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Can we compete with China and also save the planet?

By Fareed Zakaria

November 11, 2021

The joint agreement between the United States and China on “enhancing climate action” was rightly seen as a step forward — but, for now, a very small step. It did not have the kinds of specific targets that marked the 2014 agreement negotiated by the Obama administration that preceded the Paris accords. But it did suggest the resumption of serious dialogue between the world’s two largest economies and largest emitters of greenhouse gases — which would explain why so many nations felt the statement gave new energy to climate action.....

Coming as it did after years of strained relations between Washington and Beijing, it highlights the central dilemma for U.S. foreign policy going forward. Should it be focused on solving the largest and most challenging global problems, or should it be focused on competing with China?

As Uri Friedman notes in the Atlantic, President Biden spoke at the United Nations General Assembly in September about “a fundamental truth of the 21st century” that “our security, our prosperity, and our very freedoms are interconnected,” and declared that “we must work together as never before.” When thinking about the cutting-edge issues of the future — such as climate, pandemics, cyberwarfare and cybersecurity — it’s difficult to see how much can be achieved without some collaboration between the United States and China.

And yet, Biden has promised that his administration would pursue a policy of “extreme competition” with China. He has embraced many of former president Donald Trump’s policies toward Beijing, on trade, technology and Taiwan. The continuation of each of these approaches may have tactical benefits for the United States, but as Friedman points out, they could be in tension with a strategy focused on repairing and rebuilding an international system. That latter path is the only way to tackle growing common challenges that countries cannot possibly address individually.

For the previous administration, there was no tension between these two approaches, because it did not believe in the liberal, rules-based international order. For Trump, the open trade system, America’s alliances and even the focus on human rights were all scams that allowed other countries to take advantage of the United States. He eagerly embraced a very different approach, in which Washington would narrowly pursue its own advantage, often itself breaking the rules and violating norms. Right-wing populists, from Trump to Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Hungary’s Viktor Orban to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, all recognize that international institutions, rules and values are constraints on their ability to act as they wish, when they wish. They all seem to prefer a world of nationalism and protectionism. And if that means the unraveling of globalization, the open trade system, the European Union and even NATO, so much the better.

But Biden comes out of the tradition of U.S. foreign policy that built this open, rules-based order. In an interview with me on CNN last week, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, clearly laid out the goal of U.S. policy toward China: “The object of the Biden administration is to shape the international environment so that it is more favorable to the interest and values of the United States and its allies and partners to like-minded democracies.” He elaborated on what that international environment should look like — an “open, fair, free international economic system, and where basic values and norms that are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are respected in international institutions.”

Can both these objectives be pursued at the same time? In 2019, Sullivan and Kurt Campbell, now Sullivan’s top aide on the Indo-Pacific, co-authored a Foreign Affairs essay that tries to thread the needle intelligently, arguing that the key will be to get right “the balance between cooperation and competition.” The essay, which might hold the key to Biden’s China strategy, lays out a careful and measured policy in the military, political and economic realms. But looking at Washington’s polarized environment, it is difficult to imagine any White House being able to move in a nuanced and sophisticated way on an issue that has become as politically incendiary as China.

In their essay, Sullivan and Campbell reject a simple analogy to the Cold War but argue, correctly, that one can learn lessons from that long struggle. They stress the crucial importance of rebuilding America’s strength at home, with the government making large-scale investments in science, technology and infrastructure as it did in the 1950s and 1960s. They talk about the importance of allies.

To my mind, the central lesson of the Cold War is that what allowed the United States to ultimately prevail was not toppling some pro-Moscow governments in Africa and Latin America, intervening militarily in Vietnam or siding with right-wing dictatorships in Central America. It was building an open international system that secured peace, prosperity and freedom and allowed all who participated to thrive and prosper. Were that central achievement of American foreign policy to be sacrificed to gain some temporary tactical advantage against Beijing, it would be a mistake and a historic tragedy.

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