Xi Jinping vows to build what he calls “a more just and reasonable new world order”—one that would supplant the liberal democratic order the United States and its allies began building after World War II. Importantly, the People’s Republic of China not only has the intent to build a new world order, but it also has the resources and capabilities to do so—which helps explain why those who designed and uphold the existing world order are answering China’s challenge.
The PRC is a country of 1.3 billion people. Its mushrooming GDP is already $14.1 trillion. Its economic tendrils—trade, banking, manufacturing, logistics, shipping, technology, supercomputing, artificial intelligence—stretch into every part of the globe. All of this is fueling the PRC’s relentless military modernization and buildup. The PRC’s annual military expenditure is at least $261 billion (growing a staggering 517 percent since 2000). Beijing recently announced an increase in military spending of 6.8 percent for 2021. The PRC has a 2-million-man military, a 350-ship navy (now the world’s largest), and an intense focus on its neighborhood.
None of this would be particularly worrisome if China embraced the values of liberal democracy—the rule of law, individual freedom, religious liberty, free enterprise and free trade, majority rule with minority rights. These are the foundation stones of what Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt envisioned when they drafted the Atlantic Charter in 1941. Their vision led to what some call the “rules-based democratic order,” others the “liberal international order,” still others the “free world order.” These terms aim to describe how the peoples of the West have tried to make the world work and indeed manage the world. They embraced and encouraged democratic governance, developed rules and norms of behavior, promoted liberal (freedom-oriented) political and economic institutions, and called upon governments to live up to the responsibilities of nationhood by respecting international borders and promoting good order within those borders. The result has been an unparalleled spread of prosperity, an unprecedented expansion of free government, and an unexpected remission of great-power war (which had become an increasingly-destructive feature of the centuries leading up to 1945).
To be sure, many regimes reject the values of liberal democracy. But China, like the Soviet Union before it, not only rejects those values, but it also possesses the military-technological-industrial-economic assets to challenge those values, erode the liberal international order built upon those values, and forge a new international order or at least bend the existing order toward its own goals. But don’t take my word for it.
“Some seek to challenge the international order—that is, the rules, values and institutions that reduce conflict and make cooperation possible among nations,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warn, pointedly adding that “China in particular is all too willing to use coercion to get its way.”
Former national security advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster concludes that PRC “leaders believe they have a narrow window of strategic opportunity to… revise the international order in their favor.”
Indo-Pacific commander Adm. Phil Davidson recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Xi and his lieutenants are “accelerating their ambitions to supplant the United States and our leadership role in the rules-based international order.”
A NATO panel noted late last year that Beijing’s “approach to human rights and international law challenges the fundamental premise of a rules-based international order.”
These political, diplomatic, and military leaders recognize that the liberal order has promoted the peace and prosperity of the Free World for nearly 75 years. But it doesn’t run on autopilot. If we want the benefits of a liberal order that sustains our way of life, we need to sustain the liberal order. As Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution observes, “The present order will last only as long as those who favor it and benefit from it retain the will and capacity to defend it.” He adds, “Every international order in history has reflected the beliefs and interests of its strongest powers, and every international order has changed when power shifted to others with different beliefs and interests.”
Indeed, the liberal order and its guarantors have arrived at a turning point or breaking point: either they will marshal the means and will to update, strengthen, and preserve the existing order, or Beijing will dramatically transform it. Xi’s callous treatment of his own subjects and contempt for international norms (as detailed in part one) offer a glimpse of what his “more reasonable new world order” would look like.
The American people may be tired of fending off challengers and shoring up the liberal order FDR and Churchill began building, but there’s no other nation with the reach, resources, and resumé to lead the Free World. Those that share our values lack the strength and the will; those that possess the strength and the will don’t share our values.
Churchill’s Britain—worn out and worn down by six years of war—didn’t have that problem as World War II gave way to Cold War 1.0. That’s because Churchill’s Britain had America—a sister nation that not only shared its values and vision for the world, but also emerged from the war stronger than when it entered. Historian Derek Leebaert describes America in the immediate postwar period as “the one unscarred liberal power.” Thus, historian Niall Ferguson writes that British leaders “regarded the transfer of global power to the United States as the best available outcome of the war.”
There’s no such partner the United States can entrust with the mantle of global leadership today, as the world lurches into Cold War 2.0. That word leadership is an important one. Leadership, it’s worth pointing out, presupposes the existence of a team. After all, a nation alone on the world stage—like a household comprised of just one person—isn’t leading anyone.
President Joe Biden recognizes this truism—and the need for a deep and diverse bench of teammates in this long, twilight struggle with Beijing. Thus, he calls for “a united front of US allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors” and wants to harness “the economic might of democracies” to meet the China challenge—something aided by the groundwork laid during the Trump administration. Blinken, for example, is building on his predecessor’s 5G Clean Network to ensure that “the techno-democracies” (his term) can outcompete and out-innovate Beijing and other “techno-autocracies.” Aiming for the same goal, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is rallying the D10—an informal partnership of 10 democracies enfolding the Group of Seven industrialized democracies plus Australia, South Korea, and India—to pool their technological resources and build an uncompromised 5G network. Leaders of the Quad—the US, Australia, Japan, and India—are standing up a “critical- and emerging-technology working group to facilitate cooperation on international standards and innovative technologies of the future.”
America needs all the help it can get confronting the Beijing behemoth. Although America boasts a $21.4-trillion GDP and a $738-billion defense budget, it has a billion fewer people than China, just 1.3 million active-duty troops, a 298-ship Navy, a defense budget that’s plateauing, and security commitments that are diffused and dispersed. But as Biden points out, “When we join together with fellow democracies, our strength more than doubles.” Indeed, the US combined with democratic partners in the Americas, Europe, and the Indo-Pacific enfolds some 2 billion people, 71 percent of global GDP, 65 percent of global defense spending, more than 7 million men under arms, and what former JCS Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen called “a thousand-ship navy.” These allies are force-multipliers of American power and outer rings of American security.
We peoples of the Free World sometimes forget that previous generations sacrificed everything to ensure that we wouldn’t live in anarchy or under the heel of totalitarianism. We Americans sometimes forget that the natural order of the world isn’t at all orderly. And we followers of Christ sometimes forget that the God of the Bible is deeply interested in order—and that He invites humanity to join with Him in promoting order within and between nations. “There is no perfect human political system,” as the editors of Providence argue in their statementon faith and foreign policy, “but we believe the liberal order is the least flawed of all presently available options and constitutes the best means for accomplishing the ends for which government was ordained.”
The liberal order, to paraphrase what Churchill said of democratic government, is the worst way to organize and stabilize a broken world “except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”—and it’s unquestionably better than the alternative offered by Xi Jinping. The final essay in this series explores how the Free World is following a familiar playbook to counter the PRC’s assault on the liberal international order.