The catchword for the close of the year 2020 is COVID-19. This disease is believed to be a game changer of world order, as well as China-US relations. The incoming Biden administration also has uncertainties about this world’s most important bilateral relationship. What will be the trajectory of China-US relations? Will the systematic competition between the two intensify? What important challenges will the world face in the next 10 years? Global Times (GT) reporters Wang Wenwen and Bai Yunyi talked to Joseph Nye (Nye), University Distinguished Service Professor, Emeritus and former Dean of the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, on these issues.
GT: Many scholars have predicted that US’ China containment strategy will continue under the Biden administration. How will Biden’s approach differ from Trump’s?
Nye: I think you’ll see a much more predictable, less ideological policy under Biden. You won’t have the type of very personalistic changes in policy that you found under Trump. But at the same time, there are some issues which have deep roots that go back before Trump, such as the American belief that China has not played fair with the international trading system and has had subsidies to the state-owned enterprises and coercive intellectual property transfer and so forth. Those issues will continue to be part of Biden’s agenda. On the other hand, there will be certain areas of cooperation which Trump did not engage in such as climate and working together on pandemics, where I think you’ll see an interest in the Biden administration in developing these areas. All in all, the style and the predictability will be very different.
GT: Can China and the US eventually embrace a new kind of great power relationship that is not aimed at “collapsing” or “radically changing” each other?
Nye: If you look at the relationship between China and the US, I have called it a cooperative rivalry in which you have to pay attention both to the cooperation and to the rivalry. There will be some parts of the relationship which will be similar to traditional, great power competition, where you will see zero-sum approaches. For example, challenges over China’s creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea fit that type of description.
But there’ll be other aspects of the relationship which will be positive where essentially neither the US nor China can solve the problem unless they cooperate with each other. This would be climate change or pandemic. Those are non zero-sum games. The cooperative rivalry will have a mixture of traditional, great power rivalry, but also a new type of great power cooperation.
GT: There are two views regarding China-US relations: I. China and the US will be strong opponents threatening each other’s status; II. The US and China are destined to coexist. How can we overcome the contradiction between these two ideas?
Nye: One of the things that will be necessary is to have constant contacts at all levels. For example, having regular meetings at the summit level is important, but also regular dialogues in terms of cabinet officials and economic officials and regular meetings at the military-to-military level.
One of the dangers we face is that there will be some accident or incident, which could create a crisis, which could tumble over either into a real cold war, or into a hot war. This would have an enormous negative effect which sets back China’s growth to the level it was in the 1990s, and would badly damage the American economy and the world economy. So developing procedures for communication and crisis prevention and management are extremely important.
Henry Kissinger has pointed out that the metaphor we should worry about is 1914, in which none of the great powers wanted WWI. They wanted a small episode, but they wound up with a catastrophic war that lasted four years which destroyed the three empires and had a terrible setback for the world economy. Those are the things that we should be preparing to make sure that we avoid.
Taiwan, South China Sea or North Korea are all possible potential flashpoints. If an episode occurred in the South China Sea where an American ship defending freedom of navigation collides with a Chinese ship and lives are lost, that would be one example. If China decides to use force to retake Taiwan, or to take some of the offshore islands, and that leads to loss of life, you can imagine that leads to an economic boycott or some sort of freezing of assets and so forth to be terribly destructive economically.
GT: The COVID-19 pandemic and the messy aftermath of the US elections have sparked many disputes about US governance in contrast to China’s seemingly more successful fight against the pandemic. You also talked about American incompetence during the pandemic. How do you evaluate China’s and the US’ systematic performance during the pandemic? Do you think this competition of systems will intensify in coming years?
Nye: I think both countries started out badly in their response to the pandemic with denial and blame-shifting. But China was able to contain the pandemic and recovered more rapidly than the US whereas Trump and the American administration were very inconsistent in their messages and in their policies. The US is still paying the price for the incompetence of Trump’s leadership.
It’s a little bit too simple to chalk up everything to systems. For example, some people say that the Chinese authoritarian system has proven more successful than the democratic system. But I would argue that there are some democracies such as South Korea or New Zealand or Germany, which responded as well or better than China. So not all authoritarian systems did better than all democratic systems.
But in this case, the American democracy did badly, because of particularly poor leadership. I don’t think it’s right to say that it’s a test of two systems. I think it’s a test of the incompetent leadership of the American political system over the past four years. I think Biden will be much more clear in his strategy, for example, on dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. He has already announced that he will ask the public to wear masks in the first 100 days. He has also announced that he’ll rejoin the World Health Organization. I would expect that he would probably join the Covax Facility to distribute vaccines to poor countries. When you combine that with the success of producing a vaccine which has 95 percent success rate, that will mean the Americans will gain control of this pandemic in the next six months.
GT: The Americans elected Trump as president four years ago. Even this year, Trump still managed to get many votes. Why did a populist leader like him have such high approval ratings in a country known for its liberal democracy? Does this mean US-style liberal democracy is facing some kind of challenges?
Nye: It definitely faces challenges as all countries face challenges. One of the great challenges comes from globalization and economic change. Many people lost jobs. They often blame foreigners for the loss of jobs and factories removing, let’s say, from Ohio to China. And Trump was able to play on those feelings of the economic and social discontent to get elected in 2016.
But I don’t think that indicates that Trump is going to be returned to office in 2024. If Biden is able to work successfully in the next four years, you will be able to show this democracy worked. After all, it’s worth noticing that the Americans had an election under the worst pandemic conditions in 100 years. You had a record number of Americans who turned out, and that they were able to replace the incumbent president, which is something which is not easily done in many countries. So I think you can argue that American democracy is still working.
GT: How can Americans convince the world that another Trump will not come again?
Nye: Nothing is totally impossible, but the answer will depend upon Biden’s ability to get the pandemic under control and restore economic growth, and to restore America’s position internationally. In terms of working with multilateral institutions and with allies, if he’s able to do those things, then I think the probabilities of a return of a Trump-like leader are diminished. But if he fails on those three things, then those probabilities will change.
GT: You argued that there was nothing wrong to pursue “America First”, but the problem is how to achieve it with morality. You also mentioned this in your book Do Morals Matter?: Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump. How will the Biden administration balance US national interests and US morality, both of which seem to have been greatly damaged under Trump?
Nye: Yes, I think that’s correct and I tried to point out in my book that it’s not a question of whether a leader defends the national interest. That should be expected. We should expect the Chinese leader to defend China’s national interest or Emmanuel Macron to defend France’s national interest. So Trump or Biden should defend the American national interest.
But they have leeway in how they define it. They can define it very narrowly in terms of short-term, zero-sum games, or they can define it broadly in ways which include the interests of others and which have positive aspects.
I think Biden has indicated that he leans toward that second type of definition. When he talks about rejoining the Paris climate accord immediately or rejoining the WHO, that’s an indication of a broader approach to defining the national interest than Trump used when he withdrew from both of those organizations.
GT: The post-World War II global order has already been shaken. What impact will the pandemic exert on the global order going forward? Will the liberal order promoted by the West still sustain?
Nye: I think the post-World War II international order, which has been called a liberal international order, was never perfectly liberal and was never perfectly global. Large parts of the world were excluded, including China and the Soviet Union, in the Cold War years. So in that sense, I think the rise of China and the rise of populism in Western democracies have both provided new challenges to the existing international order. But it doesn’t mean that the order comes to an end. After all, China has greatly benefited from that order in terms of its economic growth, and the world has benefited in terms of reducing global poverty.
The question we have now is how do you repair a rules-based international system? And that requires two things. One is the US and China to work together to try to produce that system and produce what I call global public goods, which are in the interests of everybody. On the other hand, it depends upon the ability of the leaders in the Western liberal democracies to make sure that everybody benefits from the international order and make sure that globalization does not destroy the jobs and opportunities for so many people that they resisted.
GT: Who will define the rules, the US or China?
Nye: I think rules internationally and the norms that go with them depend upon state behavior. The view that China simply breaks rules is not correct. What we’re going to have to see is more negotiations as to what types of rules are acceptable and will be broadly observed or not. I think that there are many areas where China has a strong interest in maintaining rules such as the UN Charter. I also think there are areas where the US and China can cooperate on developing rules for challenges we face like the nuclear non-proliferation area.
GT: What will the next era be like in the third decade of the 21st century? An era marked by rising nationalism or globalization? What important challenges will the world face in the next 10 years?
Nye: We’re seeing rising nationalism in almost all countries. That does make multilateral cooperation more difficult when a country has those sorts of nationalistic domestic pressures. On the other hand, they can be managed and a certain degree of nationalism can be healthy as long as it is not carried to extremes. We’ll have to see in the years to come, whether we are able to combine enough positive results with nationalism.