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Op-ed: Biden and Xi offer dueling world views – the winner will shape the global future

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Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with US Vice President Joe Biden (L) in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on December 4, 2013.

Lintao Zhang | Reuters

Who will organize the world? And which forces and whose interests will shape the global future?

These were the underlying questions behind two events last week, one in Washington and one in Beijing, that set the stage for the geopolitical competition of our time.

The DC piece was President Joe Biden’s release of the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, which was unprecedented in a new administration at the time. Biden’s goal was to create clarity at an early stage about how he wants to set and implement priorities in a rapidly changing world.

State Secretary Antony Blinken set out the considerations behind the guidelines in his first major speech since taking office. It was persuasive and underscored the urgent need to sustain US democracy and revitalize America’s alliances and partnerships.

“Like it or not, the world doesn’t organize itself,” said Blinken. “If the US pulls back, one of two things is likely to happen: either another country tries to take our place but not in a way that promotes our interests and values, or maybe just as badly, no one comes up and then we get Chaos and all the dangers it creates. Either way, it’s not good for America. “

Relations with China, which Blinken described as “the greatest geopolitical test of the 21st century”, are the key to this organizational thinking.

Blinken said: “China is the only country with economic, diplomatic, military and technological power that seriously questions the stable and open international system – all the rules, values ​​and relationships that make the world work the way we do want because it is so. ” ultimately serves the interests and reflects the values ​​of the American people. “

Biden’s biggest departure from the Trump approach in China is an emphasis on working with partners and allies. The move by the US and the European Union this week to ease trade tensions, suspend a long list of tariffs and the Airbus-Boeing dispute over government subsidies underscores the seriousness of President Biden.

Unsurprisingly, Beijing offers a different view of the future at last week’s second key event, the National People’s Congress, which convened on Friday and will continue next week.

President Xi sees the momentum on Beijing’s side in a world where “the east is rising and the west is falling”. His argument is that contrary to the chaos of the United States, China offers order and contrary to Washington’s ineffectiveness, it offers effective governance, as evidenced by how much better it has dealt with the pathogen it released.

Xi’s most comprehensive blow on how China would organize the world took place in late January at this year’s virtually convened World Economic Forum. The title of the speech underscored her overall ambition: “Let the torch of multilateralism light the path of humanity forward.”

If the Biden vision is for the US to create a group of resuscitated Democratic sisters and brothers inspired by the resuscitated United States, Xi’s vision is a world where the political system, culture, and society of all of its own affairs are.

In this world America’s value judgments are a thing of the past.

The caption for Xi is simple. How countries organize internally, along with the authoritarian restrictions and human rights violations that go with them – whether against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang province, against democracy activists in Hong Kong, or perhaps even ultimately regarding Taiwan’s independence – is none of Washington’s business.

“Every country is unique with its own history, culture and social system, and none is superior to the other,” Xi told the virtual crowd in Davos. “The best criteria are whether the history, culture and the social system of a country suit its particular situation, enjoy the support of the people, serve to ensure political stability …” Xi made it clear that this approach “interferes with the domestic.” Should avoid the affairs of other countries “.

In contrast, President Biden wrote in a letter accompanying the Strategic Guidelines this week: “I firmly believe that democracy is the key to freedom, prosperity, peace and dignity. We must ensure that our model is not a relic of the.” History is. This is the best way to realize the promise of our future. And if we work with our democratic partners with strength and trust, we will meet every challenge and surpass every challenger. “

The context for these competing visions was the publication this week of Freedom House’s annual poll that said, “Less than 20 percent of the world’s population now lives in a free country, the lowest percentage since 1995.”

In the Democracy Under Siege study, Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz wrote: “When a deadly pandemic, economic and physical insecurity and violent conflict ravaged the world in 2020, defenders of democracy suffered fighting authoritarian enemies heavy new losses Shift the international balance in favor of tyranny. “

It was the 15th year in a row that countries with declines in political rights and civil liberties outnumber countries with gains. According to the report, nearly 75% of the world’s population lived in a country where democratic freedoms had deteriorated over the past year.

It seems that this is absolutely the wrong time to expect the world’s democracies to recover to shape the global order. But just the opposite is the case: at a time when democracy is being tested around the world, there is no better time to tackle the challenges together and ensure that the global gains in freedom of the past 75 years do not decline any further.

Given the global situation, the Biden government knows that its work has to start at home. Blinken was also humble about how the United States would promote democracy.

“We will use the power of our example,” he said. “We will encourage others to carry out important reforms, repeal bad laws, fight corruption and stop unjust practices. We will create incentives for democratic behavior.”

What the US will not do is promote democracy “through costly military interventions,” Blinken said, “or by attempting to overthrow authoritarian regimes by force. We have tried these tactics in the past. As well-meaning as they are like, they didn’t work. ” “”

In the end, the world will not be organized by either Chinese or American fiat, but a concert of national interests influenced by the development of the world’s two leading powers.

Xi’s bet is that China’s momentum is unstoppable, that the world is sufficiently transactional, and that its economy has become indispensable to most US allies. In addition to postponing this narrative, President Biden must work together to reverse the reality of democratic weakening.

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, award-winning journalist, and President and CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of America’s most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked for the Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as foreign correspondent, assistant editor-in-chief and senior editor for the European edition of the newspaper. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place in the World” – was a New York Times bestseller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his view every Saturday of the top stories and trends of the past week.

More information from CNBC staff can be found here @ CNBCopinion on twitter.

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Katherine Clark