At least as controversial as Trump’s critique of China is his emphasis on the importance of sovereignty and his insistence that strong sovereign states are the main agents of change. But states are the foundation of democratic governance and, fundamentally, of security. It is the citizens of states who vote and hold leaders accountable. And it is states that are the foundation of military, political, and economic power in alliances such as NATO, or organizations like the United Nations.
Trump’s emphasis on protecting U.S. sovereignty brought to a boil a simmering national debate about the overlooked costs of globalization. A blind adherence to what the economist Dani Rodrik has called “hyper-globalization”—the idea that the interests of big corporations and the principle of market integration took precedence over widely shared prosperity and economic security—had come at the expense of domestic industries. For years, people who complained about these consequences were dismissed as isolationists or as being on “the wrong side of history.”
The coronavirus experience demonstrates that economic interaction does not occur in a vacuum of geopolitical competition. Dependence on China for crucial medical equipment throughout the pandemic has illuminated the dangers of a hyper-globalized economy. Experts had warned of American dependence on key drug ingredients from China. The Wall Street Journal has reported that China is the only maker of key ingredients for certain classes of drugs, including established antibiotics that treat a range of bacterial infections such as pneumonia. American reliance on Chinese suppliers for other pharmaceuticals and medical supplies is also worrisome. Americans should not depend on an authoritarian rival state for its citizens’ health—any more than the United States and other free and open societies should give Chinese companies, and by extension the Chinese Communist Party, control over communications infrastructure and sensitive personal data.
Many of President Trump’s critics in the foreign-policy community put great stock in the ability of multilateral and international organizations to constrain the misbehavior of China and other states. These organizations, at their best, promote concerted action against commonly recognized problems. But Trump’s critics tend to view them mainly in their idealized form and as the central instruments to solve global problems and advance values shared by all. In practice, though, how international organizations perform is profoundly influenced by power relationships among member states.
China’s leaders have become quite skillful at using in these bodies to pursue their own interests. President Xi Jinping has made it a priority—as he put it in a 2018 speech—to “reform” and lead in the “global governance system,” viewing such efforts as integral to “building a modern, strong socialist country.” Despite its record of stealing patented technologies, China tried to lead the World Intellectual Property Organization, an effort thwarted by Washington. Chinese tech companies to have sought to induce the United Nations adopt their facial-recognition and surveillance standards, to clear the way for the deployment of their technologies around the world.