Much talk about the evolving global political and economic landscape largely ignores the major underlying factor driving this transformational shift, namely the growing emphasis on mutual gains rather than shared values as a fundamental basis for state relations. Shared values is losing its appeal and several reasons account for it.
Recent talks about the changing nature and character of global political and economic institutions tend to emphasise the role of certain emerging powers, notably China, as active players intent on pushing the envelope, encouraging if not compelling such institutions to reform lest they be challenged by the creation of parallel or competing institutions. Much space was also given exploring the geo-economic or geopolitical agendas behind this push. However, though this focus seems to provide a convenient lens by which to examine evolving international dynamics, it overlooks a major underlying factor driving this transformational shift, namely the growing emphasis put on mutual gains rather than shared values as a fundamental basis for state-to-state interaction. Furthermore, stress on the agency paradigm overly assumes a passive and pliant role for non-rival states.
Shared values, like commitment to democracy, human rights and free market capitalism, used to define the foreign policy conduct of many states but later developments suggest significant change. For long, states that share similar political and economic values, developed comprehensive, deep-seated and robust relations, while interface with states that harbour different values were severely constrained, if not virtually nonexistent. This is most acute during the Cold War where political values determined state allegiance and alignment, putting states into a tight bind ready to enter war to promote political causes or counter the spread of a rival ideology. Since then, developmental impetus took center stage and has come to reshape the landscape of international relations in ways unthinkable in the past with states crossing political lines to obtain economic gains. Democratic and authoritarian states of varying levels of economic development expanded and deepened trade and commerce with one another. China has become the largest trading partner of the US and Japan and second largest trading partner of the EU. The US and Japan, in turn, had become the first and second (discounting Hong Kong) largest trade partners respectively of China. Russia is the third largest trading partner of the EU, while the EU is Russia’s biggest trade partner. From a closed economy pre-reform, China became the world’s largest recipient of foreign direct investments (FDI), attracting capital from democracies in Asia, the US and Europe. The US and Australia, in turn, have become the top two destinations of Chinese outbound investments. Economic stimulus, thus, accelerated the dismantlement of walls that long bar East-West contact.
Indeed, mutual gain, particularly economic, is becoming a crucial criterion, if not determinant, in the relations of states. BRICS, for instance, groups emerging regional economies across the political line; the Belt and Road connectivity initiative passes by more than 65 states with varying forms of government and political traditions and; the 57-strong Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank includes established European democracies as members. Several factors could help explain this. One is that socio-cultural idiosyncrasies facilitated varying degrees of indigenisation of foreign-inspired politico-economic models which made for significant differences in the nature and dynamics of institutions among states that are supposed to share similar values. The US and Nigeria are both democracies and China and North Korea are both authoritarian states, but tremendous disparities between these pairs exist despite being in the same camp. This made the appeal of shared values hollow and superficial. In fact, today, the absence of shared political values no longer serves as an effective impediment in expanding economic ties with states across the political fence.
Second is the frustration with some elements of borrowed models and fascination with the success of states harbouring different versions. While democracy was praised for representativeness and inclusiveness, it became susceptible to decision inefficiency and political stagnation arising from wrangling between and among different government branches e.g. executive, legislative and judiciary. For instance, while the Obama Administration strongly pushed for the so-called high standard Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), US Congress seem unenthusiastic. Authoritarian states, on the other hand, though criticised for lack or limited popular political participation, constrained public space and market intervention, were recognised for their decisiveness, continuity and relative stability. China’s decisive stimulus package sustained the country’s economic growth in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. The apparent shortcomings of the liberal democratic model against the context of China’s rise as the world’s second largest economy despite still being a developing country made many democracies receptive to engage China. For democracies in the developing world, it even triggered interest in exploring the adoption of certain aspects of alternative or counter models. For transitioning states, it gave reason to pause accelerating democratic and market reforms. Furthermore, the economic rise of non-democracies is prompting a rethinking on the utility and universality of certain values and concepts as suffrage, uncensored press, and free market.
Interestingly, democracies with more advanced economies are in the forefront of expanding economic ties with emerging non-democracies, notably China. But while the West and Japan have deepened economic linkages with China, several developing and underdeveloped states are still shaking decades of fostered inhibitions in cultivating commercial contacts with China. Eager to sustain or speed up their economic growth, these states are taking the leap of faith with the hope of improving their fortunes despite attendant uncertainties. A good case in point is the Philippines’ weaning away from longstanding US dependence and warming relations with China and Russia – a critical departure for one of Southeast Asia’s most Western-leaning states.
Third, because emphasis on shared values tend to highlight differences, it lends to an us-versus-them prism which echoes Cold War thinking. The changing times make reference to this logic less appealing for many states. The serious backlash of externally-induced or supported regime change further dampened the salience of promoting such shared values in regions with starkly unique historical and socio-cultural underpinnings. As economic interaction across political lines deepens, engendering greater familiarity and mutual benefit, all the more this commonality of values as a bedrock of foreign policy will be challenged. For shared political values to regain its luster, it has to work in conjunction with strong economic fundamentals.
Fourth, economic priorities are taking greater ascendancy over traditional security and defense concerns. If defense and security pacts (Warsaw Pact, NATO) within blocs dominated the Cold War period, the flurry of bilateral, regional and mega-regional trade and economic agreements (e.g. TPP and Regional Comprehensive Economic Cooperation) intensely negotiated by states across the political line characterise the 1990s to the present. In fact, interestingly, a possible role reversal could be in the offing with forecasts of the US becoming more protectionist and inward-looking under President Trump, while China continue to push for reforms and advocate dismantling of trade and investment barriers.
Even longstanding military alliances are being redefined to factor in greater cooperation in addressing cross-border non-traditional security challenges e.g. maritime piracy, humanitarian assistance, disaster preparedness. This could give them a new meaning and relevance in an entirely different post-Cold War environment.
Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether mutual economic gain can eventually marginalise shared values and serve as an enduring basis for foreign relations. For one, democracies do not lose or diminish their identity as they expand trade with non-democracies. In addition, democracies remain cautious in dealing with non-democracies and criticisms over limited civil and political rights and state interference in market affairs remain, though no longer as vocal as before. Finally, that economic interaction may eventually breed political synergy remains to be established.
This article was published at All China Review and reprinted with permission.