The recent failure of trade talks between the US and China put world markets through quite a jolt.
A more careful reading, however, reveals an amicable end was probably impossible from the start. Anyone doing their homework knew the US had several concessions in mind that were going to be hard for Beijing to accept. Given this context, it is not surprising that last-minute jockeying doomed the deal, sparking a new round of tariffs.
To be clear, this article is not about assessing blame. I was not present during the talks so I am in no position to judge what actually happened. With both governments categorically blaming the other, the truth is probably somewhere in between: with plenty of responsibility to go around. Rather than focusing on blame or analyzing potential economic ramifications, let us turn instead to the significance of this Chinese-American impasse in a larger, historical context.
Many scholars regard the end of World War II as the beginning of a period in world history called Pax-Americana or “relative peace under American stewardship”. Although the definitions of “relative peace” and “stewardship” are debatable, it is undeniable that no large-scale multinational or world wars have occurred since 1945.
At the same time, humanity has witnessed the greatest expansion of technology and living standards in its history. I am not saying Americans are responsible for everything (because they are not) but the world has generally gotten better for most people.
Perhaps the most important contribution to Pax-Americana was the recognition that world wars have economic roots. This understanding motivated President Harry Truman in 1947 to actively help rebuild European countries through the Marshall Plan, pouring billions of dollars into resuscitating the shattered economies of both ex-allies and ex-foes.
The World Bank was also established in 1945 to provide a safety net for countries in danger of falling to such destitution that the invasion of neighbors became an only recourse. The predecessor of the EU, the European Coal and Steel Community, was established in the 1950s with a similar purpose: to reach wide-ranging agreement between European nations over the price of essential industrial resources so wars would not be started because of them.
In Cold War decades, Pax-Americana policies continued to be driven by a belief that capitalism and democracy were irreversibly linked. Although we now know this relationship is more complex and filled with caveats, the basic premise appears to remain true. In the late 1990s, when President Bill Clinton brought plans to admit China into the WTO, one of the unspoken assumptions was that capitalist expansions would naturally motivate China to adopt other civil liberties. In fact, that is exactly what has happened. Who in 1980 would have imagined the Forbidden Palace becoming a daily tourist destination for foreigners or Marvel films being shown in every Chinese cinema to such raucous adulation?
Despite these and other benefits, the Donald Trump administration has nevertheless decided to forego decades of American policy and use economic security as a weapon, not only against potential adversaries like China but also against allies like South Korea. It comes as no surprise that Robert Lighthizer was the head negotiator for recent trade talks with China.
A long-time critic of China’s admission into the WTO, Lighthizer was famously quoted as saying, “We have all the leverage in the world (against China) if only we are willing to use it.”
Lighthizer’s appointment essentially confirmed the Trump administration’s belief that economics is just another form of leverage, sadly overshadowing the more nuanced understanding of past generations. Whether historians of the future will point to this moment as the beginning of the end of Pax-Americana has yet to be determined but one must wonder how the United States could have approached other issues -- like Iran and North Korea-- differently had Trump possessed greater faith in the old model.
Justin Fendos is professor at Dongseo University in South Korea and is the associate director of Tan School at Fudan University in Shanghai. -- Ed.