“Warring States”—The Coming New World (Dis)order


The Korean Peninsula is the last citadel of a bygone era. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States as the reigning superpower has been the anchor of a global architecture built after World War II and solidified during the post-Cold War period. It is organized around a narrative of dichotomy that has dominated international relations for more than half a century. It is a single fault line narrative and ideology is its cornerstone. A worldwide Western alliance, of which South Korea has been a staunch member from almost day one, led and paid for by the United States, is charged with the mission of maintaining and continuing to expand this global architecture.

This era has gone through two phases. The first was the post-WWII phase during which two universal ideologies were engaged in an existential struggle around the globe: Soviet communism vs. democratic liberalism. Both were modern and both were Western. Furthermore, both were brands of historical determinism in that each claimed the inevitability of a preconceived destination for all mankind. In Soviet communism, class as the fundamental unit that transcended all cultural identities would take the whole world to the communist utopia. On the other side of the coin, democratic liberalism counted on divinely empowered individuals to vote their way to the liberal paradise. Both armed themselves to the teeth and drove their visions from continent to continent. In the end, the Soviet Union collapsed and the American-led West lived—hence the American century.1

The second phase was the post-Cold War period. Victory in the Cold War led the West to embrace, in the traditions of Hegel and ironically, Marx, an inexorable linearity to history. The United States would lead the victorious Western alliance to implement the utopia of democratic liberalism to cover every corner of the earth. Electoral democracy and market capitalism were to be the building blocks of a new world order. Six billion rational individuals would all make the right choices in the voting booth and the marketplace and, thereby, eventually unify the world under a single set of political, economic, and even moral rules. In the euphoria of globalization many were led to believe that national sovereignty was passé and universality was within reach. Here, the single fault line is between the democratizers and market openers on one side and those who resist conversion or are yet to be converted on the other. Three approaches have been pursued against the latter: direct military containment or invasion (North Korea and Iraq), fostering color revolutions (former Soviet republics and the Middle East), and peaceful evolution (China).

A web of international alliances and organizations were constructed under American leadership using this ideological framework. Realpolitik, if any is applied, is but in tactical support of this brand of historic determinism. In the past quarter century, the United States has expended vast amounts of treasury, intellectual resources, moral capital, and a great number of lives in pursuit of what it sees as universal values on alien soils. This narrative of dichotomy is present and decisive in just about every sphere of American international endeavors, political, social, economic, and military. The so-called foreign policy realists in successive administrations since 1990 have essentially played second fiddle to either neo-conservative unilateralists or liberal interventionists. There were exceptions. In the Middle East, for example, American policies long supported military and theocratic rulers both during and after the Cold War in order to protect and advance US national interests (to contain the Soviet Union, to protect access to oil, and to counter the Islamic threat). Yet, when the Arab Spring revolutionaries sought the overthrow of these rulers in the name of democracy, America found itself with no choice but to abandon many of its long-time allies. Such is the power of universal ideology—the author is both its beneficiary and captive.

In this context, almost all international, and many domestic, conflicts are framed as struggles between good and evil, or at least between progressive and regressive: forces of democracy fighting forces of dictatorship, forces of human rights against tyranny, forces of free market vs. protectionism. The Western alliance is, of course, on the right side of history.

The Ailing Narrative of Dichotomy

We now live at the end of this brief era. The global architecture is not sustainable because its underlying narrative of dichotomy no longer reflects the realities of our world. Two developments have occurred to shift the twentieth-century paradigm: the primary conflicts of our time are defined by multiple fault lines, not a single fault line, and the reemergence of China as a great power has fundamentally altered the cost structure of maintaining the global architecture.

Nowhere is there a clearer case of the paradigm shift in the nature of conflicts than in today’s Middle East. The United States led its allies into a decade-long project to transform the Middle East. After WMD was proved to be non-existent, the Iraq war was indeed framed as an essential project to bring democracy to the Arab world. Then, of course, the world turned out to be more complex than that. Religious and sectarian fault lines proved far more consequential than the ideological dichotomy between democracy and dictatorship. Two years ago, the Arab Spring was framed as a defining struggle between liberal democrats against tyrants. Everyone seemed convinced the world was witnessing a replay of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Tahrir Square. Of course, the rest was history.

The Middle East is turning the entire narrative of dichotomy on its head. Democratic elections led to illiberal Islamist rule in Egypt and in most of the other Arab states swept by the Arab Spring. Military overthrow of an elected government is billed as restoration of democracy. America, literally, found itself at a loss for words. When asked whether it was a “coup,” the White House spokesman said, “… we have determined that it is not in the best interest of the United States to make that determination.” Now, only weeks later, we are watching the same movie in Syria, with even more complex implications and greater potential for catastrophe. Again, the multiple fault lines that drive the conflicts in Syria and beyond are creating situations in which an ally of the Western alliance in one conflict is its adversary in another. This lack of a clear-cut division is paralyzing American foreign policy making because the narrative of dichotomy depends on it. And into the space created by this paralysis comes Russia to the rescue.

A slower-motion version of this shift is occurring in our own neighborhood of the Asia-Pacific. Here, the Cold War alliance built to counter the Soviet Union was extended and re-purposed to solidify and expand the global architecture. The US–Japan–South Korea alliance seeks to politically and economically isolate, militarily contain, and, when necessary, confront a nuclear North Korea. The narrative of dichotomy is expressed in its starkest terms on this peninsula. From the “axis of evil” to tyrannical regime to nuclear pariah state, the poverty-stricken hermit state of 25 million has been successfully narrated as an existential enemy to the global order. In the process, South Korea transitioned itself from an authoritarian government that led its economic rise to a Western-styled electoral regime. Down south, the Western alliance ushered in a historic expansion of democratic rule and free market economics. Old Cold War allies who were dictators were replaced by elected regimes and their protected markets opened up. The wave swept the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia and even was partially responsible for the creation of a new independent country—the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. A rapprochement with India was also pursued in part due to the latter’s democratic credentials.

Last but not least, there was China. Rather unique among the major powers, in the middle of the Cold War China shifted gear and pursued a non-ideological course in its foreign policy. Its de facto alliance with the United States against its former communist mentor, the Soviet Union, paved the way for its economic opening to the Western-led global market infrastructure. Yet, its one-party governance system and its nuclear power status allowed it the political and military independence to fend off foreign interference in its domestic affairs. China’s ability to control its own destiny left the Western alliance with the only option of pursuing the mildest approach of conversion towards it—peaceful evolution. The strategy was to engage China economically and as its economy develops, so the assumption went, it would inevitably democratize politically along the historic linearity predicted by the grand narrative. Outside the economic sphere, however, the West has built conspicuous alliances all around China, politically and militarily, to contain or even isolate the rising power. And when occasionally a color revolution seemed possible the West did not hesitate to help ferment it inside China. One way or another, China would come under the grand design of the global architecture and operate within its rules.

But the Chinese had their own ideas. Marginally on the winning side of the Cold War, China found itself outside the Western-led global economic system. China’s party leadership determined, correctly, that in order to develop its economy it must engage and integrate into that economic system. Furthermore, it would have to rely on the global security architecture maintained and underwritten by the United States to obtain a relatively peaceful external environment for its economic priorities and access the safe shipping lanes for the energy it needs and for sending its products to the world as it industrializes. But unlike many developing countries and second-tier powers that had no choice but to transform and realign themselves along the post-Cold War narrative of dichotomy, China engaged the global architecture on its own terms. In retrospect, it was clear that China sought to take maximum advantage of the global system without capitulating to its underlying narrative. Today, more than a decade after joining the WTO, China is a global industrial powerhouse and the largest trading nation in the world. Yet, its one-party political system remains intact, its foreign policy fully independent, and its military might dramatically strengthening.

The Dragon Reemerges

Around the globe, China deals with the world with a fundamentally opposite worldview to that of the United States. The utter absence of ideology characterizes the Chinese outlook. Cultural pragmatism drives China’s domestic development and emanates from all aspects of its foreign policy. What many see as over-simplistically as just realpolitik in its international projects actually reflects a deep-seated Chinese belief that the primacy of culture, as opposed to ideology, now directs the organizing forces that shape international affairs. In such a framework, states do not act according to single-fault-line ideological alignments. The world is an arena in which nations and groups compete, cooperate with, and counter-balance each other. Globalization is not a project to drive all nations towards a preconceived and unified end, but a process through which this multifaceted, multi-layered dynamic takes place. This Chinese outlook manifests itself in three critical areas of the nation’s grand strategy: the securing of natural resources in regions that have them, geopolitical realignment in the Pacific, and management of the global economic system.

In merely 30 years, China has gone from a poor agricultural economy to a global industrial powerhouse. The acquisition of natural resources from crude oil to industrial raw materials is and will continue to be a key driver of its foreign policy. After the Cold War, the Soviet Union left large vacuums in many energy-rich regions such as Africa, Central Asia, Latin America, and parts of Southeast Asia, and the nations in these regions were in transition. One could easily assume that the United States as the victorious superpower would dramatically expand, in short order, its strategic assets in all these regions. But it, along with the international organizations that it leads, went on to try to direct the course of transition for the nations in these regions according to its grand design. Its superpower might was leveraged to aggressively promote electoral democracy and market capitalism. In Africa, development aid was linked to standards of governance defined by the West. Its corporations had been until recently barred from doing business in Myanmar because it was run by a military government. Economic incentives were provided to those countries in Latin America that adhered to the rules of electoral democracy and open markets and punishments were meted out to those that did not. In Central Asia, the Western alliance went so far as to foment regime change through color revolutions. The results of these expansive and expensive projects are questionable at best.

In the same period, China from a much more modest position has quietly made dramatic inroads in all of these places to the point that it is now a credible competitor to the West. Many analysts attribute this to China’s willingness to coddle dictators and turn a blind eye to corruption. This is intellectually simplistic. In Niger, the Chinese government and companies had been deeply involved with an autocratic government, to the dismay of the West and many Western NGO’s. They had long predicted that the regime was fragile and corrupt and when it eventually falls the Chinese would see their interests suffer. Sure enough, the regime did fall in 2010. But to the surprise of many, it took the new government two weeks to publicly pronounce its intention to further cement ties with China. In Zimbabwe, China has long been doing business with Robert Mugabe and is viewed by Western policy makers as an unruly ally of his illegitimate rule. Yet, under the surface, Chinese diplomats have built friendly ties with the opposition. Should Mugabe ever lose power, it would be likely that what happened in Niger would repeat itself in Zimbabwe.

Charges of genocide put the United States on adversarial terms with the government in Khartoum, while China’s engagement there has produced access to rich energy resources. The West sees the tragedy in Sudan in starkly moral terms of good vs. evil. China sees it as civil conflicts along ethnic and religious lines not uncommon in human history where outside powers are by definition incapable of making meaningful improvements. Yet, its approaches were agile. In order to fend off Western pressure and ensure its place in the future configuration of Sudan, it engaged in quiet diplomacy to push Khartoum to implement and accept the results of the secession referendum in the south. It was among the first to meaningfully engage the newly independent south. In retrospect, China’s realistic engagement in Sudan has proven to be a more stabilizing force than Western animosity. Recent initiatives announced during the visit by the new South Sudan president to Beijing indicate that in all likelihood China’s interests there will be protected and, perhaps, advanced.

Many have leveled the charge that China is “raping” Africa by exploiting its natural resources. These critics miss the point. Africa indeed has been raped, many times, but not by China. What China has been doing in Africa, at worst, could be characterized as seduction. We all know, in a rape there is necessarily a victim. In a seduction, there is no such certainty. It could be win-win, win-lose, or lose-lose. The result depends on the actions of the players themselves. In its engagement with African countries, China seeks to make the best commercial deals for the Chinese people. But there is no coercion. It is up to the Africans to protect their own interests. Many are beginning to do just that. The maturing government of Niger has been aggressively seeking to re-negotiate the terms of many energy and mining contracts, and China has made significant compromises.

China’s new president, Xi Jinping, recently made a high-profile visit to Central Asia, during which he announced an initiative to build a new silk road. The most significant statement he made there was that China would never seek to dominate the region or direct the course of development of Central Asian nations.

Back in the Asia-Pacific, the stark ideological divide between the United States and North Korea has isolated the latter and driven it into a completely captive relationship with China. There have been many indicators that point to North Korea’s reluctance to perpetuate such sole dependence on its giant neighbor and desire to balance it with a closer relationship with the United States. But the American approach leaves them with no choice. Chinese companies are finally making significant inroads in securing mining resources inside North Korea and the alliance continues to serve as China’s strategic bulwark checking the US alliance with Japan and South Korea.

From the other direction, China has no such ideological bondage. It normalized diplomatic relations with South Korea and the economic relationship has blossomed. Now China is South Korea’s largest trading partner. Recently, South Korea’s new president Park broke with tradition and paid her official visit to China before Japan. The United States has sought to strengthen its alliance with Japan and South Korea as a democratic counterbalance to a rising China. But of course, the historic nationalist fault line between Japan and Korea again proves more resilient than the ideological one.

Many analysts state that China has stumbled in recent years in the South China Sea and East China Sea in its aggressive territorial disputes with its neighbors and has alienated so many of them to the extent that it is now viewed as a threat by the region, resulting in America’s much touted “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific. Such judgment is misplaced. On the contrary, history will probably prove that China has dealt with these situations with agility unmatched by the great powers of our time. China’s strategic objective in the region is to change the status quo, the establishment of which it did not have enough power to participate in or influence, to its advantage without resulting in actual military conflicts. In both the South China Sea against several Southeast Asian nations, most notably the Philippines, and in the East China Sea against Japan it has accomplished that goal. Its naval presence near Huanyan Island, the now frequent visits by Chinese patrol vessels to the areas of Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands, and the international demonstration of actual dispute over them attest to that achievement.

At the same time, China has sought to balance its tough stance with accommodating and even generous policies to build common interests with those neighbors who are not hostile to it. Its warm and improving relations with both Indonesia and Malaysia, both bulwark states within ASEAN, are enhancing China’s hard and soft power in the region.

China’s most notable accomplishment in the past three decades is, perhaps, its success in engaging, and in many cases mastering, the international economic system set up and maintained by the US-led West without being absorbed by it. China did not participate in setting the rules of international economic engagement. The system was built by the United States and its Western allies over many decades. By the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, it was firmly believed in the West that capitalism was going global; and a global economic infrastructure anchored by the WTO and IMF with the US navy patrolling the sea-lanes would deliver a globalized world economy consistent with the inevitable universalization of Western values.

It turns out that capital has indeed gone global, but the “ism” part did not. China adopted a market economy, but not capitalism. It effectively negotiated its way into the WTO on preferential terms by taking advantage of the West’s illusion of the eventuality of a globalized economic order. In one generation’s time, it has gone from a negligible player in the global economy to an 800-pound gorilla within it. It has done so by taking maximum advantage of the system to benefit its own interests without foregoing much of its political and economic independence. Preferential trade status protects its domestic industry while its exports flood the world market. In exchange for market access, multinational companies were required to invest and create jobs in China with continuous technology transfers. A closed capital account has kept its financial infrastructure from the devastations of the ongoing global financial turmoil. On the issue of intellectual property protection, China has deftly outmaneuvered developed countries, allowing its businesses and consumers to benefit from Western investments in R&D on the cheap while avoiding any meaningful penalties. China’s game is in marked contrast to many developing countries that have allowed the global system to overwhelm their national interests.

In the failed Doha round negotiations, China fended off the West’s attempts to take away some of its preferential trading statuses as a developing country. China calculates, correctly so far, that entrenched economic interests within Western countries would keep the status quo going and thereby allowing their benefits to continue with marginal adjustments. If there were to be any meaningful changes to its position in the future, they would only be dictated by China’s own national interests or a dramatic alteration in US and European policies. The latter could only happen if states in the West would give up their grand dream of a global order and act to defend their own national interests.

Leviathan vs. Free Rider2

Many level on China the charge of a free rider. Perhaps the best answer to that charge is: only a fool would turn down a free ride. The seventeenth century political theorist Thomas Hobbes’ seminal work, Leviathan, best describes the essence behind the design of the post-Cold War international order concerning both security and economics. Individual players operating with the rules of a primitive jungle without a dominant authority come to realize that the survival of the fittest is proving destructive to all. Therefore, they collectively decide to cede their freedom to Leviathan, who will act as the guarantor of order, maker, and enforcer of the rules of engagement. His judgments are to be obeyed by all. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, America has bravely taken on the role of Leviathan in pursuit of a grand vision of a universalized world order. A web of military alliances and international laws and institutions was established or enhanced to ensure conflicts are resolved according to rules, not by force. Similar systems were established to govern global trade and finance.

Just as no commercial contracts can be meaningful without a court to adjudicate disagreements and a police force to enforce its decisions, none of these international arrangements can be sustained without an ultimate guarantor to enforce the rules and punish those who break them, by force when necessary. In the decades since the end of the Cold War, the United States has played such a role, issuing security guarantees to a large number of nations, patrolling the world’s sea lanes, underwriting the international trading and financial systems, punishing those whom it judges to be rogue players—sometimes even at the expense of breaking the very rules it is supposed to uphold—such as in the instance of the Iraq War. A strange set of numbers demonstrates the magnitude of this arrangement: The United States has 4.5 percent of the world’s population and generates less than 20 percent of its production, yet accounts for half of its military expenditures. A large part of the world has prospered under such an arrangement. The relative peace around the globe and the systems that govern international trade and finance have facilitated rapid economic growth in many developing nations and the sustenance of welfare states in more developed ones. They are essentially free riders, of which China is the biggest and most successful one. Who can blame them?

There is only one problem: the American Leviathan is a momentary mirage. It is being sustained at the expense of the American nation. Leviathan by definition is a disinterested ruler and a god who is above the world it rules not a participant in it. America, with 300 million people, is a nation state that is and always will be an interested party in the world. For a brief period since the Cold War’s end, America was able to be both a Leviathan who rules the system and a national player within the system because a case could be made that its national interests coincided with the world’s interests. In reality, America had indeed benefited tremendously from its hegemony. Its companies expanded their markets around the globe and the dollar’s reserve currency status has underwritten a dramatic expansion of its consumption driven economy. But that moment has passed.

The attempt to play the dual role of a ruler and a participant is now costing America dearly and could very well bankrupt the country, economically and socially, if it continued. After just one generation, it has fallen deeply in debt, its middle class is crumbling, its industries have been hollowed out, its infrastructure is in disrepair, its education system is badly underfunded, its social contract is in shambles, and its political governance is paralyzed. For the first time since the Great Depression, a structural threat to American social cohesion has emerged. The weight of free riders is crushing the one participant who also wants to be ruler. America’s elite classes have been steadfastly propelling forward the nation’s role as the global hegemon partly because massive interests are vested in the globalization project underwritten by the American Leviathan, while relegating its role as a participant to a lower priority. As a result the American people’s fortunes have irreversibly declined and their futures mortgaged. But it is a matter of when, not if, the American people will ask for their country back.

Leviathan Retreats, a New Future Opens

The case of Syria may prove to be a watershed event. America’s hesitancy and eventual reversal on military action was unprecedented in the post-Cold War era. The American people have forced the hands of their political elites to erase their presidential “red line.” The pivot the American people want and need and are now demanding is a pivot to Ohio. We now live in a world that is in transition. The old paradigm upon which a narrative of dichotomy underlies a global architecture no longer exists. Multiple fault lines over culture, religion, economics, and historic circumstances define the conflicts of the twenty-first century. Yet, the Western alliance that is at the helm of the global architecture is still steeped in a single fault line narrative that drives its policies and strategies, or at least policies and strategies must be rationalized by that narrative. Teleological narrative can be an extraordinarily powerful weapon when it suits its time, as the narrative of dichotomy propelled the Western alliance to the zenith of global power. However, it is a prison when its time has passed. The Western alliance is indeed imprisoned by its own narrative, as we see in policy struggles around the globe. So many ask, will China seek to supplant the United States and be a new super power? Some have gone so far as to proclaim that the twenty-first century will be a Chinese century. In Toronto last year they held a debate with heavyweights such as Henry Kissinger and Niall Ferguson on just that topic.3

China became the largest beneficiary by taking maximum advantage of globalization. Yet, China does not, and probably never will, subscribe to the universal ideology of democratic liberalism, and its vibrant market economy is pointedly not capitalism. Many Westerners are surprised by this as it was widely believed that China’s economic development and integration into the world order would necessarily turn it into a convert of the Western religion of modernity. This is because ideological faith often leads to self-delusion. It is no different from the Soviet communists who believed all workers of the world would transcend their national and cultural allegiances to unite against capitalists of all nations. The same delusion also led many in the West to champion the Arab Spring for giving birth to liberal societies across the Middle East.

China has, and always will, act in its own best national interests. Its worldview is consistent with the cultural roots of the Middle Kingdom—keeping out barbarians, not invading them. This outlook of centrality is directly opposite to the twentieth century Soviet and American notions of universality. China appears to be a natural in this post-ideological century—exploiting the international system for its own benefit while defending against external encroachments on its sovereignty. With or without sufficient capacity, it will never seek to lead the current global system let alone invent, and pay for, a new one to run the world. So, in essence, the Americans have built a global system with a universal plan; China has ridden that system but would not subscribe to the plan—to be fair China never said it would. Furthermore, its success is showing new possibilities to many other developing nations that never embraced the plan but were told by the West they could not prosper without it.

So we are in somewhat unchartered waters. The world is not coming together under a unified system. Its underlying narrative is dead. Its underwriter is no longer able to pay for it. The most significant rising power is not interested in making a new one. Perhaps “warring states” is a proper metaphor of our time. The Chinese seem to be looking ahead and beginning to formulate a new framework—what Xi proposed to Obama during their California summit as a “new type of great power relations.” Ironically, the first test case of this new doctrine is being carried out by the United States and Russia on Syria, with China on the sidelines.

More importantly, the Chinese see, rather wisely, that, although it is not possible to sustain the current global architecture as is, China’s rise must be peaceful. Otherwise the consequences are unimaginable. China’s sheer size makes this so. Its acquiescence to US leadership in many aspects of international relations and its many compromises with its Asia-Pacific neighbors against its own short-term interests point to such a realization. Perhaps, a more sustainable international architecture will emerge, not by design as was the passing one, but by the participation of nations acting independently.

China will continue to rise. America will renew its strength and prosperity. Europe, who knows? Perhaps this coming era is the most troubling and risky to smaller states that have depended on the patronage of American hegemony for their survival and welfare. This brings us back to the Korean Peninsula. This is perhaps the last patch of land on earth on which soldiers are committed to fighting and killing their own compatriots in alliance with foreign powers along an ideological fault line. How long will it remain so?

Eric X. Li is a venture capitalist and political scientist in Shanghai. This is adapted from a lecture given at the Asan Institue for Policy Studies in Seoul.

1. Eric X. Li, “A Century for Sale,” Huffington Post, December 6, 2011.

2. Eric X. Li, “Hang on, Leviathan, Hang on,” The New York Times, June 4, 2012.

3. Eric X. Li, “A Century for Sale.”

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