In 1992, the year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama published “The End of History and the Last Man.” This seminal work of political philosophy argued that civilization had reached “the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” The world was experiencing a wave of democratization, not just in the former Soviet states in Eastern and Central Europe, but also in Africa, Asia and the Americas. Fukuyama believed, as I do, that market democracies are the best foundation for moral, social and economic progress, and that the “liberal world order” that had come into being after the Second World War — which I believe has kept humanity free from global conflagration for 75 years — would be cemented as the fundamental organizing principle of geopolitics.
Three decades later, Fukuyama’s prediction could most generously be described as optimistic. After several years spent observing with concern the “democracy recession” around the world, the U.S. and its partner nations saw the liberal world order come under all-out attack in 2022 with Russia’s barbaric, catastrophic invasion of Ukraine. What had been a sleepy multilateral system roared back to life, brandishing the weapons of diplomatic, economic and cultural connections.
I fervently hope that we are not at the beginning of a second Cold War, but without question, the great-power competition facing the United States has become more complex and more urgent. Russia and China are going to be challenges for the next 20 or 30 years, but they are not one and the same. Each has its own intentions and motivations, and the response of the U.S. and its partners will have to be multifaceted and draw on every tool at our disposal. Our long-term goal for U.S. leadership is a world based on broadly shared liberal values and ideals, not those of China or Russia, and we should work to pull as many countries as possible toward that liberal international order, assuming those countries want to join.
The great-power competition is not going to play out in Beijing or Moscow, but in places like Kyiv and across the developing world.
The world is, for the moment, distracted by Moscow’s aggression, but we need to be careful not to take our eye off the ball.
Russia may be a local bully, reasserting its presence in the former Soviet space, but it has neither the economic might nor the ability to set global standards that China has achieved.
Yes, Russia insists on being recognized as a global force. The great-power competition currently taking shape is not going to play out in Beijing or Moscow, though, but rather in places like Kyiv and across the developing world from Central Asia to Africa and Latin America. Before the Ukraine invasion, we assumed this competition would not be fought with armies, but rather with ideas and economic engagement. In the words of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, “If we can avoid war with Russia and China, our rivalry with them will be waged using nonmilitary instruments of power — the same kind of instruments that played a significant role in winning the Cold War: diplomacy, development assistance, strategic communications, science and technology, ideology, nationalism and more.”
I think about the United States’ relationship with the world as being supported by a tripod of three Ds: diplomacy, defense and development. My field is development, which is linked inextricably to the other two elements as a critical component of statecraft. A great deal of attention is going to be paid to military and security issues, with many already arguing for a revitalized, technologically advanced military. I don’t believe, though, that global leadership is going to be asserted primarily on the battlefield, but rather through economic and other soft-power tools. The international response to Putin’s assault on Ukraine has been a testament to the importance of diplomacy, as democracies have reinvigorated their commitment to liberal principles and have made clear their united opposition to Russian aggression. At the same time, the human tragedy in Ukraine should make us reflect on our assumptions about how we engage with the world — and how we apply various forms of power in concert with our allies.
In Ukraine, the tools of soft-power and development will be needed to help restore the functionality of institutions and respond to the humanitarian crisis — and later to help a war-torn country rebuild and have deep long-term political, economic and people-to-people relationships with the West. Every American — from elected policymakers in Washington to informed citizens everywhere — needs to understand the full array of tools and opportunities available to us to exercise American leadership in these international undertakings.
“If we can avoid war with Russia and China, our rivalry with them will be waged using nonmilitary instruments of power — the same kind of instruments that played a significant role in winning the Cold War.”
While Russia licked its wounds for 30 years, the rise of China as an economic and geopolitical force was so swift that the governments that traditionally dominated the world stage were essentially caught napping. The end of the Cold War seemed to offer a lull — a “peace dividend” — that allowed the West to reorder its priorities, which meant relaxing its guard. China rushed in to fill the empty spaces created during that time of transition. Before the United States and its allies opened their eyes, the once insular China had reached out and established its presence on every continent, and it had begun systematically building its own future with the world’s resources.
Twenty years ago, many observers viewed China as a developing nation, culturally and politically isolated and opaque. By the early 2020s, however, China could boast of being the leading trading partner for 124 countries, while the United States could claim only 76. Chinese companies have built infrastructure and invested in energy projects throughout the developing world while also setting up new multilateral development banks and actively competing with the U.S. and the West for influence and authority in global organizations.
I’ve watched this taking shape over my 20 years in development work. Now I feel I must raise the alarm. The discussion of soft-power and how we use it needs a major refresh, and we also need a reset of all our assumptions for this new post-post-Cold War landscape.
This is an entirely new kind of superpower competition.
Russia may be hoping to reclaim past glory, but China isn’t looking to export ideology or gather military allies into its camp. Rather, Beijing has engaged in the multilateral system and is seeking to reshape it according to its needs. It is an exaggeration to say that Chinese leadership has set a goal of upending the liberal world order, but both China and Russia have been working to revise it in ways we are not going to like — unless you’re a fan of rigged plebiscites, systemic corruption, unfettered pollution and religious persecution as state policy. Should the current world order become obsolete, it won’t be the result of some nefarious Chinese plan to sabotage the West; it will be due to the West’s, and particularly the United States’, inattention, complacency and lack of deep examination into what motivates the next great superpower and its Russian partner.
With China ascendant in the 21st century, I believe that there is now one great, overarching goal of American soft power: to enable a better alternative to all that China is offering to the developing world as a means of preserving the multilateral system that sustains prosperity. This will not happen overnight, and it cannot be addressed by short-term thinking, planning or budgeting. I expect a 30-to-40-year marathon, which will involve reinvigorating global alliances and promoting the strengthening of economies and governance in more and more countries so that they will have broadly shared interests and values and also be able to share the burdens of meeting global challenges. I envision a prosperous world that is increasingly democratic, in which people can achieve their individual dreams and societies can achieve their deepest hopes and aspirations. In that world, the United States should lead an updated liberal international order. While this order will need to include some burden-sharing shifts among our friends and allies, it also requires that the U.S. continue to play a leadership role and accept the costs and responsibilities of maintaining global leadership.
Our response to the current Russia challenge could offer a roadmap for our approach to China. Even though Russia offers no compelling economic vision, the United States and its allies can offer a meaningful development alternative based on freedom and prosperity. That vision has suffered some setbacks in recent years, after our problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, the global financial crisis, the widespread democracy recession, and troubles at home.
Should the current world order become obsolete, it won’t be the result of some nefarious Chinese plan to sabotage the West; it will be due to the West’s, and particularly the United States’, inattention and complacency.
But warts and all, we must continue to stand up for these ideals. That’s going to require efforts across multiple fronts: democracy, human rights and governance; continued reform of the state sector; market-based economic reforms; continued reform of the energy and power sectors; and many other forms of soft-power engagement. Additionally, we must remember that our rivalries are with government regimes, not with civil populations — it is with Vladimir Putin and the Chinese Communist Party and not with the Russian or Chinese people. The U.S. should also find ways to support civil society and human rights in Russia and China. Our policy should not be regime change, despite Putin’s deeply inhumane policies, but rather to support and give voice to the millions of Russians and Chinese who wish for a better future based on openness and fundamental freedoms.
If the keys to enduring peace and prosperity are political and social stability, economic vigor and self-sufficiency for a continually increasing number of countries, development offers the best path forward. Foreign assistance is only one small piece of the puzzle, but it is critical in that it catalyzes progress in what I believe are the two most important factors in development: a strong private sector — often working in partnership with public institutions — and effective governance operating in a context of democracy.
If we have learned anything in 2022, it’s that the United States cannot afford to turn its gaze inward. The mechanisms of the multilateral system may operate outside the realm of most people’s consciousness, but there is no overstating the extent to which we all rely on that system and, therefore, need to ensure that it functions well. We will likely need to go back to the drawing board, not only on our use of multilateral financial institutions, but on energy policy and commercial diplomacy as well. The rules of the game may not yet be perfect, but one thing is certain: we would not like the rules as China would rewrite them. It is time to reconsider our international relationships, with our traditional allies as well as with countries with which we’ve had fraught relations.
The challenges ahead are substantial and require both immediate attention and persistence over the coming decades. Meeting those challenges will require committed leadership. But who will lead? I believe that will be the United States, which has demonstrated its positive impact repeatedly in the past and is uniquely capable of carrying out that responsibility. No other nation has the clout and commitment to do so. Our efforts in foreign affairs, our use of soft power and our engagement in the multilateral system should seek to ensure that the United States continues to lead through the rest of the 21st century. The United States must move swiftly and boldly, but wisely, efficiently and with international support, to build the global future based on common security, shared democratic values, sound economic principles and broadly inclusive opportunities.