The U.S. Used to Write the Rules—Now China Does

How China Outsmarted the Trump Administration

Back in May, when President Donald Trump called for America to stop funding the World Health Organization, he presented a list of the WHO’s recent failures: the organization’s initial failure to flag the spread of the novel coronavirus; its initial failure to follow up when Taiwan—a country excluded from the WHO because of Chinese objections—inquired about evidence that seemed to indicate that the virus could be transmitted from one human to another; its initial failure to press China to accept an international investigation into the source of the virus. At the beginning of the pandemic, the WHO, which operates as a specialized agency of the United Nations, seemed to be one beat behind. It also seemed overly reliant upon biased information provided by the government of China.

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Trump did not make this list because he hopes to fix or improve the world’s most important guardian of public health. This, along with his administration’s announcement in September of its intention to begin withdrawing money and personnel from the WHO, was just electoral politics. Given his own administration’s failure to react adequately to warnings from the WHO when they did finally arrive, Trump needed a scapegoat. What could be better than an unfamiliar organization whose acronym looks like a pronoun?

But although much of what the WHO does is of no interest to Trump, its achievements are real. Aside from its role in pandemics, the organization facilitates scientific exchange, compiling and distributing the results of international research. It provides medicines, vaccines, and health advice to the developing world, and is especially important in countries that don’t have their own pharmaceutical industry. It has had many genuine successes—the elimination of smallpox is probably the most famous—and wields enormous influence and prestige. The removal of American funding would damage its ability to help countries cope with the new coronavirus and fight many other diseases.

[Read: The last smallpox patient on Earth]

American withdrawal from the WHO will have another impact: China’s influence will grow. And America will lose yet another battle in an ideological war that most of us don’t even know we are fighting. For more than a decade, while we’ve been distracted by other things, the Chinese government has made the gradual rewriting of international rules—all kinds of rules, in many realms, including commerce and politics—one of the central pillars of its foreign policy. At a Communist Party congress in 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping openly declared this to be a “new era” of “great-power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.” And in this new era—a time of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”—China is seeking to “take an active part in leading the reform of the global governance system.” Stated plainly, this is an attempt to rewrite the operating language of the international system so that it benefits autocracies instead of democracies.

In this effort, Xi has had assistance from other authoritarians, most notably in Russia and Iran but also in some African, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian states. Since 2017, he has also had assistance from the Trump administration. “Helping China” does not, of course, describe what the administration’s leading members think they are doing. Former Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and others have been robustly critical of Chinese behavior at the UN and elsewhere.

But the anti-Chinese rhetoric of leading Republicans has hidden a deeper truth: A part of America’s foreign-policy establishment—and not just the part affiliated with Trump—has abandoned the language of democracy and human rights that America once used at the UN. It has also given up on international institutions that much of the rest of the world continues to respect—institutions that should, in theory, be able to hold nations like China, Russia, and Iran to account. It has offered no alternatives. Instead of building stronger coalitions—or even new organizations—around common values, this part of the establishment talks about realpolitik and “America First,” using the same nationalist and authoritarian language as the autocrats whose company Trump clearly prefers. It alienates allies, and offends the countries whose support we will need to push back against authoritarian influence in the decades to come.

[Read: The WHO shouldn’t be a plaything for great powers]

Trump’s announced withdrawal from the WHO amounts to a kind of playground taunt directed at China: “You are cheating, so we’ll take our ball and go home.” But flouncing off will have the same result on the international stage that it does on the playground. The game will continue, but with different players.

Like every revolutionary movement, China’s assault on the UN system began with an attack on its language. Ever since the United Nations was founded, in 1945, its members have been arguing over the words used in its treaties and documents, especially those that concern political rights. With great fanfare, a remarkable, polyglot cohort of international lawyers and philosophers—French, Lebanese, Chinese, Canadian, all under the leadership of the former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt—set out to write the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But when it came time to vote on the declaration, in 1948, Saudi Arabia abstained because the document supported everyone’s right to “change his religion or belief.” The Soviet Union and its allies, along with apartheid South Africa, also refused to vote for any declaration—even one with no teeth—that began with the phrase “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

That was just the beginning. Throughout the Cold War, Communist countries and their allies in the developing world always sought to replace all references to universal civic and political rights with the language of “economic rights,” the better to escape accusations of political oppression. As the Communist world grew poorer and the democratic world exponentially more prosperous, their arguments grew weaker. Still, for many years the UN was the backdrop for famous ideological confrontations. Many remember that the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe on a table at a meeting of the UN General Assembly in 1960. Few remember why: He was responding to a Filipino delegate who had expressed sympathy for “the peoples of Eastern Europe and elsewhere which have been deprived of the free exercise of their civil and political rights.”

[From the September 2020 issue: China’s artificial intelligence surveillance state goes global]

This ideological conflict abated in the ’90s. The West had won the Cold War; the Soviet Union disappeared. Briefly, the UN system, though creaky and out of date, seemed as though it might really become a source of international stability. But over the past decade, China has launched a new ideological battle in UN forums. As the Soviets did, the Chinese are arguing that “economic rights” are more important than civic and political rights. But their argument is stronger than their predecessors’: As proof, they offer the story of their own economic rise. It is, of course, a twisted version of the story, because China’s economic growth began only after its system became open and more free. Nevertheless, China is now marketing the idea that dictatorship produces faster economic growth than democracy does—the “Beijing consensus,” as opposed to the old Washington consensus.

To make its argument, China relies heavily on the word sovereignty, which has many connotations, some of them positive. But in the context of the UN, it means something very specific. Sovereignty is the word that dictators use when they want to push back against criticism, whether it comes from UN bodies, independent human-rights monitors, or even their own citizens. When anyone protests the Iranian regime’s extrajudicial murders, the Iranian mullahs shout “sovereignty.” When anyone objects to the Chinese government’s repression of the people of Hong Kong, China shouts “sovereignty” too. When anyone quotes the phrase from Article I of the UN declaration—“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”—authoritarian advocates of “sovereignty” dismiss this language as evidence of Western imperialism.

China seeks to change other kinds of language too. Instead of “political rights” or “human rights,” for example, the Chinese want the UN and other international organizations to talk about “win-win cooperation”—by which they mean that everyone will benefit if each country maintains its own political system. They also want everyone to use the phrase mutual respect—by which they mean that no one should criticize anyone else. This vocabulary is deliberately dull and pleasant: Who is against “win-win cooperation” or “mutual respect”? But the Chinese work extremely hard—tellingly hard—to get this boring language into UN documents, especially those that have anything to do with human rights. That’s because they want to water down any form of accountability, to anyone, for themselves and for other autocratic governments; to weaken the role of independent human-rights advocates; to prevent any public criticism of Chinese policy in Tibet or Xinjiang, where a majority of the country’s Uighur Muslims live; and to undermine the Human Rights Council’s already limited ability to investigate UN member states. The legal scholar and China expert Andréa Worden has described these efforts as an attempt to turn the UN Human Rights Council into “a shell, emptied of universal values … a body in which individuals and civil society organizations seeking to hold governments to account for human rights violations have no place.”

Alongside its attempt to change the language of our global operating system, China has sought to master and control the international bureaucracy, in part by creating institutions of its own. Members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization—China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, and Pakistan (Iran, Afghanistan, Belarus, and Mongolia have observer status)—all agree to recognize one another’s “sovereignty,” not to criticize one another’s autocratic behavior, and not to intervene in one another’s internal politics. China has also just launched an initiative on data security—“to formulate global rules and norms that reflect the aspiration and interests of the majority of countries,” according to a draft version of the proposal—that aims to compete directly with American efforts to do the same. But Chinese ambitions now reach into the UN system too. Whereas many of the Western diplomats who end up working at its alphabet soup of international agencies are those who couldn’t secure a more interesting posting, China has for the past decade sent its very best and most talented diplomats. Partly as a result, Chinese nationals now run four major UN agencies: the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Telecommunication Union, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the UN Industrial Development Organization. Chinese diplomats have also run the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs since 2007, and the country has expanded its participation in UN peacekeeping operations.


[From the May 2020 issue: H. R. McMaster on how China sees the world]

Many of these organizations aren’t familiar to most Americans, but some of them, like the WHO, quietly play an important role in setting international standards and promoting economic development, especially in poorer countries. The International Telecommunication Union, for example, is responsible for allocating radio-frequency bands and coordinating the world’s satellites so that they don’t interfere with one another. It also holds seminars and training sessions to help poorer states regulate new technologies. At the moment, that often means that the ITU looks on benignly as China sells its model of “cyber sovereignty”—meaning tight state control over online media and activity—around the world. Chinese universities have established close relationships with the ITU, so that whatever standards are set will be good for Chinese commerce.

Although the holders of jobs in these kinds of organizations are meant to be politically neutral, some don’t hide their interests. Appearing on Chinese television in 2018, Wu Hongbo, a former undersecretary-general for the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, told a studio audience that although he was an “international civil servant” who couldn’t take orders directly from his own country’s government, that rule had exceptions: “When it comes to Chinese national sovereignty and security, we will undoubtedly defend our country’s interests.” As an example, he told the story of how he got UN security to throw a representative of China’s repressed Uighur Muslim minority out of a seminar held in a UN building.

When China can’t get one of its own nationals into a job, it seeks to get someone who its leadership feels is pro-Chinese, or who is at least sympathetic to the language of sovereignty, win-win cooperation, and mutual respect. Back in 2017, when UN members were choosing a new director-general for the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a former health minister and foreign minister of Ethiopia, paid a visit to China before the election, as did a main competitor for the job. Tedros was seen as more supportive of the “One China” policy, and in fact, the day after he was elected, he told the Chinese government that the WHO would continue its support of the policy—implying that he approved of Taiwan’s exclusion from the organization.

China also uses financial tools—investments, loans, and allegedly bribes—to persuade other autocracies to vote its way, in the UN and elsewhere; to confirm its candidates; and more generally to build a circle of friends. The main formal vehicle for the distribution of money is China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a Eurasian infrastructure-investment plan. Under its aegis, China plans to invest in roads, railways, pipelines, and ports, from Rome to Beijing, as well as digital infrastructure; more than 60 countries have said they are interested in joining. Much of this money is distributed without the kind of transparency that the World Bank and other development institutions traditionally demand. In practice, one UN insider told me, this means that if some of the money is “skimmed off” by local officials, no one necessarily objects.

Chinese diplomats also do their best to wrangle the language of Belt and Road into UN documents. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs works assiduously to align UN development projects with Belt and Road projects, for example. The current department leader, Liu Zhenmin, formerly China’s vice minister for foreign affairs, speaks of the Belt and Road Initiative and the UN’s own Sustainable Development Goals as almost interchangeable: “Both of them serve the purposes and principles of the charter of the United Nations,” he has said, not least because they “aim to promote win-win cooperation,” in a world where “sovereignty” is the ruling principle.

Any one of these elements of authoritarian foreign policy, by itself, might not amount to much. But when combined, all of these tools—ideological, bureaucratic, financial—can be quite a powerful force. China is now the de facto leader of a bloc of countries that believe not in the “rule of law” but in “rule by law”—countries, that is, whose governments believe that “law” is whatever the current dictator says it is. “Rule by law” doesn’t apply just to Chinese citizens living in China. In 2018 two American citizens, Victor and Cynthia Liu, came to China to visit a sick grandparent. They are still there, because Chinese authorities, who are seeking to arrest their estranged Chinese father, have prevented them from leaving. The arbitrary detention of foreigners—Americans, British, Germans, Dutch, and others—is also an Iranian specialty, and the Russians occasionally try it as well.

“Rule by law” can also be used against Chinese dissidents living abroad. Uighur Muslims in China are severely repressed; many are imprisoned in concentration camps. In years past, laws on political asylum would have protected Uighurs who managed to flee the country, but Chinese pressure now makes that more difficult. Members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization have agreed to jointly fight “terrorism, separatism and extremism”; each state also agrees to recognize the others’ definitions of what those words mean, so if China says a dissident is a terrorist, then Russia, Kazakhstan, or any of the rest will have him deported back to China.

These new norms are spreading. Thailand, which is not a Shanghai Cooperation Organization member, has bowed to pressure from Beijing and deported Uighurs who had fled the country. So has Egypt. Turkey, a country that until recently expressed support for the Uighurs out of a sense of kinship—they speak a Turkic language—has begun to arrest and deport them too. Even Uighurs in Europe report being harassed by Chinese agents and diplomats. “When you stand against China,” one Uighur dissident told NPR, “you are a threat wherever you are.”

Illustration of person in suit and tie with Chinese flag pin holding small globe between fingers
Lan Truong

Even those who are not members of a repressed minority can now feel the weight of the country’s influence. In June, a Chinese-born soccer player was kicked off his Serbian professional team after his father, also a soccer star, made critical remarks about the regime on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. We have grown accustomed to Chinese pressure on big multinational companies like Facebook or the teleconferencing company Zoom, which agreed to shut down the accounts of three democracy activists outside China who had planned events to mark the anniversary of Tiananmen Square. But Chinese pressure can now shape the management of a Serbian soccer club too. Step by step, in one region of the world after the next, rule by law is replacing rule of law.

Some Western countries do try to fight back. Human-rights organizations document the forced deportations of Uighurs. European leaders stood strongly behind the U.K. when a British citizen was killed by a team of Russian assassins who were trying to murder a former Russian spy. American politicians have protested against the detainment of the Liu siblings. Trump himself mentioned their story to Xi—although, according to his former national security adviser John Bolton, he dropped the subject immediately when Xi pushed back.

Inside the UN system, the rickety human-rights apparatus continues to function. Many volumes could be written about the flaws of the UN Human Rights Council, a body whose authority has been marred by its rotating membership. Authoritarian states compete hard to get on the council; seats are distributed according to geographical criteria that have allowed obvious human-rights abusers such as Cuba and Saudi Arabia to become members in the past; Venezuela is a member right now. Nevertheless, the council does have some small ability to hold member countries accountable, and to magnify the voices of citizens in regimes that would otherwise have no transparency and no public debate. Coalitions of democracies still band together to put pressure on specific countries. For nearly a decade, for example, the council has repeatedly renewed the mandate of a special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, an official who produces periodic studies that provide evidence of Iranian violation of numerous international laws.

It’s not ideal. Still, Roya Boroumand, an Iranian activist who documents the regime’s crimes, particularly executions, told me that the Islamic Republic has battled hard to save face and undermine the UN human-rights reports. “If this was useless, why would they bother?” she said. The council requires Iran to report and respond to violations, which flusters officials—and sometimes even persuades the government to shift its policies. Boroumand, who runs the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (on whose board I serve), reckons that lives have been saved by this process. It is in great part thanks to UN pressure, for example, that Iran has reformed its laws and reduced the number of crimes for which it imposes the death penalty on juveniles.

Democratic countries do continue to use the UN and the international human-rights apparatus to embarrass the Iranians, the Venezuelans, and indeed the Chinese. But the U.S. is absent. In 2018, Mike Pompeo—angered because the council had criticized Israel—decided to pull the U.S. out of the Human Rights Council altogether. Nikki Haley promised to “pursue the advancement of human rights” elsewhere. But where? And with what tools? It’s true that Pompeo has issued fiery statements against Venezuela and China for human-rights abuses, but neither he nor any other American official sounds any longer as if they are speaking on behalf of the democratic world; they sound as if they are speaking for Trump. And everyone knows that Trump might turn around tomorrow and decide Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro or Xi Jinping is his new best friend, alongside North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In truth, the Trump administration is uniquely unqualified to speak on behalf of victims of authoritarianism around the world. Since the 1970s, all American presidents have used the language of universal rights. Ronald Reagan once said, “A belief in the dignity of man and government by the consent of the people lies at the heart of our national character and the soul of our foreign policy.” Bill Clinton said that America’s commitment to human rights was important because “it’s the right thing to do and the surest path to a world that is safe, democratic, and free.” Trump, by contrast, dislikes the language of universal rights and neutral, nonpartisan justice because he personally fears the verdicts of neutral, nonpartisan courts. He prefers the company of dictators because he admires power and cruelty. He dislikes America’s alliances because he has little understanding of how, historically, they have helped build American power.

[David Frum: The coronavirus is demonstrating the value of globalization]

He is not alone. Though Trump himself does not think ideologically—he operates by instinct—he is surrounded by people who are more systematic in their dislike of universal rights. In a 2019 speech to the UN, written by his advisers, Trump spoke about sovereignty using language that could have come from a Chinese or Russian dictator. “The future does not belong to globalists,” he said, using a word popularized by the so‑called alt-right. “The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations who protect their citizens, respect their neighbors, and honor the differences that make each country special and unique.” Every clause of that sentence was music to the ears of the Chinese and Iranian diplomats who want all criticism of their respective countries shut down. Respect neighbors is what the Chinese say when they want to silence critics of their autocratic policies in Hong Kong. Honor differences is what the Iranians say when they want to torture women who refuse to wear a headscarf.

Unsurprisingly, an administration un-interested in international institutions or even international engagement has found it impossible to push back as China seeks to dominate those institutions. As China puts more money and soldiers into UN peacekeeping missions, the U.S. scales back its own contributions. As China promotes its Belt and Road Initiative, the U.S. offers no alternative. The Obama administration did have a different plan for Eurasia: a pair of trade deals—the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership—that were designed to lock U.S. allies and partners in Europe and Asia into closer relationships. The Trump administration has scrapped both.

[Read: China’s bargain on global influence is paying off]

While the Shanghai Cooperation Organization consolidates, American decisions—to withdraw troops from Germany, for example—weaken NATO. The G7 is on life support. The U.S.–European Union alliance is moribund. It took a few years for European leaders to finally understand that the U.S. president really does consider them to be “foes,” to use Trump’s language, but that fact has now sunk in. On a recent transatlantic call, when a Trump-administration official exhorted European colleagues to join America in pushing back against the spread of Chinese technology, the initial response was a cynical “Oh, so now we are friends again?”

That doesn’t mean America won’t find some allies in the coming ideological struggle against China; other countries are also worried about the implications of “rule by law.” But it does mean those allies no longer feel loyal to the U.S. on the grounds of shared ideals. Instead, when Pompeo asks them to join his anti-Chinese political and economic coalition, they will weigh the costs and benefits and make their decision accordingly. Some nations will reckon that they need the U.S. more than they need China. Some will reckon that they need China more than they need the U.S. No principles will be involved, no conversations about democracy or shared values—just hard commercial or security calculations. As China’s economic and military power grows, those calculations will continue to change—and not in America’s favor.

I began by observing that the WHO’s faults are real. Let me end by asking whether its faults can be fixed. As China has become more powerful, as China campaigns for “sovereignty” and “win-win cooperation,” as China’s clout grows within the UN, the leadership of the WHO, like the leadership of so many international organizations, is no longer able to hold China to account. American withdrawal will not solve this problem; it will make the problem far worse.

Post-Trump, whether in 2021 or 2025, some will argue for a return to the status quo—for the U.S. to rejoin the Human Rights Council and the WHO; to sign on once again to the Paris Agreement; and to recommit to the old language of universal rights, transparency, and accountability. But the next administration may well discover that some of the UN’s institutions, created for another era, cannot be saved. Authoritarian influence is too strong now, bureaucratic stasis too powerful. Besides, once burned, our foreign friends will be twice shy. Even if a President Joe Biden chants the old mantras, everyone now knows that his successors might not. Maybe someday President Mike Pompeo, or President Tom Cotton, or President Tucker Carlson will flip everything up in the air again. Knowing this is still possible, our allies will be wary of committing to any cause that we back.

Are there other models of international cooperation? It is notable that as politicians have squabbled during the COVID-19 crisis, the scientific community has worked together with remarkable efficiency. Andrew Pekosz, a virologist at Johns Hopkins University, told me that from the very beginning of the pandemic, scientists in multiple countries managed to share data, genetic sequences, and more. “Networks of like-minded scientists developed quickly,” he said; out of the limelight, there has even been some low-key, successful grassroots collaboration between the U.S. and China. Maybe other kinds of international cooperation could work like this too. Maybe spontaneous coalitions of countries that have an interest in achieving a particular goal and working together could make things happen more efficiently outside the UN system.

[Listen: The ‘Social Distance’ podcast explores what happens if the United States pulls out of the WHO during the pandemic]

We already have one example of how that might work. At an online meeting convened by the European Union in May, representatives of more than three dozen countries and international organizations pledged more than 9 billion dollars to develop vaccines, treatments, and new ways of diagnosing COVID-19. They also agreed to help make these medical advances accessible not just to their citizens but to the entire world. The governments of most EU member states were present; eventually, the list included the U.K., South Africa, South Korea, Australia, Israel, Canada, and Japan. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, along with some other big donors, have made pledges. So have a few nondemocracies: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and yes, China. The event was a good reminder of the wealth and power of the world’s democracies, and of what they can achieve when they work together.

The United States—hitherto the most important funder of the World Health Organization, and the leading source of doctors and medical innovation—was nowhere to be seen. Nor has the U.S. joined the COVAX alliance, an international coalition formed to ensure that poorer countries get access to vaccines. But perhaps some future American administration will once again see the point of joining or even leading the rest of the democratic world, the countries that share our values, in joint projects. Maybe the U.S. can help create “coalitions of the willing” that will be more effective than the old international institutions in fields like health, the environment, even human rights.

But what will make other nations want to join these new coalitions? The WHO, like the rest of the UN, has authority and legitimacy because every nation of the world belongs to it. The authority and legitimacy of new institutions would have to come from something else: the power of their language, the example of their members, the strength of their commitment, and of course, thoughtful American leadership. A revival of our dedication to universal values is necessary, and a reform of the international system is possible. We just have to be led by people who want to do it.

This article appears in the November 2020 print edition with the headline “American Surrender.” It was first published online on October 8, 2020.

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