*A Responsible World Leader? The American Discourse on China

At the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where I have been on the faculty since 1993, and can therefore be said to be invested in the issues under discussion in this present post for personal reasons besides my interest in global politics, a conference (which I did not attend) was recently held on whether or not China is prepared to become a responsible world leaderIn the words of the online magazine, UCLA Today, one of the organs by which the university makes known its work to the outside world, “the fundamental question of whether China is on the path to becoming a responsible stakeholder in world affairs or acting as a revisionist superpower was put to a prestigious group of China scholars from universities and think tanks across the country.”

Organizers of the conference might reasonably argue that the conference itself is a gracious acknowledgment of the fact that China is no longer merely another rising power.  It is true, of course, that if certain countries begin to exercise a prominent role in world politics or the global economy, other countries have every right to expect that such countries will exercise some degree of “responsibility” in their relations with other nations and in their assumption of “leadership”.  For well over a decade China has been outpacing every other nation – for the moment, we might exclude Equatorial Guinea which in 2009 had a growth rate of over 15 percent – and China has now become the world’s second largest economy.   Projections that it will become the world’s largest economy by 2025 if not sooner are widespread and seemingly beyond dispute.  The finer points, such as the fact that per capita income in China is still a fraction of what it is in the US, Switzerland, Japan or a host of other countries, are rather immaterial in a consideration of China’s global role.  When, the conference organizers and participants have asked, will China step forward in the international political arena and play a part commensurate with its economic might?

The model here is not unlike what one encounters in families, where it is assumed that parents should exercise responsibility not only for their own actions but also for the actions of their wards.  However, just as children are resistant, sometimes ferociously so, to parental authority, so countries are often intractable.  Among the countries over which China is assumed to exercise considerable influence is North Korea, though any characterization of North Korea, which seems to be driven by its own compulsions and inner demons, as a ward of China is rather improbable.  However, as the very first sentence of the UCLA Today article amply suggests, the desire to see China as a “responsible world leader” may stem much less from any sense of relief much less magnanimity that other nations exist to share the role of policing the world that the United States arrogated to itself and more from the hope that some way might be found to contain a so-called ‘rogue state’.  “With tensions rising between North Korea and South Korea over the torpedoing of a South Korean ship,” the UCLA Today article states, “the U.S. is urging China to condemn North Korea’s actions. Will China act as it did last year when it took a stand and criticized North Korea for testing a nuclear weapon? Or will it do nothing?”

“Responsible”, “world”, “leader”:  each of these three words is pregnant with meaning and equally fraught with ambiguity, and there is no better way to unravel the phrase, “responsible world leader”, than to ask if there is any such thing.  Not less significantly, how is it that American experts get to ask if China is going to be a “responsible world leader”, and why is it that such a question is not posed apropos of the United States itself?  Is it not the cardinal principle of ethics that one should not make demands of others that one has not first made of oneself?  Has there ever been a time when the US exercised its responsibilities as a world leader, or has it always confused responsibilities with prerogative, right, and might?   What does responsibility entail, and to whom is this responsibility owed?  Was the US exercising responsibility when it waged war against Iraq, and should the history of American adventurism in central America and southeast Asia, two parts of the world where the debris of American militarism littered the landscape for decades, be construed as a textbook lesson of “responsibility”?  We can be certain that many will come forward with one of two arguments in defense of the proposition that the United States has acted with great responsibility:  first, had it not been for the US, the world would most likely have been in a far more wretched state than it is at present; and, secondly, the realm of politics is inherently corrosive and corruptive.

A “leader” leads by example, and the example that the US has set for the rest of the world, so goes the argument, can be gauged by the fact that it is still the most desirable place from the standpoint of immigrants.  Whatever atrocities the US may have committed overseas, it still remains singularly attractive to people from all over the world.  Its own treatment of native Americans and African Americans, as brutal a chapter of human cruelty as any that can be found elsewhere, is generally overlooked by those happy to migrate to its shores.  Perversely, those whose countries have been heavily bombed or whose sovereignty has been otherwise violated are more likely to be able to make their way eventually to the US:  such are the ways of humanitarian relief and compassion.  They then become, a generation later, the ambassadors of the American way of life, spokespersons for political and cultural freedoms that are supposed to be uniquely ‘American’.  Settled in their ways, Americans have never fundamentally bothered with much of the “world”; indeed, it would not be saying too much to suggest that, so long as Americans have their football and baseball games, their big Macs and hotdogs, their SUVs and Home Depots, they are likely to remain impervious to the consequences of the exercise of American power around the globe.

Thus, before American experts gather to pontificate to others about the responsibilities that come with being a world leader, they may be well advised to reflect on what it does mean to become a responsible “stakeholder” in global affairs.  That such a state of affairs seems unlikely to transpire anytime soon is clear enough, judging from a recent issue (24 May 2010) of the magazine Foreign Policy.   One of the lead articles, by Joshua E. Keating, is headlined “Beijing’s Most Embarrassing Allies”, and it states boldly that China’s “mad scramble for energy resources and trading partners” over the last two decades, which has transformed it into a “major economic and military power”, has led the country “into alliances with some of the world’s most unsavory governments.”  China rightly stands condemned for its opportunistic policies.  Nevertheless, had Mr. Keating turned his attention to the United States and written an article on “Washington’s Most Embarrassing Allies”, one would have been hard pressed to find a dictatorship, monarchy, or authoritarian state which the US has not embraced, rather I should say, bedded at one time or the other.   But one of the prerogatives of being a superpower and exercising incalculable ‘soft power’ is that one can make oneself heard and seduce the world with one’s own fictions.