China and the World's Power Pyramid

Today's vote on whether to grant China Permanent Normal Trading Relation Status (PNTR) is about more than just 1 billion consumers, U.S. corporations, human rights and labor laws. It is about the world's power structure being realigned. Since the Cold War ended, the U.S. has sat over the nations of the world trying to manage global affairs to its advantage. It has done so to varying levels of success. To many observers it is obvious that where foreign policy was concerned, the U.S. was much more comfortable vying for global influence when it had a rival- the Soviet Union.

But since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the U.S. has found that it is not as easy to gain influence over the affairs of the various nations of the earth as it once was. Instead of executing an "Us" against "Them" strategy that worked so well in the Cold War era, the U.S., since the fall of the Soviet Union, has had to use a mixture of brute force and diplomacy. It is a mixture that at times has been contradictory, awkward and ineffective. It is a mixture that has relied increasingly upon economic policy to achieve its aim.

Having the world's most powerful currency and most productive economy has allowed America to use dollars where it once used bullets. In today's post Cold War era foreign aid has replaced military aid and economists have taken the place of military advisors. Most of the developing nations of the world increasingly want financial capital from U.S. investors as a means of short-term sustenance and long-term prosperity. They are willing to submit to whatever policies and conditions are demanded by the U.S. in order to get it.

Such arrangements have worked well for the United States but at a heavy financial cost. It has not been easy trying to help the nations of the world put out fires in their own countries as well as forcing them to conform to the U.S. model of democracy and capitalism. The strategy of using economic policy as the primary lever in U.S. foreign policy has been met with mixed results. And more and more it appears that countries are deciding to turn away from the U.S. largesse in order to keep a certain level of sovereignty. And with the emergence of the European Union (EU) countries now have somewhere else to turn if the U.S. demands conditions that are too high. The post-Cold War approach to U.S. foreign policy may be nearing the point of diminishing returns.

Enter China. What the entry of China and today's vote is really about is the integration of China into the World's power pyramid. Long a Cold War holdout, China is the most powerful country in the world that has yet to submit to the U.S. management of the world after the Soviet Union fell. China has rejected U.S. money; taken what it likes from capitalism and discarded the rest; and continued to build up its military. It has done so while openly stating its great distrust for the United States and belief that the U.S. and China may one day go to war.

In response to this, the United States has held out the economic lever as a shoehorn, trying to get China to fit neatly into the world power pyramid, of course with the U.S. on top. China has played chess with America throughout the process: making concessions where absolutely necessary and holding back wherever possible.

Now, the United States has decided to play its next-to-last card in this game of power poker. It has decided to merge China into the world economy in the hopes that China's aspirations for economic prosperity will cause her to conform to the U.S.' image and likeness or at least conform to a level that would diminish her threat to U.S. supremacy. The hope is that full integration into the world economy will result in a watering down of China's independent spirit. The hope is that China's long-term desire to one day sit atop the global pyramid itself will be absorbed by the rules of financial capitalism and the mechanisms of world trade. China is betting in the opposite direction - hoping that its acceptance into the global house will one day permit it to manage household affairs, if not alone, at least as equal partners with America.

So as Congress votes today, it would be good for all to consider the vote not in micro-terms of whether or not human rights abuses will stop in China (they will not) or whether America's trade deficit with China will decrease (it probably won't by much) or whether jobs and factories will leave the U.S. because of the passage of this legislation (they will) or whether U.S. financial companies will profit from China's liberalization in banking and insurance (they will reap a huge windfall). The real happenings are on the macro-level.

If the U.S.' last stab at economic determinism fails, its days at the top of the power pyramid are numbered and the world may soon return to the "balance-of-power' days where two nations, like a husband and wife (that do not get along) run the household. If China has anything to do with it, its integration into the world economy, that will be determined by today's vote, will result in the end of the world being run by a single parent from the West.

Cedric Muhammad

Wednesday, May 24, 2000