Some American problems are more fundamental than the identity of the commander-in-chiefby Ngaire Woods / November 6, 2020 / Leave a comment
The world is full of foreign policy problems, conflicts and traps for a US president starting a term in 2021. In office, Donald Trump has tended to do his own thing, eschewing the expertise of America’s intelligence agencies and foreign policy professionals; too often his personal diplomatic overtures have at least seemed linked to his family’s commercial interests. It would be expected that any other kind of administration would adopt a more sober approach, rooted in a serious analysis of US national interests. Once the dust settles on the domestic turmoil surrounding this year’s election cycle, the world will know whether or not the country has a president with any interest in—or the capacity for—rebuilding the integrity of America’s foreign policy machine, or indeed filling the very long list of vacancies in the State Department.
But beneath all of this is a much larger strategic issue that any American president has to grapple with. After decades of global hegemony, the US finds itself facing strategic competition from China. Many of 21st-century America’s other dilemmas can be traced back to this challenge, and the central question for the presidency today is how to manage it.
A first uncomfortable fact is that China is competing for influence within the very institutions and rules that the US created after the Second World War. In recent years China has enhanced its position in the United Nations, where it is currently the second-largest contributor to both the general budget and the peacekeeping budget. Overall, Chinese officials now head up four of the 13 UN specialised agencies (other than the IMF and World Bank)—that is, three more than the US. In the IMF (and similarly in the World Bank) China is the third most powerful member state, with 6.08 per cent of the voting power (the US still has 16.51 per cent and Japan 6.15 per cent, but Germany just 5.32 per cent); it has a seat on the Executive Board; and a senior Chinese official is deputy managing director. In the World Trade Organisation (WTO) China has become the third most active country in the dispute settlement process.