Is the World Big Enough for Middle Powers?

Is the World Big Enough for Middle Powers?

Hope for stepping back from the precipice best rests on bringing difficult questions of values and political culture—and their compatibility with the liberal order—back to the table.

It was only several weeks ago that President Joe Biden reaffirmed his administration’s high hopes for the United Nations (UN). Standing before the seventy-seventh session of the UN’s special assembly on September 21, Biden said, “The United States will always promote human rights and the values enshrined in the U.N. Charter,” adding that “this institution, guided by the U.N. Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is at its core an act of dauntless hope.”

Two weeks later, Chinese state media was triumphantly touting Beijing’s success in derailing a U.S.-backed motion for the UN Council on Human Rights to discuss allegations of human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. It came after sixty-six mainly developing nations, including China, broke from Washington’s position by calling for a peaceful settlement of the war in Ukraine—which would likely reward Russian aggression by urging partial acquiescence to Moscow’s demands.

Both Biden’s Washington and Xi Jinping’s Beijing ostensibly agree that the UN and its affiliated organizations should continue to play a key role in global affairs. But fundamental differences between their understanding of what this role should be—especially in relation to the thorny issue of human rights—are eroding these institutions’ capacity to facilitate cooperation and settle territorial and distributional conflicts. On both sides of these differences, states are bypassing these institutions and turning instead to like-minded partners. Economic cooperation is booming between China and Russia, throwing a lifeline to Russia while much of the world continues to condemn its flagrant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. In a speech at the UN last year, Biden emphasized that the United States is “not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs.” But reflecting a less optimistic view of these bodies’ potency—or perhaps to hedge against their subversion—Washington appears to be building multifaceted alliances aimed at containing China and Russia and expanding their purview so that they may operate parallel to a broadening spectrum of UN institutions and the liberal international market system.

Recognition of this reality is starting to rise from world leaders’ subconscious and is now puncturing the surface of political discourse. China’s ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, recently proclaimed that China aims to help sustain the rules-based order. Yet while Xi’s speech marking the opening of the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party praised China’s growing “international influence, appeal and power to shape [the world],” its main emphasis was on mitigating growing dangers to China’s national security. While touting his commitment to finding “common ground” with other nations, Biden’s speech to the UN made no secret of where America stood in “the contest between democracy and autocracy.” And though the Biden administration’s recently released National Security Strategy outwardly spoke of protecting the “rules-based order,” it betrayed, according to international relations professor Van Jackson, an anti-globalist tone inspired by a new “national security Keynesianism” intended to “wield the economy as a weapon in rivalry with China and, to a lesser extent Russia.” Neither leader dared to acknowledge that their homages to the “rules-based order” poorly mask their devolution to an auxiliary geopolitical ballast, as competition and balance of power gradually re-assume their mantle as the primary shapers of international engagement. And no other leader dared to extrapolate on what this means: that the liberal world order as we have known it, which has helped sustain an unfettered period of global capitalism-driven prosperity, is nearing a close.

China and the United Nations

It is popular to blame rising geopolitical tensions on hawkish political actors. But it is equally necessary to explore the culpability of liberal commentators. The political discourse around liberalism in international relations has long been blighted by those who confuse its ideals for our reality. And the marriage of the two neoliberalisms—related to international relations and economics, respectively—has overexpanded consensus and suffocated interrogations into these institutions’ contradictions. However, the conflation of liberalisms has inspired few attempts to confront a fundamental conundrum: how can the liberal world order accommodate the leadership of an economically dominant state actor that is fundamentally and increasingly illiberal?

China’s answer to this conundrum has been to produce an alternative vision of the liberal order built around concepts such as “common prosperity,” “win-win” cooperation, and a “community of common destiny.” These visions ostensibly paid homage to the UN charter and sought to build broader consensus among the “Global South” by reflecting the priorities of developing nations who, relative to wealthy liberal democracies, occupy a different plane on the Maslovian hierarchy of national needs. Yet these ideas are also being leveraged to try to quarantine domestic governance issues—particularly in relation to human rights—from the scrutiny of global bodies. If the intention behind this is, in part, to allay the concerns of Western powers that Chinese leadership would not have an adverse impact on the former’s progressive vision of the liberal international order, it has clearly not worked.

A key institutional foundation of the current liberal international order is the UN’s “Three Pillars”: human rights, peace and security, and development. China’s vision largely supports the latter two, but its rhetoric and actions toward human rights have been hostile. This partially stems from Beijing’s accusations that the prerogative to defend “universal” human rights allows powerful states to violate the sovereignty of other states—setting back the latter two pillars of peace and development—through the use of humanitarian interventionism as a guise to pursue hegemonic interests.

China’s alternative vision, skillfully set out in Oxford professor Rosemary Foot’s excellent book China, the UN and Human Protections, counters an interventionist approach to human rights concerns by promoting Westphalian notions of sovereignty, expressed in the UN charter’s prohibition against the institution “interven[ing] in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” This vision not only emphasizes peace as a product of universal respect for sovereignty but also sees the modern state—unmolested by external interference and free to deal autonomously with domestic insubordination—as the most potent vehicle for realizing the economic and “developmental rights” of its citizens in a manner that respects each “people’s” prerogative for collective self-determination.

This Chinese view has obvious problems. It could have enormous ramifications for Taiwan and the entire South China Sea—both of which Beijing claims falls under the purview of its “core interests” and “domestic jurisdiction,” but which have considerable geostrategic significance for America and its Pacific allies. Yet an arguably more fundamental problem is that prospective hegemons’ interactions with their own citizens inevitably become everyone’s business and do so for reasons that extend beyond their capacity to project soft power. American hegemony may, depending on who you ask, have ushered in a modern equivalent of Pax Romana or—in the Chomskyan, Chinese-backed view—has been the cause of numerous conflicts. But when nations become powerful enough to project power and can no longer be effectively constrained by external forces, the extent to which their elites are constrained by their own constitution and constituencies factors heavily on how their global leadership is vetted. This is an important issue because the liberalized multilateral trading system has a geopolitically-blind approach to the distribution of systemic power—the capacity to disrupt systems such as supply chains and markets.

Free market principles emphasize market complementarities and promote heightened economic interdependence. But in doing so, they expand the ecology of nations’ political economies transnationally and amplify the uneven distribution of systemic power and its ramifications for national security. In times of heightened strategic competition, this can place authoritarian nations’ need for control and their low threshold for insecurity in conflict with their respect for other nations’ autonomy. This reality is part of what is keeping democratic middle powers tethered to the United States, even while Washington’s own record of compliance with international institutions leaves much to be desired. China’s increasingly low threshold for security threat tolerance and the lack of a counter ballast in the form of domestic safeguards—manifest not only through mass surveillance but also through heavy-handed forms of pre-emptive security intervention that have extended to China’s “autonomous” regions of Hong Kong and Xinjiang—is accentuating fears that Beijing’s aversion to ceding systemic power could combine with the prevailing logic of its security epistemology to motivate the regime to export its authoritarianism.

It is arguably fears of this ilk that have magnetized the concerns of democratic nations’ political elites in relation to their own status and agency in a “Chinese-led” world order, and citizens’ concerns about what this will mean for their personal lives and freedoms—a view perhaps supported by a pronounced downward spiral in assessments of China’s respect for personal freedoms in public sentiment surveys across liberal democracies. Yet such fears have already been expressed in less explicit forms in the European Union, where it is claimed that strategies such as elite capture targeting fragile states threaten to shift these nations’ allegiances and degrade their autonomy, and in Australia, where it is feared that elite capture and the securitization of bilateral relations with China is becoming a disruptive influence in the Solomon Islands. Elite capture strategies would be bolstered by articulations of the inviolability of national sovereignty when the latter entails, as Beijing advances, the elevation of the rights of the prevailing government (i.e., elites subject to capture) above that of individual citizens.