The United States and China are no longer on speaking terms. Having put diplomacy aside, these two great powers are engaged in diatribe accompanied by military posturing and preparations for a war in which the only certain outcome is the devastation of Taiwan. But the contest between America and China is not primarily military or ideological. It is about relative national strength and performance. China seems more focused on this reality than the United States.
The Cold War is long over. America’s unipolar moment has passed, and the Pax Americana is no more. With its demise, two changes in the American worldview have provided the geopolitical context for the descent of US-China (and US-Russia) relations into adversarial antagonism. The first was the assertion by Washington securocrats that the world could be understood, and U.S. foreign policy organized, by reference to “great power rivalry.” The second is the claim by think-tank liberal interventionists that an attack on democracy by predatory authoritarianism has become the central dynamic of history and world affairs. The Biden administration has embraced both theses. It presents them as firm convictions, not hypotheses. Together, they have given birth to the new American objective of a 21st century “rules-bound order” crafted and led by the United States and its Cold War allies. This has no prospect of gaining international traction.
The notion that “great power rivalry” is the core feature of international relations is best understood as a distillation of American militarism. It is a fantasy of the military-industrial complex. “Great power rivalry” is a concept that provides a rationale for unbounded defense spending by analogizing interactions among nations to those on a battlefield. It reduces foreign policy to zero-sum games between great powers, while denying agency to middle-ranking and smaller powers in shaping the world order or determining their own destinies. Positing “great power rivalry” as the central feature of world affairs is an expression of nostalgia for the global feudalism of the Cold War when lesser nations were necessarily caught between competing overlords and forced to defer to alien agendas. Not surprisingly, this premise has not found much welcome abroad.
It is also now clear that “great power rivalry” is not the dialectic that will cure the entropy of post-Pax Americana global and regional disorder. What is emerging is a world of multidimensional interactions between countries in which almost all are driven more by their desire for autonomy than for alignment with the United States or its appointed great power rivals. Asked to choose a superpower as patron, middle-ranking and smaller powers almost invariably hedge and persist in pursuing their own interests as they see them.
Foreign policies based on wistful remembrance of past supremacy and the misperception of contemporary infirmities are doomed to fail. They are hallucinations that preclude successful navigation of the world’s newly fluid geopolitics, frustrate those who adopt them, and vex those to whom they are applied. They are not a basis on which to reaffirm U.S. global leadership.
As for the claim that democracy is under attack by “authoritarianism,” this is good politics but politically warped analysis. It appeals to Americans for many reasons. It appears to explain the deterioration of democratic norms in the United States as entirely the fault of foreigners and to thereby absolve Americans of any responsibility for the increasing decadence of their own political culture. It embodies an unstated presupposition that democracy is the default political system of humankind, absent only when denied to a people by opponents who adhere to a putative ideology of “authoritarianism.”
But long before there were politicians prepared to risk displacement from power by other politicians with more support at the polls, there were societies led by warlords, kings, dictators, and other strongmen. There still are.
Democracy is not celebrated for the wisdom of its decision-making. It is revered as an antidote to social and political repression that, when tempered by the rule of law, enables levels of individual self-governance and orderly succession processes that no other system can match. Democratic norms appear to require many generations to establish themselves in human societies. The 20th and 21st centuries provide many examples of how quickly and thoroughly these norms can be discarded.
The world’s strongmen are almost all power-mad narcissists who have nothing in common other than the fear of being overthrown. They are happy to receive foreign support but seek and find no market abroad for their personality cults or their countries’ idiosyncratic nationalisms. Lofty talk notwithstanding, the United States has been just as willing as China, Russia, and other great powers to sell weapons and internal security equipment to authoritarian governments and has, in fact, outsold all others in such markets.
Inventing persistent malevolence for Russia and predatory ideological aspirations for China serves domestic U.S. political purposes. It puts otherwise confusing international politics back into the sort of Manichean framework that animated World War II and the Cold War. Americans used to criticize China for its well-documented indifference to whether other countries were or were not democratic and devoted to the rule of law. Now, we have found it convenient to reverse course and attribute to China a values-based crusade equivalent to and opposed to our own. But there is no evidence that Xi Jinping and the 92 million Communist Party members he leads are trying to erase democracy beyond China’s borders. They are on the defensive against suspected homegrown and foreign efforts to discredit them, subvert their political economic achievements, and topple them from power.
The thesis that China and America are engaged in mortal contention over what political system Americans or others should live under does not survive even minimal scrutiny. Democracy may be doing itself in here and there, but there is no league of foreign autocrats or “authoritarian ideology” seeking to obliterate it. The operative contest between China and America is not between competing political ideals but between the two countries’ abilities to exercise wealth and power, maintain domestic tranquility, and inspire emulation by other states and peoples. It is a contest that neither side will “win.” Flinging politically convenient but erroneous theories at China will not change this.
Ironically, the United States has just fallen to number 25 on the Economist’s annual worldwide “Democracy Index,” and is now categorized as a “flawed” and possibly failing democracy. This is disheartening. It is understandable that Americans prefer blaming Russia and other foreign miscreants to examining the internal causes of our decadence. But it is ironic that the Biden administration should choose this moment to “stand up for democracy” and proclaim the existence of a global struggle between democracy and “authoritarianism.” Few abroad see things at all this way.
The American constitution assigned authority for policymaking almost entirely to the people’s representatives in Congress, but the U.S. president and the electorate have largely given up on the legislative branch. The president increasingly rules by decree and has acquired greater power than any king to make war on other nations and slaughter presumed enemies abroad.
The erosion of constitutional democracy in the United States appears to be the result of a tragic combination of many factors, including
A few of these factors clearly make the United States more vulnerable to foreign intervention in its internal affairs than before, but they are, without exception, domestic, not foreign, in origin. They can only be fixed by Americans. Scapegoating Russia or China won’t do a thing to remedy them.
The world is rightly disbelieving of the sudden American argument that the dialectic driving history is the contradiction between democracy and autocracy. Those societies proudest of their democratic traditions are notably committed to the tolerance of political diversity both at home and abroad. None sees the overthrow of undemocratic regimes as an existential imperative or believes in the divine right of democracies to proclaim, impose, and enforce their preferred dispensations as a replacement for international law and consensus.
To much of the world, the gathering of the “G7” in Cornwall this June and its talk of the sanctity of an ill-defined “rules-bound order” looked like the convening of a club of superannuated imperialists determined to regain the dominant role in rulemaking they lost along with their empires. The members of the G7 account for 11 percent of the world population, 30 percent of its GDP at purchasing power parity, and 62 percent of its accumulated wealth. The G7 made no case for its members’ renewed stewardship of global order but appeared to claim it as a sort of droit du seigneur. But “non-Western” – meaning non-Euro-Atlantic – societies constitute a very large global majority and are no longer prepared to be treated as vassals. As they rise from poverty, almost all are focused on escape from the trauma of past humiliation by Western imperialism and colonialism.
Post-colonial stress disorder is today a major driver of foreign policy in every region touched by imperialism, including Eastern and Central Europe, where the humiliation was done by the Russian-dominated Soviet Union. It plays an outsized role in Hindu nationalism and Great Han chauvinism. Post-colonial hangover is a major explanation for phenomena like the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and the Arab uprisings of 2011.
European colonialism has locked Africa into a love-hate relationship with its colonizers that is now coming home to roost through illegal migration. Latin America continues to resent ongoing interventions by “the Colossus of the North” in places like Bolivia, Cuba, and Venezuela, even as many from the region look north for a better life. Southeast Asians, too, bear the scars of having been subjugated by European, American, and Japanese imperialism. Most of the world outside the United States and Europe sees the ongoing Israeli ethnic cleansing and settlement activity in Palestine as the last gasp of racist colonialism. Islamists identify “the West” with it and see it as justification for reprisal through terrorism.
The operative division in global politics is manifestly not that between democracy and autocracy but that between former colonizers and the colonized. This is joined as a driving force by the differences between those mainly Western nations who long ago became wealthy through industrialization and those now striving to do the same. The wealthy can protect their populations from phenomena like pandemics. The less developed and poor are left to suffer and die.
The same is true of climate change. The earliest countries to industrialize were able to ignore pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. They now prefer not to allow those embarking on development to do the same. Demands from poor countries that they be compensated for two centuries of accumulated degradation of the climate by their former colonial masters fall on deaf ears. The inability of developing countries to forestall or remediate the catastrophic impact of rising temperatures and seas, flooding and drought, or famine and pestilence promises to create an unbearable future for their inhabitants. The result will be widening chaos.
For all these reasons, to most of the world the arguments that the Biden administration is now making for a reformulated “rules-bound order” ring hollow. Its appeals to other nations for deference to great power rivalry and combat with imaginary authoritarian predators have little appeal. To compete with China or other rising and resurgent powers in shaping the world of the future, America needs to make a case that is relevant to current realities. At present, China seems better aligned with these realities than the United States.
This is truly unfortunate. The world has many problems that cannot be addressed without leadership by its greatest powers, and, as America shirks the burdens of leadership, China remains focused on its own reconstitution, rejuvenation, technological advancement, and self-interested economic outreach. Beijing shows little willingness to lead other nations and has so far demonstrated no competence to do so. America doesn’t want China to replace its global leadership. Neither, for the most part, does the world. But, without at least some degree of accommodation and cooperation with China by the United States and between China, India, Japan, and other great powers, neither the United States nor China will be able to mount an effective response to the planetwide challenges now facing humanity.
China now seems overconfident, while the United States is mired in self-doubt. If, as the Book of Proverbs puts it, “pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” China looks like it’s ripe for one or the other. Meanwhile, social and niche media in the United States have sliced, diced, and sorted Americans into disillusioned and mutually distrustful sub-communities that harbor incompatible visions of the American past and future and are no longer even on speaking terms with each other. Lacking unity, America seems politically splintered, scatterbrained, and unable to agree on much of anything except that China must be opposed.
Neither China nor America currently has much tolerance for ambiguity, nuance, or deviance from popular presuppositions or prejudices. Both have administrations that are obsessed with protecting leaders from criticism and that react badly to foreign censure or to homegrown unconventional ideas. Both are therefore prone to persist in error long after they should have been identified and corrected it.
A combination of solipsism and mutual disdain assures that Beijing and Washington no longer listen to each other. Both Chinese and American citizens now receive almost all information through digital filters in the form of media-certified and targeted judgments designed to reinforce established narratives. Neither citizenry is presented with many facts to contradict such judgments. Each finds it difficult to draw its own conclusions about trends and events touching national interests.
In China, the information flow is government-controlled, anodyne but upbeat about domestic matters, self-righteously nationalistic about foreign affairs, and calculated to unify the people politically. In America, it is corporate controlled, discordant, bigoted about both domestic and foreign affairs, and tailored to facilitate the marketing of political opinions as well as goods and services. Both systems treat objectivity as quaint and potentially subversive and indulge in the propagation of claptrap, but the “mediaverse” in America has a much higher percentage of stuff that experts aptly describe with the technical term, “weird shit.”
In large measure to placate nationalistic domestic audiences, both China and America appear to have decided to emulate the foreign policy of the Roman emperor, Caligula. His motto was ODERINT DUM METUANT – “let them hate us, as long as they fear us.” This was former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s idea of diplomacy. It appears to be that of today’s China as well. So much for America “making friends and influencing people” or China presenting itself as “credible, lovable, and respectable!”
China’s ruling Communist Party seems now to imagine that the brilliance of its ideology is responsible for China’s astonishing economic and technological success. But its major contributions were to set aside its ideology, open the Chinese market to competition from foreign companies and their technologies, replace central planning with market economics and industrial policies, get out of the way of entrepreneurs, localities, and state-owned enterprises, curtail wasteful defense expenditures, and encourage the productive reinvestment of Chinese household savings. By stepping aside from micromanagement of the economy, the Party liberated it. The Chinese people then launched themselves into a level of dog-eat-dog economic competition not seen since 19th century America. This spurred rapid productivity growth and deflated prices while enriching the lives of ordinary Chinese and enabling them to become the producers of one-third of the world’s manufactures.
These were truly amazing achievements. But they were stimulated by judicious withdrawals of state control, rather than assertions of it. Now the controls seem to be going back on. This raises the possibility that, as has happened before in China’s history, rising prosperity could fall victim to the arrogance and corruption of a domineering state bureaucracy. If this happens, who will have the courage to tell the masters of the Chinese political universe that the reimposition of the nanny state risks triggering rather than precluding unrest [乱] and reversing China’s economic advance by blighting the aspirations for self-fulfillment of its enormous and growing middle class?
China leapt into prosperity by embracing ideologically unpalatable realities. Now many see Beijing appearing to reverse verdicts on ideological agendas previously refuted by experience. Are we back to 政治挂帅 — politics in command? What became of 实事求是 –“seek truth from facts” or 以实践为真理的唯一标准 – “practice is the sole criterion of truth”? Doesn’t China need such principles along with further 改革开放 – “reform and opening” – to advance to the next stage of wealth and prestige?
Of course, China now has a highly competitive, self-sustaining economy. China’s development may slow, but it is most likely to continue long enough for a new generation less obsessed with the need for regimentation to rediscover the open-mindedness that catalyzed China’s return to wealth and power.
Sadly, whether China falters or not, the United States is presently in remarkably poor condition to compete with it. The infirmities of contemporary American democracy and its catastrophic inability to mobilize an effective response to the pandemic are telling. But the United States is now overmatched by China or about to be in just about every realm relevant to competition other than the military (and that too is increasingly uncertain).
The greatest comparative advantage of the United States has come to be its professional and highly lethal military. This makes it politically convenient for Americans to portray the contest the United States has launched with China in military terms. China is showing that it can match and raise anything the United States does. But military posturing is an exercise in futility. Sino-American war over the much-misunderstood Taiwan issue – the most probable casus belli – would leave Taiwan in ruins and could leave both the Chinese and American homelands devastated. Both would lose from any war if they did not destroy each other outright. They would be mad to go to war with each other. We must do what we can to ensure that they do not.
The Sino-American contest is not about which side can out-posture or out-arm the other militarily. It is about the underlying sources of national strength and performance. These do not currently favor the United States.
American competitiveness vis-à-vis China will not be enhanced by more American defense spending or the pivoting of U.S. armed forces to East Asia. Meeting the challenge will require a level of investment in the future of the United States that is unimaginable without an end to the American hubris, denial, and complacency that have gutted fiscal responsibility, diverted wealth to the plutocracy, attracted the best and brightest to financial rather than real engineering, suffocated competitive markets, atrophied industry, institutionalized inefficiency and rake-offs in sectors like education and health, squeezed the middle class, and decimated the capacity of the government to respond to crises. Nothing less will do.
And that is why it distresses me as an American to say that, while China will not gain from the Sino-American split, the United States seems likely to lose from it.
The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement.
On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.
This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.
– Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament
– Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)
– Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group
– Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast
– David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security
Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)
What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?
At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.
This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.
– Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade
– Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council
– Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar
– Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle
– Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks
The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel.
On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.
Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University
Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum
Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University
Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council
Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters
The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges.
In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region.
– Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University
– Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft
– Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre
– Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel
– Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor
Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.
While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East.
Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto
Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada
Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran
Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross
In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.
With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.
– Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt
– Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia
– Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)
– David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University
While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.
As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.
– Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center
– Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group
– Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge
– Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center
– Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute
The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.
With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.
– Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House
– Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University
– Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran
– Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center
– Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor