Review: China, the United States, and Global Order

China, The United States, and Global OrderIn their new book China, the United States, and Global Order, British scholars Rosemary Foot and Andrew Walter put U.S.-Chinese relations into a global context. Rejecting the realist assumption that norms do not matter, Foot and Walter try to identify the factors that shape Chinese and U.S. behavioral consistency (or lack thereof) with global norms. They provide an in-depth analysis of five key global normative frameworks: the non-use of force except in self defense and the responsibility to protect (R2P); international macroeconomic surveillance regarding exchange rates; nuclear non-proliferation; climate change; and financial regulatory norms.

According to Foot and Walter, three factors determine the extent of behavioral consistency: the level of domestic social and political significance, the degree of procedural legitimacy and material distributional fairness, and the distribution of power. They find that China’s behavioral consistency has “generally improved” whereas the United States is “more selective in behavioral conformity.”

In general, the book has strong explanatory power. Its analysis of Chinese and U.S. behaviors is quite convincing. Foot and Walter acknowledge interests and cost-benefit analysis. For instance, China supports the global financial regulatory framework largely because doing so is conducive to modernizing its banking system. Positive benefits are the driving motivation for China’s behavioral consistency with this norm. But Foot and Walter also argue that states care as well about their image and are sensitive to international perception. Norms matter—neither China nor the United States wants to be an outlier. China’s leadership especially desires to be “perceived as a peaceful, non-threatening country and a responsible great power,” as seen in its signature of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Kyoto Treaty. In short, both material benefits and perception of legitimacy are important factors shaping behavior.

Unlike realist texts that treat states as unitary actors, the book also considers domestic political and economic interests,. Regarding R2P, China would like to respond to humanitarian disasters in Burma and Sudan, yet is constrained by commercial, energy, and competing institutional interests. The same goes for the NPT and China’s relations with Iran and North Korea. As for exchange rates, China’s export economy creates a “powerful lobby that strongly resists significant RMB revaluation.” The United States also plays host to competing interests. U.S. labor, for instance, does not like Chinese exchange rate policy and favors a tough stance. But large U.S. multinationals that derive benefits from China argue for a diplomatic approach instead of sanctions. Simply put, domestic factors greatly influence the level of behavior consistency.

Foot and Walter do not single out China as an anomaly but treat it, rather, as any normal state that has domestic interests and strategic concerns. Their analysis rejects the conventional power transition theory in which China — the perspective challenger — will go to war with the United States — the hegemonic power. Also, they discredit the revisionist view that China is changing the status quo normative frameworks for its own benefits. They argue that although China can be a “conservative force,” as in the R2P case, it is not blocking the discussion, nor has it rejected action in cases of “supreme humanitarian need.” By placing China on the same ground as everyone else, this book demystifies the notion that China is a dangerous state trying to disrupt the current global order.

Nevertheless, this book does have several drawbacks that affect its analytical robustness. Although Foot and Walter acknowledge that China’s domestic institutions and interests have created “considerable implementation gaps in financial regulation and climate change,” they still inexplicably consider its behavioral consistency high. Also, Foot and Walter fail to notice realism security concerns. For instance, China’s selective conformity to the NPT not only involves domestic economic interests, but also stems from energy security and the Northeast Asian security situation. Finally, although Foot and Walter present a detailed analysis of respective Chinese and U.S. relations with the norms, they should expound more on how U.S.-China bilateral relations influence global normative frameworks.

It is never easy to answer how U.S.-China relations affect the global order — they facilitate or constrain or fail to influence the norms. Foot and Walter nonetheless do a good job in analyzing factors influencing Chinese and U.S. behavioral consistency and how their relations tie into the discussion of norms. China, the United States, and Global Order tells an important story: norms do matter. Given common interests, the United States and China can indeed help facilitate a cosmopolitan understanding of global order.

Vivian Yang is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.