China’s GCI and the restoration of the Westphalian world order

BY GLENN DIESEN | 09-28-2023
Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: Westphalia: The Last Christian Peace by D. Croxton

The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 laid the foundation for the modern world order, which is based on a balance of power between sovereign equals to obstruct hegemonic ambitions. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has been promoting a revisionist world order based on US hegemony and sovereign inequality, which is legitimized under the banner of universal liberal values. The hegemonic world order aimed to transcend international anarchy, yet it was temporary and unstable. The era of hegemony is now over as the world already transitions toward a multipolar balance of power, and there is a need to rediscover the principle of indivisible security.

China’s Global Civilizational Initiative (GCI) can contribute to restoring and improving a stable Westphalian world order based on a balance of power among sovereign equals. China’s GCI, organized around the principle of “the diversity of civilizations,” can be interpreted as a rejection of universalism and thus a support for sovereign equality. The GCI therefore reassures the world that an intrusive US hegemony will not merely be replaced by an intrusive Chinese hegemony. The GCI complements China’s economic and security initiatives around the world, which are also organized around the principle that stability requires a multipolar world order. 

World order: Hegemony or balance of power?

World order refers to the arrangement of power and authority that provides the foundation for the rules of the game in terms of how world politics should be conducted. The Thirty Year’s War ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which laid the foundation for the modern world order. Its key principle was thus the principle of indivisible security as ensuring the security of opponents as a critical step toward achieving lasting peace and stability in Europe. To ensure stability, it is required to guarantee the security of all states participating in the order. This principle was a departure from the traditional approach to international security in which the victors in a conflict could punish and subjugate the defeated side. Thus, the order aimed to replace conquest and domination with constraints and cooperation. 

However, Westphalia was a European order, and sovereign equality was limited to the Europeans as the representatives of advanced and “civilized states.” Although, the gradual diffusion of power and weakening of Western collective hegemony resulted in the incremental dismantlement of colonial empires, which entailed extending sovereign equality to all states. The Westphalian world order laid the foundation for international law in accordance with the UN Charter and the concept of colonial trusteeship was gradually eliminated. Yet, the bloc politics of the Cold War and the subsequent security dependencies recreated the concept of limited sovereignty.

However, there was subsequently an opportunity to establish a truly reformed Peace of Westphalia based on the principle of indivisible security within a global balance of power between sovereign equals. Yet, the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in an immense concentration of power in the West, under the leadership of the US. Furthermore, the ideological victory of the Cold War fuelled hubris and the conviction that liberal democratic values were universal and should lay the foundation for sovereign inequality. Subsequently, an international balance of power was rejected in favour of what was envisioned to be hegemonic stability. 

Pax-Americana’s rise and fall 

Hegemonic peace can only be sustained by preventing the rise of rival powers. Less than two months after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Wolfowitz doctrine of global dominance was revealed in a leaked draft of the Defense Planning Guidance of February 1992. The document asserted that “first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival,” which included the rise of allies such as Germany and Japan. Under the rule of a hegemon the principle of sovereign equality is abandoned as the hegemon claims the right to represent and defend other peoples. 

Thus, international law plhas been undermined and replaced with what Washington terms the “international rules-based order,” which is a hegemonic system based on sovereign inequality. 

Under a balance of power, international law is designed to promote mutual constraints, and when there is a hegemon the new rules of the game will remove constraints on the hegemon. Under the collective hegemony of the West during the unipolar era, the world was redivided into liberal democracies with full sovereignty versus authoritarian states with limited sovereignty. Irrespective of benign intentions, the common denominator of democracy promotion, humanitarian intervention, and the global war on terror was full sovereignty for Western liberal democracies and limited sovereignty for the rest. Liberal democracy thus became a new indicator of civilized states worthy of full sovereignty, and the West could again reassert its virtue in a new civilizing mission – recreating the ideas of the garden versus the jungle.

In 1999, NATO invaded Yugoslavia in a breach of international law. However, it was argued that the war was illegal but legitimate. This was an extraordinary framing as legitimacy was decoupled from legality. Liberal democracy and human rights were argued to be the alternative source of legitimacy. Implicitly, the reference to liberal values as a non-legal source of legitimacy was the sole prerogative of the West and its allies. Liberal values thus become a clause of exceptionalism in international law for the US and its allies. 

There was subsequently a desire to institutionalize the clause of exceptionalism to legitimize liberal hegemony. Discussions began to establish an “alliance of democracies” as an alternative source of legitimacy to the UN, as the West should not be constrained by authoritarian states. This idea was reformed as the proposal for a “Concert of Democracies,” which “could become an alternative forum for the approval of the use of force in cases where the use of the veto at the Security Council prevented free nations from keeping faith with the aims of the U.N. Charter.” 

The decoupling of legitimacy from legality eventually resulted in the so-called “rules-based international order” based on sovereign inequality, which replaces international law with its foundation in sovereign equality. The rules-based international order allegedly build on international law by supplementing democratic values and humanitarian law, although in reality, it is instrumental to legitimize hegemony. When conflicting principles such as territorial integrity or self-determination emerge, the “rules” are always power interests. 

After the Cold War, there were two dominant schools of thought in the US about the new world – “End of History” thesis and “Clash of Civilizations.” The predictable failure of Pax-Americana has thus convinced Washington that it must defeat its rivals, which has shifted the expectations to that of Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. 

China’s Multipolar Balance of Power

China has been the leading state in the “rise of the rest,” resulting in the development of a multipolar balance of power based on sovereign equality. In an effort of ensuring that a new balance of power is benign, China is seemingly reviving the principle of indivisible security by arguing that no state can have proper security unless the other states in the international system also have security. 

China’s support for a multipolar distribution of power, legitimized by civilizational diversity, signifies powerful efforts to restore the Westphalian world order - although as a proper world order rather than a European order.

China has to some extent replicated the three-pillared American System of the early 19th century, in which the US developed a manufacturing base, physical transportation infrastructure, and a national bank to counter British economic hegemony and subsequent intrusive political influence. China has similarly decentralized the international economic infrastructure by developing leading technological ecosystems, launched the impressive Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, and developed new financial instruments of power. 

A natural “balance of dependence” has subsequently emerged, which replicated the geopolitical balance of power logic. All economic interdependent partnerships are defined by asymmetries, as one side will always be more dependent than the other. In an asymmetrical interdependent partnership, the more powerful and less reliant side in a dyad can convert economic dependence into political power. The more dependent side, therefore, has systemic incentives to restore a balance of dependence by enhancing strategic autonomy and diversifying economic partnerships to reduce reliance on the more powerful actor. The international system thus moves toward a natural equilibrium in which no states can extract unwarranted political influence over other states. 

China has not displayed hegemonic intentions in which it would seek to prevent diversification and multipolarity, rather it has signaled to be content with merely being the leading economy as the “first among equals.” Case in point, Russian efforts of diversifying its economic connectivity in Greater Eurasia have not been opposed by Beijing, which has made Moscow more positive to China’s economic leadership in the region. This represents a very different approach from the hegemonic model of Washington, in which the US attempts to decouple Russia from Germany, China, India, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and other economic partners.

China has avoided imposing dilemmas on other countries to choose between “us” and “them” and has even been reluctant to join formal military alliances that advance a zero-sum approach to international security. The development of BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as economic institutions are similarly pursuing the seeking of security with member states rather than security against non-members, which is evident as membership in these institutions is extended to rivals such as India. The Global Development Initiative and the Global Security Initiative have similarly been attempts to create new platforms for global economic and security cooperation.

Global Civilization Initiative

More recently, China built further on the initiatives for a multipolar distribution of power by launching the GCI. China’s President Xi Jinping’s call for a diversity of civilizations is very significant as it translates into support for sovereign equality, and rejecting universalist ideals that can legitimize interference in domestic affairs. The anti-hegemonic rhetoric was made apparent by  Xi Jinping in his argument for civilizational distinctiveness: “We advocate the respect for the diversity of civilizations. Countries need to uphold the principles of equality, mutual learning, dialogue and inclusiveness among civilizations, and let cultural exchanges transcend estrangement, mutual learning transcend clashes, and coexistence transcend feelings of superiority.”

Xi Jinping’s vision of constructing a benign Westphalian peace was also indicated by reiterating the need to replace zero-sum calculations with the recognition that security is inherently indivisible: “Humanity lives in a community with a shared future where we rise and fall together.” 

The ideas of Xi Jinping reflect that of the 18th-century German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, who argued that preserving national distinctiveness builds international diversity and strength when it does not disparage other nations or claim cultural superiority. Translated to the current era, preserving civilizational distinctiveness requires avoidance of concepts such as a “clash of civilizations” and “superiority of civilizations.” 

The objection to intrusive claims of universalism is also fundamental to Western civilization. In ancient Greece, the cradle of Western civilization, it was recognized that universalism and uniformity weaken vigor and resilience that defined the Hellenic idea. The benign cooperation and competition between various Greek city-states was the source of a diversity of ideas and a vitality that elevated Greek civilization. Integration into one political system would entail losing the diversity of philosophy, wisdom, and leadership that incentivized experimentation and advancement. 

It can be concluded that restoring a Westphalian world order does not only require a multipolar distribution of economic power, it also demands respect for civilizational diversity to ensure that the principle of indivisible security is preserved. The international order should counteract nefarious claims of civilizational superiority clothed in the benign rhetoric of universal values and development models. 

Through this prism, the US efforts to divide the world into democracy versus authoritarianism can be considered a recipe for hegemony and sovereign inequality rather than harmony and human progress. Xi Jinping has thus repudiated the US hegemonic model, and instead advanced the Westphalian argument that states must “refrain from imposing their own values or models on others”. 

Glenn Diesen is a professor at the University of South-East Norway.

Edited by WENG RONG