Abstract: Rather than weaken nation-states, globalization forces have contributed to expanding and hardening national government power around the globe. This dynamic, which has resulted in a global uptick in an authoritarian government, impacts how great power competition between the United States and China will play out over the 21st century. Each power’s response to globalization shapes the dynamics of competition and creates opportunities and challenges in preserving the U.S.-led world order. The U.S. must understand the connections between globalization, authoritarianism, and competition to preserve its influence on the international stage, ensure individual liberty and democratic values, retain a vibrant and active international champion, and effectively compete with great power adversaries who sponsor alternative approaches to governance and world order.
Problem statement: How is globalization related to surges in authoritarian governments worldwide, and how does this shape great power competition between the United States and China?
Bottom-line-up-front: Globalization forces are a counter-intuitive potential contributor to contemporary rises in authoritarian governments worldwide. In U.S. strategies for great power competition against China, understanding this relationship is key, compelling the United States to look inward at its values while projecting power outwards in competition.
So what?: U.S. national leaders need to reinforce the role of values in competitive strategies with China and craft strategies that simultaneously affirm and reinvigorate core American values while projecting power to preserve its rules-based international order.
The current wave of globalization agnostically cuts across and through all forms of political arrangements in the modern nation-state. Far from weakening nation-states (as often predicted or assumed in contemporary international relations theory), globalization contributes to the perception - and documented phenomenon - of rising authoritarianism around the globe. This is because even as globalization forces exert weakening pressure on nation-state sovereignty, they also induce responses from sovereign governments who have compelling interests for maintaining the status of their national sovereignty.
For this reason, and often in spite of theoretical predictions of a weakened nation-state in a globalized world, many of the world’s most powerful states remain acutely focused on strengthening their sovereignty and asserting the importance of their borders. The continued domination of the U.S. southern border as a national political issue, Britain’s sovereignty-strengthening reasons for leaving the European Union, and China and Russia’s respective sovereignty-extending efforts in the Crimea and Hong Kong demonstrate this dynamic. These types of contributions related to globalization inherently impact the nature of great power competition between the United States and China. To maintain an edge in the emerging competition where values-based deterrence strategies take center stage, the United States must recognize the impacts of globalization on great power competition. Specifically, the United States must pay attention to its governmental responses to globalized threats and ensure that they do not stray too far from the constitutional and democratic norms that reflect core American values. In great power competition to preserve the U.S-led rules-based order, U.S. responses that invalidate key political and economic values undermine competitive strategies and sow the seeds of internal instability that create opportunities for great power adversaries.
The continued domination of the U.S. southern border as a national political issue, Britain’s sovereignty-strengthening reasons for leaving the European Union, and China and Russia’s respective sovereignty-extending efforts in the Crimea and Hong Kong demonstrate this dynamic.
The U.S. and the People’s Republic of China
Before beginning, it is useful to define what is meant by “globalization” in this article. The term “globalization” is a multi-dimensional term in academia complete with economic, political, and anthropological connotations, which must be properly defined and scoped before the term can be related to trends in governance and contemporary great power competition between the United States and China. For the purposes of this article, “globalization” refers to the forces generated by technological advances that increase the speed in which goods, people, and ideas travel around the globe. As eminent journalist Thomas Freidman notes, they are the forces that have “flattened” the world since the beginning of the 21st century.
Globalization commands attention from national governments that exist, in many ways, to regulate and control the same flow of people, goods, and ideas within national boundaries. Such forces naturally present new challenges and opportunities for national governments to seize, address, or confront. That is to say, governments must respond to these forces, and their responses seem likely to influence and contribute to contemporary trends in governance observed across the globe.
One national government response to globalization appears to be the impulse of nation-states to exert (or re-exert) their national sovereignty. Many scholars have recently expressed concern that such responses contribute to a trend of rising authoritarianism. A 2021 report from the Freedom House chronicles a contemporary “decline in global freedom.” Critically, the report notes that such declines have been felt in both the “cruelest dictatorships” as well as “long-standing democracies.” Neither the United States nor China have been immune to such dynamics. The United States recently landed on the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance’s list of “backsliding democracies” for the first time. Likewise, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) authoritarian responses to pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, as well as the CCP’s approach to minority groups such as the Uyghurs, clearly demonstrate China’s contemporary authoritarian tilt.
A 2021 report from the Freedom House chronicles a contemporary “decline in global freedom.” Critically, the report notes that such declines have been felt in both the “cruelest dictatorships” as well as “long-standing democracies.”
Thus, in both great powers, the specter of rising (in the U.S.) or status quo (in China) authoritarianism looms large in the modern era of globalization. Globalization’s role in potentially contributing to authoritarian reactions from national governments is therefore worth investigating. National government reactions to globalization contribute to the trend of rising authoritarianism in the United States and China. In the United States, much of the concern regarding authoritarianism comes from expansions (both perceived and actual) of government authority countering globalization forces. Globalization forces facilitate the unprecedented – and hard to regulate – movement of goods, people, and ideas which has animated U.S. government responses addressing unfamiliar problems. These responses sometimes exert government control in areas previously regarded as the domain of private individuals which generates domestic opposition in the name of anti-authoritarianism. Push-back from the American public at policies such as former President Trump’s travel ban and the current vaccine and mask mandates for COVID-19 reflect this dynamic as each of these policies leveraged expansive government action to control a threat produced by globalization forces.
Conversely, for China, responses to globalization forces have leveraged authoritarian practices to preserve the economic prosperity achieved through globalization in its rise to superpower status. Over the last thirty years, China deliberately inculcated limited free-market economic principles into its economy to harness the wealth-producing effects of globalization. As life-long China scholar Michael Pillsbury notes, during this period, China also placated Western observers with democratic overtures and platitudes to gain and secure favorable economic status in the world economy. However, rather than follow up its liberal economic development with corresponding liberal political developments, China retained its authoritarian posture upon arriving on the international scene as a superpower. In a telling policy move reflecting Chinese intentions with regard to globalization, China recently initiated efforts to “decouple” its economy from the West.
As life-long China scholar Michael Pillsbury notes, during this period, China also placated Western observers with democratic overtures and platitudes to gain and secure favorable economic status in the world economy.
In other words, China simply harvested the economic potential offered through globalization while discarding any democratic transformative political benefit. The great power responses to globalization can be aptly summed in this way: while both the United States and China harnessed economic benefits from globalization forces, the U.S. is proving more susceptible to the threats from globalization as they test its political traditions in ways that China’s status quo authoritarianism avoids. The diverging great power reactions to globalization forces described above help explain why the United States currently seems to perceive more authoritarian values embedded into its liberal-democratic government while China inserts liberal-democratic values – such as the free market principles – into its authoritarian regime. These responses to globalization from great powers suggest that the only forces moving faster than the state-weakening forces of globalization are the state-strengthening activities of national governments attempting to contain and control them.
Globalization, Authoritarianism, and Great Power Competition
Understanding the contemporary connection between globalization, authoritarianism, and great power competition is vital to American strategies seeking to preserve a rules-based order featuring liberal democratic values. Presumably, both the United States and China recognize the catastrophic stakes of armed conflict amongst great powers and thus desire to keep competition below the threshold of open warfare. Currently, U.S. approaches to competition, whether through military or diplomatic means, rely on a values-based concept of “integrated deterrence” to attract and operationalize a global network of committed partners capable of defending the current world order. While there remains much to unpack regarding this emerging term in U.S. national security strategy, the concept relies on synchronized military and diplomatic actions across the interagency to recruit and entice willing international partners to help defend a U.S. vision of world order based on the American values of individual liberty and democratic political participation. Thus, to be successful, these values must remain intact in the international community. Therefore, the prospects for integrated deterrence shift in tandem with American credibility implementing and upholding these values at home.
Authoritarian practices run starkly against the grain of the United States' historical and codified political traditions. Therefore, rises – or even the perception of rises – in authoritarianism, even when offered as governmental protection against globalized threats, spurs discomfort and tension in American society – a truth viscerally demonstrated by the events of January 6th, 2022. It is important to pause here and note that rising authoritarianism in the United States is far from a proven phenomenon. Indeed, because both leading political parties in the United States have recently and vituperously accused the other of authoritarian impulses, it is difficult to separate authoritarian fact from political fiction. This is why it is necessary to speak in terms of “perceptions” of authoritarian rises in the United States. However, whether perceived or actual authoritarian rises in the United States, the disruptive effect on American governance and the subsequent impact on great power competition are the same.
Rising authoritarianism in the United States is far from a proven phenomenon. Indeed, because both leading political parties in the United States have recently and vituperously accused the other of authoritarian impulses, it is difficult to separate authoritarian fact from political fiction.
Rises in authoritarianism directly undermine U.S. deterrence efforts seeking to build partnerships committed to the values undergirding America’s vision for world order because they fuel a narrative that casts China as a rising and stable global power and the U.S. as a declining and increasingly unstable power. In today’s great power competition, such narratives are not mere theoretical rhetoric. Perhaps reflecting a national loss of confidence in American values of democratic political participation and the power of individual liberty, significant and concerning portions of the U.S. population have questioned the legitimacy of the latest presidential election in 2020. Conversely, a long-term study conducted by Harvard University found overwhelmingly high public support for the government from Chinese citizens compared to deteriorating support/satisfaction from the U.S. population towards its own government. These contrasting emerging perceptions among domestic populations undoubtedly impact the calculus and foreign policy decision-making of national leaders from each country.
An overconfident China that perceives U.S. weakness may, for instance, rush their stated national intentions to re-annex Taiwan, which could lead to devastating global consequences. Alternatively, an increasingly divided, tense, and self-conscious United States regarding its own bedrock values, society, and international power and influence may overreact to perceived power losses abroad and trigger costly conflicts. As pressure (in the U.S.) and confidence (in China) build, so do the risks of a superpower miscalculation in great power competition.
Review, Refresh and Define
Understanding the links between globalization, authoritarianism, and competition should drive the United States to look inward and refresh and define its core values as it projects power outward to defend its vision of an international order underpinned by the values of individual liberty and democratic government. As much as possible, American government actions addressing new challenges should strive to default to existing constitutional processes (namely, the amendment process) to grant the required authority (through the power of the people) to respond to globalized threats when needed. In adhering to this established democratic norm, government leaders refresh internal democratic principles and empower the deterrence efforts that frame external approaches to great power competition. Far from a call towards isolationism, the intersection of globalization forces and great power competition compels the United States to re-assert the pre-eminence of American values at home as the surest way to preserve international stability and prosperity abroad. National leaders must remember this truth and spend time strengthening the credibility of American values. A competition strategy featuring values-based deterrence with international partners depends on it.
As much as possible, American government actions addressing new challenges should strive to default to existing constitutional processes to grant the required authority to respond to globalized threats when needed.
Scott J. Harr is an Army Special Forces Officer and Ph.D. Candidate at the Helms School of Government, Liberty University. He holds an undergraduate degree in Arabic Language Studies from West Point and a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Affairs from Liberty University. He is also a distinguished graduate of the Army’s Command and General Staff College. A trained Arabic and Farsi speaker with over five years of cumulative deployment time in the Middle East, his work has been featured in The Diplomat, RealClearDefense, The Strategy Bridge, Modern War Institute, Military Review, The National Interest, and Joint Force Quarterly among other national security-focused venues. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or any official U.S. government organization.
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