by Manlio Graziano
The Impossible Chinese Order
Originally Published in International Affairs Forum on 27th September, 2023.
In recent years, scholars of international relations have been debating the possible emergence of a Chinese-led “new world order.” Beijing itself speaks of this in its diplomatic and propaganda campaigns, even while rejecting any ambition of world hegemony. Last spring, Chinese leaders added “global civilization”– alongside “global development” and “global security” – as a third pillar of their long-term project for a “new world order” that would offer an alternative to the current American-led international relations system. Like every other power that has proclaimed its will to put the world in order, China accompanies its proposal with a set of values that, “while respecting the diversity of various national histories,” respond to the “common aspiration for peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom,” as the official Chinese communiqué reads.
Beyond the cruel irony of invoking “common values” of justice, democracy and freedom – from a regime that controls the judiciary, censors information and jails those who dare criticize it – there is little novelty in their stance. Ever since talk of a “new world order” began, its proponents have presented idyllic visions of a future in which all wrongs will be righted, and the common aspiration for peace is achieved.
The difference here is that many around the world now seem ready to believe (probably even more than Beijing’s leaders do) that China is indeed in a position to shape, or is already shaping, a new world order under its leadership. In the decades since the end of the Cold War, the very idea of “world order” has been transformed into an ideological slogan, easily manipulated and now detached from its historical reality of being a condition born out of war and destruction.
Actually, in a society based on competition and struggle between different and opposing interests, the only way to impose a “world order” is for one party to forcefully make the others give up their interests.
It is possible that some among Beijing’s ruling class (and among the country’s population) are drunk with self-satisfaction and truly believe that China is on the verge of ruling the world. More likely, however, is that the leaders with whom power resides are, more soberly, using the mirage of an alternative order to the (increasingly less) U.S.-dominated one merely to offer motivation and hope to their own people. More importantly, they are sending a message to the leaders of countries who desire not so much to break away from the United States and the rest of the so-called “West” as to have more options available – more arrows in their bows. In short, China is hunting for clients: to sell them its goods, exploit their raw materials, and place its investments (the “development initiative”); to create a front of countries grown less complacent in the face of Washington’s wishes (the “security initiative”); to proclaim their respect for different national paths and political forms under the banner of multipolarism (the “civilization initiative”). For these pragmatic leaders of Beijing, the aim most likely is not so much to create a new world order – which, in any case, is impossible without a war – as to be able to enjoy the same freedom of movement, literally and more generally, as their colleagues in Washington. After all, they say, China has gained increasingly robust influence internationally through loans, investments and diplomatic initiatives, and so it now deserves to enjoy privileges at leastequal to those of the United States.
All emerging powers, once they pass a certain critical threshold in their growth, claim the “right” to play a role in “redefining the rules” of international politics. These rules, established when these newer powers had not yet emerged, fail to take into account their recent demands, while continuing to serve the needs of the old, albeit declining, powers. In the late nineteenth century, it was Germany and the United States that asserted their “rights” as emerging powers: the former, explicitly and loudly; the latter, silently and perhaps even, in part, unwittingly, through the conquest of new markets and increasingly advanced geostrategic positions. As is often the case, the weaker ones – even among the emerging or supposedly emerging ones – try to cover their deficiencies with bombastic proclamations and resounding actions, even to the point of causing, as in the case of Wilhelmine Germany, catastrophic and irreparable damage. It could be said that China stands halfway between the German model and the American model. However, its claims alone are not enough to make it a credible candidate for a future role as a hegemonic power.
In 1986, British historian Paul Kennedy identified the general law of the rise and fall of great powers: according to him, there is a “detectable” correlation between changes in economic and productive balances and changes in political balances, though this correlation may be detectable only “in the long run” (his emphasis). Yet, while this leads “ineluctably to the rise of certain powers and the decline of others,” disrupting international political hierarchies in the process, it is by no means guaranteed that it leads to the affirmation of the challenging power. The rapid development of Wilhelmine Germany, for example, played more than a small role in the shifting of international hierarchies at the turn of the nineteenth century, but its challenge to British hegemony failed catastrophically. If there were an instantaneous and proportional correspondence between countries’ economic and political weight, international relations could be studied with the simple support of a pocket calculator.
In reality, there are many factors that determine political changes: not only geography, economics, demographics, military strength, network of foreign relations, you name it, but also the legitimacy and credibility of institutions, and the legitimacy and credibility of political leadership; nor can one ignore intangible factors such as the weight of history, tradition, social psychology, ideologies, religions etc. More generally, social cohesion and a climate conducive to the free deployment of national energies play important roles.
As the scholar Robert Gilpin wrote, the shift in economic weights is certainly “the most destabilizing factor” in relations between states, but it can only determine the success of the challenger “in the long run,” and only if the other factors summarized above enter the final equation. In June 2022, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, said that “the United States is the main source of disruption of the current world order”. While Wang indeed had some factual evidence to support this claim, he failed to add that for the past 30 years (“in the long run”), the main source of disruption of the world order had been the development of his own country. However, history teaches us that for an existing order to be replaced by another, its disruption is a necessary but not a sufficient condition.
The United States, which was far better equipped than today’s China (undeniably so in terms of demographics, political legitimacy and social cohesion), became the world’s leading industrial power in the 1880s and the leading economic power in the 1890s. However, it managed to become the hegemonic power only at the end of World War II, that is, half a century later. In short, to dethrone the United Kingdom and take over its hegemonic role, the United States had to annihilate its competitors in two world wars – not to mention that, as a challenger power, it had had to fight, and win, other decisive wars during the nineteenth century, most importantly the 1898 war.
China has no chance of bringing about a new order: it is in trouble on numerous fronts, including the economic one; it lacks certain indispensable conditions (including domestic legitimacy and international reliability); but above all, it cannot hope to gently persuade its competitors to give up their interests and goals to allow it to impose its own. For China, therefore, the only way to force its rivals to align with its will would be – as has always happened in the past – to destroy them materially and psychologically through another general war. And even that would not suffice. For while the two global conflicts of the twentieth century made the United States even richer and more powerful, a general war of the 21st century would leave China economically and, almost certainly, politically annihilated, even if it won; and the same thing would happen to the United States, even if it won. We see a parallel in the mutual ruin of the European contenders in World War I, with no power or coalition of powers in sight capable of taking advantage of others’ weakened state to impose itself. And a possible next world war, moreover, might indeed be the last – for there would be nothing and no one left to destroy.
Only a dominant hegemonic power, with allies in a subordinate position, can establish a new world order, that is, to set the rules and impose compliance on others. In the past, the countries that have succeeded – France after the Thirty Years’ War, the United Kingdom after the Napoleonic wars and the United States after the world wars – have all followed different paths and played that role in different ways. There is no canvas for the Chinese (or any other possible hegemonic aspirants) to be inspired by. But all have gone through calamitous wars from which all had well-founded hopes of emerging victorious. Today, that condition does not exist, neither for China nor for anyone else. Nor, of course, for the United States, which finds itself in the unprecedented and awkward condition of sabotaging part of those rules that it had imposed on everyone else at the end of World War II – further evidence that it is not the rules that determine the relations between the powers, but the relations between the powers that determine the rules.
The opinions expressed in this article is of the author alone. The Spykman Center provides a neutral and non-partisan platform to learn how to make geopolitical analysis. It acknowledges how diverse perspectives impact geopolitical analyses, without necessarily endorsing them.