By Brendan Cooley
The United States soundly defeated the ideological challenges of communism and fascism in the 20th century. The U.S.-led liberal order has streamlined global ideology and provided distributed security and economic growth. But a new, more nuanced challenge now operates within that liberal global order: state capitalism.
State capitalist societies, namely China, skirt global norms in many ways, but can plausibly claim to adhere to the general principles promulgated by the UN, WTO, IMF, and World Bank. But in leveraging the full power of their economies to advance the interests of the state, China and others subtly undermine those institutions, whose longevity is essential if the 2030 world is to be prosperous and secure. These states “cheat” in the liberal system, but remain dependent on the integration and stability it provides.
This paradox is at the center of the emerging global institutional architecture. Global Trends 2030 spends a lot of time talking about global order, but it really only poses the possibility of (sometimes dramatic) changes to the liberal order, rather than a total usurpation of that order. And because the challenge of state capitalism is acute and the liberal international system is strong, GT 2030 wisely ignores the potential for a drastically different system. So the question becomes: will China and other state capitalist states gradually alter some tenets of the liberal order, or will the system alter them?
If the world does become multipolar, as GT 2030 predicts, regional powers like China will have the opportunity to shape their local environment independent of large-scale U.S. influence. But as their economic interests spread and U.S. influence wanes, these states need become providers of public goods and order rather than free riders on U.S.-led order.
China has already begun to entangle itself in a multitude of regional institutions, but very few of these present overt challenges to the liberal order. China has been at the forefront of the proliferation of free trade agreements in East and Southeast Asia and has pushed for regional economic integration over protectionism (although this may change with the composition of China’s economy). In this area, China is ironically better at being “liberal” than the United States.
China’s foreign aid and investment policies do not adhere to the same standards as equivalent Western aid policies and China’s support of rogue regimes continues to frustrate the West. But these deviations from Western standards are relatively minor when one considers the degree of integration between China, its neighbors, and the West.
So while U.S. academics and strategists fret about the potential for a hegemonic challenge from China, Chinese ascendency might not severely alter global norms. The world will become more regionalized and will struggle to come to agreements on emerging challenges like intellectual property rights, climate change, and resource sharing. But the fundamental openness and agreed-upon rules of the liberal system will not change. China and other emerging powers will derive more benefit from playing by the system’s rules and enforcing them in their sphere of influence than overturning them. And the U.S., as the architect of this remarkable system, will continue to play a disproportionate role in the shaping of its future trajectory across regions.
Brendan Cooley is a rising junior majoring in Peace, War & Defense and Economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.