xi promised:

China will continue to be a true follower of multilateralism. It will stay actively engaged in reforming and developing the global governance system. It will firmly uphold the UN-centered international system, firmly uphold the international order underpinned by international law, and firmly defend the UN’s central role in international affairs.

But in his messages to constituents at home, the promotion of multilateralism has morphed into a nationalistic war cry. In what was described as a “fiercely nationalistic” speech marking the seventieth anniversary of China’s entry into the Korean War against American forces, Xi said, “In today’s world, any unilateralism, protectionism, and ideology of extreme self-interest are totally unworkable, and any blackmailing, blockades and extreme pressure are totally unworkable.” He also denounced “any actions that focus only on oneself and any efforts to engage in hegemony and bullying.”

Xi thus superimposed a militant call to arms, which drew on deep Chinese feelings of historical victimization, onto a bed of UN-like pro-multilateralism rhetoric. It thus behooves us to understand how multilateralism is understood by China’s rulers, and how it has been weaponized on behalf of China’s aggressive foreign policy.

At a symposium on August 27, 2018, on the fifth anniversary of the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi Jinping stated:

Promoting the building of a community of human destiny with the Belt and Road as a practical platform is in line with the concept of universal peace, which the Chinese people have always upheld, and with the Chinese people’s worldview that is to subdue with soft powers other nations, near and far, and bring in harmony with all nations.

Xi Jinping has linked his proposal to build a “community of human destiny” with the traditional Chinese cultural concept of “the world (the under-heaven).”

The ancient Chinese did not conceive of a world made up of separate political societies, or believe that there were other countries in the world that were equal to themselves. As with some other early empires, they saw only inferior barbarian groupings beyond their domain, which ought to depend on China, and be assimilated by China.

If this ancient worldview emerges from latency as an operational model for China’s contemporary international relations, it will imply the legalization and legitimization of the subversion and control of other societies, and indeed the existing international order. It is deeply significant that Xi Jinping talked about the “concept of the world” at a conference on promoting the “One Belt, One Road”—a strong indication that the Belt and Road Initiative is not just about doing business, and is driven by an undisguised, hegemonic political agenda. China under Xi Jinping’s rule has not only exposed its internal autocracy, but also its external expansionary impulses.

Multilateralism’s Pitfalls and Promise

Given the Chinese regime’s broad assaults on the most basic liberal standards and practices, it should be clear that allowing China to become the standard-bearer for multilateralism is untenable. But what is also clear is that multilateralism means several things. Some multilateral bodies, foremost the United Nations General Assembly, are inclusive forums, where the equal rights of all members allow all voices to be heard; where dialogue and information-sharing are organic conflict-prevention processes; and which should allow citizens to see their governments partake in symbolically important rituals and debates, where diversity, equality, and sovereignty are guiding principles.

Such an inclusive formation functions as a conflict prevention mechanism, but not to enforce human rights and democratic norms. While the UN’s founding principles, and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, have found almost universal nominal support, they exert little moral power over increasing numbers of autocratic, even tyrannical regimes around the world. The UN human rights system is a binding legal regime, yet one without serious teeth; it was set up at the behest of states that respect human rights, and believe in state self-limitation through the separation of powers, the rule of law, and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. They brought nondemocratic states into this process to provide legitimacy to the concept of universal human rights with the symbol of universal national participation, with the expectation that they would progressively reform. 

Yet just as America’s normalization of ties with Communist China failed to result in liberalization and freedom for its citizens, the broader project to promote these goals throughout the world via multilateral human rights treaties and institutions cannot be judged a success. Autocratic and abusive governments are hardly less common today than when the UN human rights system was established; indeed, their numbers are increasing, and they are exploiting the system to give themselves an aura of legitimacy and to maintain their own power. The abortive development of the UN Human Rights Council, whose majority of members are now major human rights violators, has vividly demonstrated the limitations, and indeed the dangers, of inclusive and democratic international organizations as institutions delegated to defend and promote individual human rights and freedoms. Those principles are intrinsically threatening to autocratic governments; only self-reflective, liberal societies can abide by constraints on state power. Global human rights regimes provide civil society with legitimate universal standards and quasi-legal instruments. But without coercive legal power, they have created an illusion of the power of human rights multilateralism that has in fact drained moral energy from the national politics of transitional societies where members of civil society struggle for freedom. And they have allowed the core meaning of human rights as freedom from coercion to be degraded and even turned into a rationale for increased state power over individuals.

Inclusive international bodies provide needed platforms for cooperation on vital issues, but when these directly affect regimes’ legitimacy and stability, they tend to be subverted. The most vivid current example lies in the World Health Organization’s shameful facilitation of China’s effort to cover up the outbreak of COVID-19 in late 2019 (which we have extensively documented), which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people around the world. The World Food Program, dealing with relatively nonpolitical issues, functions well.

Limited, regional intergovernmental organizations formed on the basis of putatively shared political values and human rights standards have been marginally more successful than the UN’s global institutions, but have been weakened by expansion. During the Cold War, the Council of Europe helped fortify the democratic and human rights principles of Western European states threatened by Soviet subversion, but progress stalled when the organization rapidly expanded in the 1990s, absorbing post-communist states that, while failing to meet membership standards, were brought inside with the expectation that they would do so. Human rights processes in both the Council and in the Organization for Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are largely paralyzed by resurgent Russian obstruction.

NATO is a military alliance with certain political criteria, and with limited geographical ambitions. Even here, political criteria are sometimes overlooked, and thus degraded, by other concerns, and there is no mechanism for the exclusion of members whose practices and policies weaken the alliance (think of Turkey). Indeed, even an organization like the Community of Democracies, an American initiative established in 2000 to promote democracy, has been plagued with cases of signatories to its principles violating them. As a mechanism for economic cooperation, the European Union (EU) has served citizens, but efforts at deeper political integration have met increasing resistance, and the EU today faces strong centrifugal forces, with one leading member having left.

Even such a cursory and partial overview of forms of multilateral cooperation thus suggests that while America needs to raise a principled voice in global forums, wider membership in multilateral institutions brings insurmountable difficulty in maintaining any meaningful standards, or consensus and cooperation on behalf of core political-philosophical principles. Many regimes today do not truly accept the universality of human rights and their obligations to protect individual freedom, and the number is shrinking. It is time to reassess what model of multilateralism is most effective to meet the challenges liberal democracies face today, most notably, the challenge of China and China’s appropriation of inclusive multilateralism itself.

Multilateralism with American Characteristics

Standing at a critical juncture in US-China relations and with new leadership taking the helm, the US must:

  • Deter Chinese aggression militarily, protecting the freedom of Taiwan and international sea lanes while maintaining and increasing the risks to China of military aggression and coercion.
  • Project moral and political principles, forthrightly challenging China’s subjugation of individual liberty and moral relativism, and demonstrating solidarity with Chinese citizens seeking liberty, especially members of political, religious, and ethnic minorities.
  • Maintain engagement with Chinese authorities while protecting US society from espionage, propaganda, and economic coercion, and taking steps to avoid the spread of racist stereotypes.
  • Rebalance trade relations to ensure fair trade, independent sources of vital resources and goods, and the protection of American producers and intellectual property.

None of these goals can be achieved through the UN’s inclusive multinational institutions, yet none can be achieved unilaterally. Principled American unilateralism is indispensable in the world; it should not be dissolved into bureaucratic multilateral processes that water-down or obstruct action on behalf of America’s core interests, including defending liberty abroad. History has repeatedly proved that the leadership of a strong democracy, mainly the US in the past century, is of vital importance, and it is no less true today. In the past two years, the United States has, with a remarkable degree of bipartisan consensus, confronted China on trade, technology theft, cybersecurity, the abrogation of freedom guarantees in Hong Kong, the mass incarceration of Uighurs in Xinjiang, China’s oppressive policies in Tibet, China’s persecution of Christians and other religious minorities, as well as peaceful political dissidents, and threats to Taiwan.

But unfortunately, the US has largely stood alone in these efforts, while sometimes being the object of sanctimonious criticism by allies for having acted unilaterally. The question is how effective has America’s resistance to China been, and how tenable standing alone against China will be going forward. 

Recent history is instructive. For example, in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, Western democracies, led by the US, applied economic sanctions against China. Before long, beginning with Japan, one partner after another lifted their embargos. The US held its policy of annually renewing China’s Most Favored Nation trade status, based on China’s human rights record, for a few years until 1994. Facing pressure from the American business community, who warned that America would lose China’s huge market to others if it continued to let human rights get in the way, President Bill Clinton took a 180-degree turn and reversed the policy. Like German leaders today, Clinton bought into the expedient theory—which was widely upheld by corporations, columnists, pundits, and policymakers—that trade would lead to democracy by producing economic growth among the middle class, which would in turn demand more political freedom.

Cooperation with like-minded allies has helped when it has been strong enough to endure hardships. Can America unilaterally resist and contain China today, when it could not do so 30 years ago, even with a larger preponderance in economic, political, and military power than it has today? Acting alone is not enough, yet meaningful cooperation will not emerge without leadership, that is, without unilateral initiative. America can find allies for collective efforts only by first finding its own voice; in doing so, America can draw on the logic of both unilateralism and multilateralism.

The most recent good example of such an initiative is the quadruple alliance of the US, Japan, India, and Australia, the formation of which was led by the US. America must not abandon multilateralism to China, but define and act upon a “multilateralism with American characteristics,” one based on the moral power of an America willing to lead the world toward freedom.