National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks at a Federalist Society luncheon at the Mayflower Hotel, Monday, Sept. 10, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
By Felipe Herrera, Columnist
On September 10th, John Bolton delivered a speech to the Federalist Society in Washington, DC expounding on the Administration’s criticism of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and championing a return to President Franklin Roosevelt’s notion of the ‘righteous might’ of the United States, which, in Bolton’s view, is the only legitimate “deterrent to evil and atrocity.”[i] Criticizing the ICC’s definition of what actions constitute human rights abuses, genocide, and crimes of aggression, Bolton argued that the Court’s intention is to set a pretext for politically-motivated investigations aimed at intimidating US decisionmakers.[ii] Addressing the United Nations General Assembly on September 25th, President Donald Trump echoed Bolton’s statements, questioning the legitimacy of the ICC and “reject[ing] the ideology of globalism,” portrayed in his words as a threat to American sovereignty.[iii]
What this view fails to consider, however, is the value of what G. John Ikenberry termed ‘strategic constraint.’[iv] In this neoliberal institutionalist framework, the international order is maintained by norms and institutions that “constrain power… mitigating the implications of power asymmetries.”[v] Such an institutionalized order “lock[s] in favorable arrangements” that remain once the hegemon declines or another power rises to challenge it.[vi] A hegemon is incentivized to practice ‘strategic constraint’ and place limits on its exercise of power in order to “reduce the enforcement costs of maintaining order.”[vii] For all the bravado a foreign policy of ‘righteous might’ may engender, such extensive use of power capabilities to resolve conflicts is expensive, and the historical record provides enough examples of the fall of overextended hegemons.
As the U.S. faces a rising China, the refusal to practice ‘strategic constraint’ limits America’s ability to project the soft power necessary to avoid a violent confrontation. In attacking and subverting the institutions that defend human rights, such as the ICC, the U.S. is undermining its own efforts as the State Department has just begun to take its first steps in pressing China over its human rights abuses.[viii] Most recently, members of Congress stepped in on August 28th to urge Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to impose sanctions on Chinese officials directly linked to the abuses against Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,[ix] but these calls for action are obfuscated by an intensifying trade war and the Administration’s past reluctance to focus on China’s human rights abuses.
Human Rights Watch reports that Chinese officials are attempting to justify the harsh treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority using discourse of “maintaining stability and security in Xinjiang,” an appeal that is likely geared towards the sympathies of the ‘law-and-order’ US Administration, framing the forced internment of Uyghur Muslims into re-education camps as the “eradication of [the] ideological viruses” of Islamist terrorism and extremism.[x] Further framing the issue to appeal to the U.S., The Global Times, one of China’s pro-government tabloid newspapers, reports that the “strong leadership of the Communist Party of China” has salvaged Xinjiang “from the verge of massive turmoil,”[xi] and this strong leadership has thus prevented Xinjiang from “becoming China’s Syria or China’s Libya,”[xii] as the region now operates “under the rule of law and ethnic unity.”[xiii] As a proposal to governments concerned over the abuses in Xinjiang, Human Rights Watch recommends raising concerns over the treatment of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang during the 2018 Universal Periodic Review of China at the Human Rights Council and the “establishment of [a] special mechanism through the United Nations to investigate abuses.”[xiv] In assailing the normative and institutional foundations of the international framework of human rights, the United States loses credibility in advocating for such a mechanism while refusing to submit itself to the same process.
Underlying the securitization of Xinjiang issue, the suppression of the Uyghur Muslim population is not merely an ideological divide between Beijing’s atheist government and the Islamic theism of the Uyghur people. The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is a gateway to Central Asia in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and the Chinese government hopes Xinjiang will serve as a “transportation hub and commercial, logistics, and cultural center,”[xv] while it continues to be a significant factor in the economic rise of China as the locus of Central Asian imports and exports. Additionally, China likely sees the military advantage of naval access to the deepwater port at Gwadar, Pakistan on the Arabian Sea, which the Belt and Road Initiative will connect by road and rail to Xinjiang.[xvi] Framing the securitization of Xinjiang as a matter of maintaining stability against the threat of terrorism conceals Beijing’s likely truer goal of securing the region for the massive infrastructure package meant to give China access to European trade through Central Asia.[xvii] Xinjiang’s key strategic importance for President Xi Jinping fits into the bigger challenge the U.S. will face regarding the rise of China’s military presence – and the erosion of the norms and institutions that allow the U.S. to effectively wield soft power reduces America’s options in avoiding a violent confrontation.
As Chinese military power steadily grows relative to the United States, with Chinese sea control considered a “done deal,”[xviii] the trade war continues to escalate between the United States and China. Most recently, China cancelled trade talks[xix] as well as military-to-military talks scheduled for September 25th in Washington, DC in protest of American sanctions,[xx] and both countries imposed a fresh round of tariffs on September 24th.[xxi] Questions are growing regarding “America’s ability to deter Beijing’s use of force,”[xxii] not only regarding territorial disputes, but also in terms of economic containment as the U.S. continues its shift towards global disengagement and isolationism. Soft power may be America’s best option against a near-peer competitor that has achieved sea control “in all scenarios short of war.”[xxiii] But weakening the norms and institutions put in place to extend American power far beyond its post-war zenith[xxiv] reduces peaceful options for conflict resolution, and if the declining unipole overplays its hand in the Pacific, it may well end up beyond all scenarios short of war.
[i] “Full Text of John Bolton’s Speech to the Federalist Society.” Al Jazeera. September 10, 2018. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/09/full-text-john-bolton-speech-federalist-society-180910172828633.html.
[iii] “Trump Addresses U.N. General Assembly: Live Updates.” The New York Times. September 25, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/25/world/americas/united-nations-general-assembly-live-updates.html.
[iv] Ikenberry, G. John. “Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Persistence of American Postwar Order.” International Security 23, no. 3 (1998): 43-78. doi:10.2307/2539338.
[viii] Wong, Edward. “U.S. Weighs Sanctions Against Chinese Officials Over Muslim Detention Camps.” New York Times, September 10, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/10/world/asia/us-china-sanctions-muslim-camps.html.
[ix] Congressional-Executive Commission on China. “Chairs Lead Bipartisan Letter Urging Administration to Sanction Chinese Officials Complicit in Xinjiang Abuses.” News release, August 28, 2018. https://www.cecc.gov/media-center/press-releases/chairs-lead-bipartisan-letter-urging-administration-to-sanction-chinese.
[x] Wang, Maya. “Eradicating Ideological Viruses” China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims. Report. Edited by Sophie Richardson, James Ross, and Danielle Haas. Asia Division, Human Rights Watch. September 9, 2018. https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/09/09/eradicating-ideological-viruses/chinas-campaign-repression-against-xinjiangs.
[xv] Kidwai, Faisal. “Xinjiang Rides High on Belt and Road Initiative.” China Daily, August 8, 2018. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201808/08/WS5b6a649ba310add14f384a0c.html.
[xv] Perlez, Jane, and Yufan Huang. “Behind China’s $1 Trillion Plan to Shake Up the Economic Order.” New York Times, May 13, 2017.
[xvi] Perlez, Jane, and Yufan Huang. “Behind China’s $1 Trillion Plan to Shake Up the Economic Order.” New York Times, May 13, 2017.
[xviii] Beech, Hannah. “China’s Sea Control Is a Done Deal, ‘Short of War With the U.S.’.” New York Times, September 20, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/20/world/asia/south-china-sea-navy.html?rref=collection/sectioncollection/asia.
[xix] Tankersley, Jim, and Alan Rappeport. “China Cancels Plans for Trade Talks in Washington.” The New York Times. September 22, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/22/business/china-cancels-plans-for-trade-talks-in-washington.html.
[xx] Perlez, Jane. “China Is Confronting New U.S. Hostility. But Is It Ready for the Fight?” New York Times, September 23, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/23/world/asia/china-us-trade-war.html?rref=collection/sectioncollection/asia.
[xxi] Bryan, Bob. “Trump’s Trade War with China Shows No Sign of Slowing Down, and It Might Be about to Get Even Worse.” Business Insider. September 24, 2018. https://www.businessinsider.com/trump-china-trade-war-tariffs-imposed-talks-2018-9.
[xxii] Beech, Hannah. “China’s Sea Control Is a Done Deal, ‘Short of War With the U.S.’.” New York Times, September 20, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/20/world/asia/south-china-sea-navy.html?rref=collection/sectioncollection/asia.
[xxiii] Perlez, Jane. “China Is Confronting New U.S. Hostility. But Is It Ready for the Fight?” New York Times, September 23, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/23/world/asia/china-us-trade-war.html?rref=collection/sectioncollection/asia.
[xxiv] Ikenberry, G. John. “Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Persistence of American Postwar Order.” International Security 23, no. 3 (1998): 43-78. doi:10.2307/2539338.