How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Since launching the trade war in 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump has tried to corral U.S. allies into joining a wider struggle against China. So far, few countries are willing to follow Trump’s lead.
In January, the United Kingdom announced its decision to allow the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei to build part of its 5G wireless network—an investment that U.S. officials fear poses a security threat. The U.S. president was reportedly “apoplectic” in a phone call with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Weeks later, at the annual Munich Security Conference, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said that when it comes to China, “we are asking our friends to choose.” But observers at the conference noted that Washington’s warnings about China fell on “deaf ears” and that the United States and Europe were “speaking a completely different language” regarding the rising Asian superpower.
These recent disagreements have brought into stark relief an inconvenient reality at the center of the growing competition between the United States and China: no U.S. policy toward China is likely to succeed without the cooperation of allies and partners, but getting those countries on board requires finesse and clear thinking, not bullying coercion.
China does pose a genuine threat to many U.S. interests—to the United States’ economic prosperity, to its security, and to democratic values in the United States and around the world—and a deepening bipartisan consensus in the United States holds that a “tough” policy toward Beijing is necessary. But the United States has so far failed to convince allies of the problem’s urgency, and that disconnect undermines both Washington’s alliances and the effectiveness of its China policy. Trump has exacerbated the problem with counterproductive policies and a lack of clear strategic direction. But that dynamic existed before Trump took office and will remain after he leaves, unless the United States adopts a more coherent, realistic China policy and accepts that not all allies share Washington’s perspective on China.
In his three years in office, Trump has hardly been afraid to disturb relations with traditional allies. He threatened France with sanctions in 2019, sparred with Denmark over Greenland last August, and taunted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “meek” in 2018. Now, as his administration plunges into what it views as a global competition with China, Trump has further isolated U.S. allies by making them “choose” between China and the United States on some issues, while attacking them outright on others.
Take Trump’s approach to trade. The United States and many of its allies share concerns about Beijing’s economic practices, including its habitual theft of intellectual property, limits on market access for foreign companies, and subsidies for state-owned enterprises. The sheer size and influence of China’s economy means that any realistic attempt to pressure China to change these practices requires a concerted multilateral effort.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, negotiated mostly during President Barack Obama’s tenure and signed in 2016, was a prime example of effective coordination between Washington and its allies: the deal would have, over the long run, pressured China’s economy to meet higher standards—including on environmental, labor, and intellectual property rights issues—or risk being disadvantaged in trading relationships with countries that make up roughly 40 percent of global GDP. But instead of embracing or even improving the deal, Trump withdrew from the agreement as soon as he became president. He set the United States back even further by instigating a unilateral trade war that has effectively harmed both China and U.S. allies, many of whom also found themselves the targets of Trump’s tariffs. U.S. allies have not only shown zero interest in following Trump’s reckless trade policies toward China but also experienced collateral damage from the standoff between the world’s two largest economies, with major disruptions to supply chains and many leaders and diplomats caught in the crossfire of an increasingly hostile U.S.-Chinese relationship.
U.S. allies have shown zero interest in following Trump's reckless lead.
On Huawei, Trump has employed a policy reminiscent of the Cold War, forcing allies to decide whether they are with the United States or against it. A few other European countries are considering following the British example and choosing the other side. Huawei, which boasts the most advanced and market-ready 5G technology, claims that its equipment supports two-thirds of the world’s commercial 5G networks. With good reason, U.S. officials worry that China can use this 5G infrastructure to collect data, spy, and undermine the national security of other countries.
As a result, the Trump administration views Huawei as a national security threat. Washington has barred the company from U.S. markets and pushes allies to keep it out of their 5G networks. Vice President Mike Pence made this policy clear in a 2019 speech on China: “We’ve urged our allies around the world to build secure 5G networks that don’t give Beijing control of our most sensitive infrastructure and data.” The Trump administration even threatened the United Kingdom, suggesting that Washington would curtail intelligence cooperation with London and that allowing Huawei into the British market could endanger the prospects of a U.S.-British trade deal. Despite this pressure, the United Kingdom decided to permit Huawei to help build the country’s 5G network—revealing by doing so just how differently London and Washington understand the threat of China.
With Huawei already embedded in markets around the world, and other U.S. allies poised to make their decisions about the company, the Trump administration seems to have taken a counterproductive stand on an issue it cannot win. If Huawei presents a genuine threat, then the United States has failed in its attempt to blunt China’s nefarious influence. But if, instead, the United Kingdom is right that the risks of Huawei are actually manageable, then the United States has further undermined its position with allies: by trying to bully the United Kingdom and others into submission, the administration gives credence to the Chinese narrative that Washington’s national security concerns are only a smokescreen for the real ambition of hurting China’s economy.
Trump’s foreign policy may be incoherent and his treatment of allies ham-fisted, but the difficulty in mobilizing partners to confront China predates the current administration. The obstacles were evident before Trump’s election—and they will remain until the United States adopts more tailored policies to address specific challenges posed by China and finds a way to convince allies to join these efforts.
Consider the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which China founded in 2014. U.S. officials were justifiably concerned that Beijing would use the bank not only to increase its influence but also to finance projects that would undercut the labor, environmental, and transparency standards that the West had cultivated through institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. As a result, the administration of President Barack Obama attempted to convince allies not to join the bank.
Washington erred in this approach. Many Asian countries sorely needed the investment in order to build infrastructure, and the United States and its wealthy allies offered them no real alternative to the AIIB. Instead, by opposing the AIIB, Washington put these allies in a position that compelled them to choose China over the United States and that made Washington appear unreasonably aggressive to Beijing. Numerous U.S. treaty allies—including Australia, Canada, South Korea, and the United Kingdom—joined the bank. The New York Times paraphrased one Asian diplomat at the time as saying, “Washington’s hostility to the bank . . . made countries choose in China’s favor.”
In subsequent years, the United States has sparred with other countries on a host of China-related matters. Despite U.S. pressure, in 2019, Israel licensed a Chinese company to run a port near an Israeli base from where the U.S. military also operates. Officials from African countries and institutions, including South Africa, Uganda, and the African Development Bank, have all rejected U.S. claims that China seeks to put African countries in a “debt trap,” using its economic influence to gain key concessions. Some U.S. allies and partners, such as Italy, are participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative—the multitrillion-dollar effort to finance infrastructure across the world—despite U.S. skepticism about the initiative. While disagreements over China have not completely upended Washington’s relationships with its partners, they have caused significant tensions and could lead to reduced trust and cooperation. In the meantime, as allies realize that they can disregard U.S. warnings without much fallout, the United States will lose credibility when it continues to raise the alarm about the China threat.
When it comes to working together to confront Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, some of the United States’ closest allies have been backing away. After years of standing up to China, the Philippines—a U.S. ally that claims parts of the South China Sea and has had a number of tense standoffs with Beijing in recent years—has now requested to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement, which has allowed U.S. forces in the country since 1999. President Rodrigo Duterte, the erratic and dictatorial leader of the Philippines, has used U.S. criticism of his human rights abuses as an excuse to end the agreement, which could make it impossible to rotate U.S. troops through the Philippines and effectively partner with the archipelago nation on maritime security.
Of course, how China behaves—and the degree to which it threatens and bullies other countries—will help determine just how closely U.S. allies are willing to cooperate with Washington to counter China. So, too, will economic considerations shape the decisions of U.S. allies. An alternative to Huawei’s technology, say, might allow the United Kingdom and others more easily to refuse Huawei’s business. But the United States has failed to supply such alternatives and to convince its allies that their best interests in these areas align with those of Washington rather than those of Beijing.
If U.S. officials were to directly ask countries to choose between the United States and China, they might not like the answers. One recent poll revealed that overwhelming majorities in many of Europe’s largest countries would remain neutral in the event of a conflict between the United States and China.
Getting allies on board with U.S. policy toward China will require more than ending Trump’s inept approach and his heavy-handed attempt to turn alliances into protection rackets. Instead, the United States must better understand its allies’ interests. It needs to recognize that it may have different interests from those of its allies in certain areas: for instance, whereas the United States has many alliances to maintain in Asia, its European allies do not have similar obligations and are not as concerned by Chinese security threats against Asian countries. Overall, the United States seems to have overestimated how much allies trust its leadership and see their interests as inherently intertwined with those of Washington.
U.S. officials will need to prioritize those China-related issues that should most concern the United States, whether it’s the theft of intellectual property, China’s attempts to reshape multilateral institutions, or military aggression in maritime Asia. What Chinese behavior is absolutely unacceptable, and what behavior can Washington live with? Which concerning Chinese activities require multilateral responses, and which can the United States handle with just a few allies or on its own? It’s time that U.S. policymakers begin making these hard choices.
What Chinese behavior is unacceptable, and what behavior can Washington live with?
Sometimes, on issues that concern the United States—such as the launch of the AIIB—it might be more effective to engage with Beijing rather than to oppose China outright. On other, more black-and-white issues—such as China’s gross human rights abuses against ethnic minorities—the United States must take a stand and can hope to be effective only when acting alongside partners. It is possible to prioritize and organize effectively against China, as witnessed in the recent successful effort by the United States to work with partners to elect its preferred leader as head of the World Intellectual Property Organization over China’s candidate.
There will remain some subjects, such as Huawei’s 5G network, on which the United States and its allies disagree. The United States will need to mitigate the effects of such disagreements on its alliances, as Washington and London have indicated they will attempt to do in the wake of their spat over Huawei. And if the list of disagreements grows, Washington will have to weigh the dangers posed by particular Chinese threats against the costs of a major rift with an ally.
The United States should have the humility to recognize that in the case of strong dissension between Washington and its allies, the American way won’t always be the best way. In fact, even when Washington does have the “right” approach, its strategy may be inoperable without the backing of allies.
How the United States coordinates its policy toward China with its allies will almost certainly be just as important as the relationship between Washington and Beijing alone. The sooner the United States stops imagining itself in a binary global struggle, the sooner it will be able to really address its tensions with China over everything from trade and technology to maritime aggression. Doing so requires coming up with specific solutions to specific problems—and, more often than not, a little help from one’s friends.