The post-World War II, American-led, rules-based, liberal, international order has long been, to borrow a metaphor from scholar Robert Kagan, a garden encroached upon by a jungle. The current global health and economic crisis reveals — to those with eyes that see — the startling extent to which the weeds and wild critters have overrun the fruits and flowers.
Here’s the primary reason: Illiberal regimes neither recognize American leadership nor abide by the international order’s rules.
The world’s most powerful illiberal regime rules China, from where COVID-19 originated and spread globally thanks to a toxic mix of incompetence, malevolence and deception.
Beijing is not now nor will soon become a reliable partner of America and other liberal nations. Recognizing this reality, the Trump administration aims to reduce dependence on China for strategic goods and supply chains — pharmaceuticals, sensitive technology, weapons systems, anything essential for America’s public health and national security.
Significantly, this effort appears to be conceived not as retrenchment, America First isolationism, but as leadership, America First in the sense of taking the point.
Reuters reported last week: “The United States is pushing to create an alliance of ‘trusted partners’ dubbed the ‘Economic Prosperity Network.’” The goal, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, would be to work with friendly nations to “move the global economy forward.”
Keith Krach, Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, added in an email to me: “Transparency, accountability, respect for the rule of law, and reciprocity are essential values in a trusted relationship. Entities that respect those values are natural partners and are likely to prosper. Those that don’t, are likely unreliable as partners and pose a threat to stability.”
Among the nations one can imagine joining such a network: Britain (recently exited from the European Union and with whom a round of bilateral trade talks has just begun), Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Israel and India. As a condition of membership, they will need to agree not to allow their economies to become overly entangled with adversaries of America and the West, in particular China, but also Russia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and North Korea.
Some less developed countries could join as well, assuming they are trustworthy and at least in the process of becoming rule-of-law nations. Working with them to diversify away from strategic Chinese supply chains would be mutually beneficial.
Thinking along these lines, too, are Eldridge Colby and Wess Mitchell, who served in the Pentagon and State Department respectively. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week, they wrote: “An expanded commitment to free trade among free countries will make the turn away from China-heavy supply chains an easier adjustment and ensure the West remains competitive in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence.”
They added: “European allies’ resistance to de facto Chinese colonization in Eastern Europe and Beijing’s commercial-technological inroads in Western Europe is a de minimis requirement.”
The Heritage Foundation has perceived the need for such an arrangement, as well, this month releasing “The U.S.-European Economic Partnership Recovery Plan,” recommending guidelines for “new trade agreements,” and a common “stand against Chinese intervention.”
Is there any chance such an approach could garner bipartisan support? Actually, yes. Anthony J. Blinkin served under President Obama as deputy secretary of State and deputy national security advisor, and is now one of Joe Biden’s top foreign policy advisors. In 2019, he co-authored a piece in The Washington Post with Mr. Kagan.
They noted: “As China’s Belt and Road Initiative draws Asia, Europe and the Middle East closer together in ways that serve Beijing’s interests, the democracies also need a global perspective — and new institutions to forge a common strategic, economic and political vision.”
To achieve that goal, they suggested the establishment of “a league of democracies or a democratic cooperative network.”
Such an alliance, they wrote, would enforce “a rules-based system that protects our people from the aggressive state capitalism of modern autocracies.”
They further recommended that the new network address “military security, cybersecurity and other threats that democracies face today, from terrorism to election interference.”
One more point: I’d argue that, in addition, the alliance should take on responsibilities currently delegated to transnational entities that consistently fail to accomplish their missions.
There are dozens of U.N.-affiliated organizations from the World Food Program to the International Telecommunications Union to the International Atomic Energy Agency. They ought to be audited and evaluated.
We should continue funding those doing adequate work. We should help fix those not irreparably broken. But in these strained economic times, why should America and its partners be sending checks to those that achieve nothing or do harm?
The U.N. Human Rights Council clearly falls into that third category. And the World Health Organization, it is now apparent, takes its marching orders from Beijing. Where, outside the U.N. system, does the leader of such an entity lose the confidence of his largest donor — the United States gives the WHO 10 times as much as China — and not offer his resignation?
In a world that has suddenly been made sicker and poorer, sensible people on the left and right ought to be see the wisdom of sowing a new garden, one in which friendly nations would gather, while socially distancing from hostile regimes that for too long have been allowed to leverage the West’s wealth and good will to their advantage and our detriment.
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for the Washington Times.