America First, Or America Alone?

The current American administration seems to believe that it can achieve all it wants by closing its eyes and disengaging from the world. But, as the United States steps out of international affairs and abdicates its global leadership, the international power struggle continues. The current era will shape the future structure of global geopolitics and will determine whether the liberal world order will prevail or fade into history.

While the U.S. retreats into itself, countries like China lean in to fill the void left behind. These countries are eager to upend the status quo and redefine it in their favour. Xi Jinping’s China is increasingly portraying itself as the shining beacon that is protecting free trade and the international rules-based order once championed by America. At the same time, it disregards human rights, undermines democracy, and violates international maritime law. The domains of cyberspace, environment and climate change, and international institutions and development are just a few examples of this continuing trend of American abdication of global leadership.

As the United States steps out of international affairs and abdicates its global leadership, the international power struggle continues

Beginning with cyberspace, Xi Jinping’s has proclaimed his intention to make China a “cyber-superpower”. China is already home to more people connected to the internet than any other country and Xi is not waiting to take advantage of these numbers. In 2014 Xi founded the Cyberspace Administration of China, which is responsible for controlling online content, bolstering cyber security, and developing the digital economy.

According to a recent article by Adam Segal, Chinese decision-makers have four priorities to ensure their long-term position as the leader of the cyber world. The first priority is to guarantee a harmonious internet that guides public opinion, supports good governance and promotes economic growth This entails a tight control of the internet with the aim of thwarting political mobilization and blocking any information that would potentially undermine the regime. The second priority is to reduce Chinese dependence on foreign suppliers of digital and communications materials, effectively liberating them from economic coercion attempts. Third, China will focus its defences on cyber security with an aim to protect itself from cyber attacks that could damage critical infrastructure. Finally, China envisions the future of the internet around the organizing principle of ‘cyber-sovereignty’, a principle that gravely threatens the principle of free speech upon which liberal democracy relies.

Beijing envisions a state centric cyber world concentrated at the UN, where it has a permanent seat on the Security Council. This would benefit China by prioritizing the interests of governments over civil society and tech companies, and it would facilitate China’s ability to mobilize votes of developing countries that also are sympathetic to the concept of government-controlled internet where they can manage the flow of information.

Beijing envisions a state centric cyber world concentrated at the UN

While China is making efforts to define the future of cyberspace, the environment will decide the fate of humanity, and the U.S. has stepped back from its position of global leadership. While the U.S. was absolutely instrumental in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, the collaboration between the U.S. and China was the key factor to the overall passage of the agreement. Indeed, the passage of the climate agreement needed both the U.S. and China to commit for the rest of the world to sign on. Unfortunately, with the stated withdrawal from the agreement and refocus on coal power (although reality might be different than rhetoric), the United States has signaled that it is unwilling to abide by the rules and preserve its leadership role on this area. At the same time, China has stepped up in defense of the Paris Climate Agreement and analysts tracking global coal consumption agree that China has already reached peak coal consumption, placing them on track to meet the Paris Agreement regarding their carbon emissions.

Furthermore, China is leading the world in renewable energy investment. In 2015, China invested over twice as much in domestic renewable energy than the United States. Since then their ventures have expanded into foreign investments including projects in Australia, Chile, Brazil, and other countries. Both of these factors give China the edge in terms of reliability and commitment.

Another geopolitical realm where the U.S. has stepped back leadership is infrastructural development in central Asia. Undoubtedly, the drafting of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) can be viewed as an attempt by the U.S. to economically develop and secure Asia within the confines of American reach and the liberal world order. However, the TPP has been shelved for now (or at least US involvement in the trade pact has) and the U.S. declined to enter other economic projects in Asia, namely the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the One Belt and Road Initiative. Failing to partner with China on its infrastructure development project, the One Belt and Road Initiative, and refusing to sign on to become a founding member of the AIIB provided a vacuum for China to enter. Although there is plenty of criticism directed at the AIIB and many would support the American decision to stay out of the bank, the fact remains that the U.S. effort to thwart its establishment was a failed attempt and left the U.S. government standing on the sideline. Today, the AIIB exists with or without the approval of the American government.

Today, the AIIB exists with or without the approval of the American government.

Additionally, China recently announced its ambitious project called One Belt One Road Initiative, which aims to develop large swaths of central Asian and the Middle East in an effort to bring developing economies up to speed and benefit politically along the way. This project is so large that analysts have calculated that its total cost, when adjusted for inflation, will surpass the Marshal Plan after WWII. This effort would be a perfect opportunity for the U.S. to show leadership by partnering with China and it would also allow the U.S. to keep China from violating workers rights and controlling the entire project.

As the United States is retreating from its engagements with the world community it is also abdicating its role as a global leader, and other countries like China are all too eager to fill the void. This can be seen in China’s leadership in the Paris Climate Agreement, in their efforts to control the internet, and in their ambitious behavior to establish new international institutions that facilitate Chinese investments. If America closes its eyes and pouts in dissatisfaction with the direction of geopolitics, other countries merely smirk in delight. While America has its eyes closed the rules are being rewritten by other powers.  They will write them in their favour.