Follow the leader

Review of Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers by Yan Xuetong. Princeton, 2019.

Howard French, the acclaimed China journalist, has spoken of a Chinese “instinct” by which any problem requires a Chinese answer even if other solutions are already in existence. In Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers, Yan Xuetong, a professor of international affairs at Tsinghua University, has tasked himself with the responsibility of articulating the Chinese answer to the biggest problem in international affairs: navigating the shift in global power prompted by the country’s rise. As a rare book-length articulation of leading Chinese thinking on international affairs in English, the book merits readership beyond what its academic prose would otherwise invite.

Yan believes the existing solution set of international relations does not adequately answer why emerging powers are able to rise because they are too focused on the decline of already great powers. Yan advocates a version of “moral realism” that argues when a rising state’s leadership is perceived as more capable, efficient, and ethical, power will realign around it. China is in pursuit not of hegemony, but the ancient concept of “humane authority,” characterized by a consistency and trustworthiness in international affairs that he believes the United States lacks. This core claim is rounded out by a host of frameworks defining types of leadership and international order, rivaling a consultant’s slide deck in the use of 2 x 2 matrices. For those unfamiliar with international relations theory, Yan’s description of how his thinking compares with prior writings is balanced and helpful.

Yan’s perspective on how Chinese foreign policy may evolve deserves close reading. Today, Chinese foreign policy blends Marxism, economic pragmatism, Chinese traditionalism, and, at least among some Chinese intellectuals, liberalism. Yan believes China will need to put aside its nonalignment principle and forge alliances if it wants to lead. Its stated policy of non-interference in other countries’ affairs will also become untenable. On that point, Yan suggests a definitional way out: using the example of sanctions against apartheid South Africa, so long as an action is “legitimate” – in that case, backed by the United Nations – and towards a “just” and “righteous” end, it needn’t be considered interference at all.

Reading between the lines

Unsurprisingly, the book has plenty to criticize about the United States, but if one is willing to read between the lines, there are also implicit warnings for, if not criticism of, Xi Jinping’s China too. Barring his reelection or a disastrous conclusion to his term, time will likely prove Yan has overemphasized the harm of Trump’s presidency to the United States’ international standing.

With respect to China, Yan hints his concern that reform has stalled under Xi, compromising its rise. Because humane authority “traditionally requires consistency between a ruler’s internal governance and his or her conduct of foreign affairs,” China’s adoption of “different values at home and abroad” make it less likely to achieve international leadership. Seemingly alluding to Xi’s elimination of term limits, Yan warns that “political leaders who have been in power a long time often become more impulsive, less risk aware, and less adept at seeing things from any point of view other than their own.” He reminds China that even if its material capability continues to grow, it does not automatically translate into the authority to lead.

Despite his apparent misgivings about the Xi era, Yan is hopeful that China’s millennials will propel the country forward once they are in power. This is because they are “politically open and individualistic because of their modern educational background and international experience …. Unlike their parents, who during childhood were subjected to mistaken concepts about the rest of the world, this younger generation studied foreign languages as children and also learned about different cultures.” He extends this hope to the United States’ millennials, believing that together they may find a path forward towards coexistence, blending Chinese values of “benevolence, righteousness, and rites” and Western values of “equality, democracy, and freedom” to form the joint values of “fairness, justice, and civility.”

But before uniting hands with Yan, Western readers may be given pause by his crude critique of equality. Focusing on equality without taking differences – among them, variances in intelligence and strength, family background, and education, among others – into consideration, he says, “is equivalent to advocating the law of the jungle – that of unquestioned equal rights and zero distinctions between the advantaged and the disadvantaged.” Yan would prefer that some are more equal than others. (Supporters of democracy see its intent as exactly the opposite, a system intended to protect the weak against the strong so as to prevent the very law of the jungle Yan believes it causes.) On the heels of an argument for limits on freedom of speech, Yan writes, “all animals have the freedom to excrete, but civility prohibits humans from excreting indiscriminately, as an animal might.”

Non-states and the importance of culture

The book is weakest for the things it ignores: namely, any meaningful consideration of how non-state actors are reshaping the international order and the role national cultures play in shaping leaders capable of commanding global authority.

Yan is deeply wedded to a worldview in which states remain the primary players in world affairs. Because the United States and China both privilege national sovereignty as the organizing arrangement of international affairs, he believes China’s overtaking of the United States will result in fewer changes to the international system than many suspect. He is also skeptical that a global ideological conflict will reemerge, instead seeing intraregional divides – among them Shias and Sunnis in Muslim countries, liberalism and populism in the West, and socialism and capitalism in Latin America – as more important.

But others, like Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter, see a “nonpolar” or “networked” world order emerging in which non-state actors, from terrorist groups to corporations, civil society groups, and supranational organizations, all wield considerable influence. Yan may implicitly believe that just as China has subsumed the Internet, corporations, and civil society domestically, it will be able to do so internationally. But if Yan is wrong, the relationship between military and economic might and global power may break down, complicating China’s claim to leadership.

For a book that draws such a direct tie between personal, national, and global leadership, the book is notable for its failure to acknowledge the important role of national cultures. This includes how culture shapes leaders, and how culture, beyond moral leadership, can influence why nations follow one power over another. Combined, these two omissions challenge the supposed inevitability of Chinese dominance. In ways that are self-reinforcing, China is a top-down, collectivist, and largely homogeneous society; the United States a decentralized, individualist, and highly diverse one. The latter seems inherently more capable of commanding the followership of a diverse world because its worldview allows for and understands difference. It is more likely to see other nations as equal, regardless of size, whereas China retains implicit notions of tributary hierarchies.

In the same way that people have a way of sticking with wayward kin, Yan underestimates the likelihood that many countries will remain aligned with the United States even if China is more powerful or its leadership more morally correct. This is because their people see more of themselves reflected in America than China. To superficially illustrate the point: Hollywood continues to outpace Chinese movies not because they are more sophisticated technically, but because Hollywood’s stories, drawing upon America’s diversity, resonate globally.

What about Xi?

Yan’s emphasis on the importance of individual leaders on their countries’ trajectories also invites an interesting counterfactual: what if the United States, instead of broadly confronting China as it is now doing, focused its rhetoric and action narrowly on Xi Jinping and a small coterie of other senior leaders? Although Xi’s nationalist sentiments have a wide following in and outside of the Party, there is more than enough evidence of others who have reservations about his leadership. The personality cult he has promoted, his crackdown on rivals and space for dissent, and his elimination of term limits have all sparked serious concerns among China’s elite. Recurrent rumors of coup attempts, however little veracity they may have, are nonetheless telling in their existence.

While some of China’s practices that the US is now determined to stop predate Xi, the marked change in China’s international posture he has precipitated could perhaps be reversed if he, and not the country as a whole, were the focus of the United States’ animus. (Add to this approach targeted sanctions on individuals responsible for human rights violations in Xinjiang, which were considered but then shelved in the interest of securing a trade agreement.)

Instead, by taking on China as a whole, the United States plays into Chinese nationalist claims that the country seeks to subvert China’s rise. This more likely helps Xi consolidate power than not. If the US could exploit and create further doubts between Xi and the elite, the internal political complications it would create could potentially restrain Xi’s behavior, if not force a reset in relations. If the pressure were sufficient enough to force Xi from power, Xi’s belief that he is the only force standing between the Party and collapse could be tested, or, more likely, give those advocating a return to productive reform an opportunity to act.

Yet, worse than bluntly pushing back against China as a whole, Trump, consistent with his affinity for dictators, has embraced Xi and joked enough about similarly extending his own time in office to be its own cause for grave concern.