China’s “Historic” push for multipolar world to end U.S. domination

Apr 28, 2023
silver world globes showing different facets of the world Image: iStock/ MimaCZ

This is a historic watershed that the world is living through right now. What China is after is true multilateralism. What’s very important to understand is that most of the world also does not want the U.S. as the global preeminent power. Most of the world wants a truly multipolar world, and is, therefore, not lined up behind the United States’ sanctions on Russia, says Jeffrey Sachs in an interview with Democracy now.

AMY GOODMAN: China is facing criticism in Europe after China’s ambassador to France questioned the sovereignty of former Soviet states under international law during a television interview. The Baltic countries Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia condemned the remarks and summoned Chinese envoys to explain Beijing’s official position. The Chinese Foreign Ministry walked back the ambassador’s comments, saying, quote, “China respects all countries’ sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.”

The diplomatic spat comes as China is making headlines across the globe, though maybe not so much in the United States, for its diplomatic efforts. In late February, China released a 12-point peace plan to end the war in Ukraine. On March 10th, Iran and Saudi Arabia announced they would restore ties as part of an agreement brokered by China. Days later, in mid-March, Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted the Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to talk about Ukraine, trade and moving away from the U.S. dollar. Xi Jinping then met with French President Emmanuel Macron in Beijing. During Macron’s visit, Xi spoke about the roles of China and France in world affairs.

PRESIDENT XI JINPING: [translated] The world today is undergoing profound historic changes. As permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and major countries with a tradition of independence, China and France, as promoters of the multipolarisation of the world and the democratisation of international relations, have the ability and responsibility to transcend difference and restraints; adhere to the comprehensive strategic cooperative partnerships between China and France with stability, reciprocity, development and progress; practice true multilateralism; and maintain world peace, stability and prosperity.

AMY GOODMAN: While in Beijing, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, suggested France and European nations should not become a vassal of the United States when it comes to Taiwan.

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: [translated] France supports the single China policy and the search for a peaceful solution to the situation for that matter. It’s Europe’s position. It’s a position that has always been compatible with the role of an ally. But it’s precisely one stressing the importance of strategic autonomy. Ally doesn’t mean being a vassal. It’s not because we do things together that we can’t think alone, that we’re going to follow the people in — that are the toughest in a country that’s allied with us. When we look at the facts, France has lessons to be received from no one, be either in Ukraine, in Sahel or in Taiwan.

AMY GOODMAN: China has continued its diplomatic outreach by offering last week to hold talks between Israel and Palestine.

To look more at China’s recent diplomatic actions, we’re joined by Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and president of the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network. He has also served as adviser to three U.N. secretaries-general and currently serves as a Sustainable Development Goals Advocate under Secretary-General António Guterres. His latest article published is headlined “The Need for a New US Foreign Policy.”

Professor Sachs, thanks so much for being with us. All of the diplomatic gestures of China — you know, the meeting with Macron in Beijing, with Lula in Beijing, brokering this deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, now offering not only to negotiate between Ukraine and Russia, but Israel and Palestine — this hardly gets attention in the United States media. But around the world, the headlines are far more — there are far more headlines about this. Talk about the significance of this, and if you see a direct parallel between all the headway that China is making and increasing U.S. hostility towards China.

JEFFREY SACHS: Thanks, Amy. Very good to be with you. And indeed, this is a crucial topic. And as President Xi Jinping said in that meeting with Macron, this is a historic watershed that the world is living through right now. What China is after, if we view it from China’s perspective, is what was also said: true multilateralism. And what that means is that they don’t want a U.S.-led world, they want a multipolar world. The basis of that is that the United States is 4.1% of the world population, while China is 17.5% of the world population. China’s economy is comparable to the U.S. economy, and indeed China is the lead trade partner for much of the world. So, China is saying, “We’re there, too, alongside you. We want a multipolar world. We don’t want a U.S.-led world.”

And while the United States sometimes talks about a rule-based order, the fact of the matter is that the U.S. grand strategy, if we can use that term, is that the United States should be the world’s dominant power. I often refer to an article that I think is very clear, succinct and revealing by a former colleague of mine at Harvard University, Robert Blackwill, an esteemed ambassador of the United States, who wrote in 2015 — and I’ll quote from the article — “Since its founding, the United States has consistently pursued a grand strategy focused on acquiring and maintaining preeminent power over various rivals, first on the North American continent, then in the Western Hemisphere, and finally globally.”

Well, China doesn’t want the United States to be the preeminent power. It wants to live alongside the United States. Blackwill, writing in 2015, said China’s rise is a threat to U.S. preeminence. And he laid out a series of steps that the Biden administration actually is following almost step by step. What Blackwill laid out already back in 2015 is that the United States should create, and I quote, “new preferential trading arrangements among U.S. friends and allies to increase their mutual gains through instruments that consciously exclude China.” There should be “a technology-control regime” to block China’s strategic capabilities, a build-up of, quote, “power-political capacities of U.S. friends and allies on China’s periphery” and strengthened U.S. military forces along the Asian rimland despite any Chinese opposition. This has become the Biden foreign policy. China knows it. China really is pushing back.

But what’s very important and interesting to understand, and we’ve seen it clearly in the dynamics involving the Ukraine war, is that most of the world also does not want the U.S. as the global preeminent power. Most of the world wants a truly multipolar world, and is, therefore, not lined up behind the United States’ sanctions on Russia and so forth. And this was also the message of President Lula visiting China, saying to President Xi Jinping, and I paraphrase, “We, as Brazil, also want multipolarity, true multipolarity, and we want peace, for example, in the Russian-Ukraine war, that is based not on a U.S. perception of dominance — say, NATO enlargement — but rather a peace that reflects a multipolar world.”

That viewpoint is real. It’s a view that is shared all over the world. And the fact of the matter is, the reason why this historic watershed is occurring is that the underlying global economics and technological change have made it so. The U.S. is no longer the dominant economy in the world, and the G7, which is the U.S., Canada, Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Japan, is actually now smaller in aggregate output than the BRICS countries, which include Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. So, we really are, in fact, in a multipolar world, but in terms of ideology, we’re in a conflict.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Jeffrey Sachs, I wanted to ask about that. You mentioned the BRICS. The BRICS bank, that is now in China — and President Lula has named [former Brazilian President] Dilma Rousseff as the head of the BRICS bank — its importance in terms of this multipolarity in the world economies, the potential for even the creation of alternative major currencies to the dollar as a result of the BRICS alliance, the impact of that on world affairs?

JEFFREY SACHS: This is a big deal. And in fact, the United States is withdrawing — it doesn’t know it necessarily, our politicians don’t understand this, but our politicians are withdrawing the US from the world financial and monetary scene and opening up the space for a completely different kind of international finance.

I’ll give you an example. The U.S. was the creator of the World Bank. But now the U.S. Congress won’t put new money into the World Bank. And because of that, the World Bank is actually a quite small institution. It’s got a big name, but it’s a quite small institution in the financial scheme of things. The U.S. won’t put more money in. The Congress says, “No. Why should we waste our money internationally?” and so forth, and we get a lot of hub-bub in Congress about that. So, China and the rest of the BRICS say, “OK, we’ll make our own development bank,” and they’ve established the New Development Bank, sometimes called the BRICS bank, based in Shanghai.

And that’s just one of the institutions that is really changing the scene. There’s the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, AIIB, based in Beijing. There is, as President Lula said, and as is happening also in the context of the Ukraine war, a move away from the use of the U.S. dollar in global trade. The United States has thought, “Well, that’s our ace in the hole. You know, that is our ultimate hold on things, because we can use sanctions, we can use our financial control, to keep other countries in line.” But other countries are saying, “Eh, not so much. We’ll trade in Renminbi. We’ll trade in Rubles. We’ll trade in Rupees. We’ll trade in our own national currencies.” And they’re quickly setting up alternative institutions to do just this.

The United States then doubles down: “We will confiscate your reserves. We will sanction you, if you don’t follow us.” And the other countries are saying, “You know, if you want to go through the U.N. and get really multilateral rules, we’re with you. But if you want to impose your own rules, we won’t follow along.” And so, we have this very funny expression called a “rules-based international order.” The United States government uses it every day. But what does it mean? Who writes the rules? What most of the world wants, in fact, are rules that are written in a multipolar or multilateral setting, not rules written by the United States with a few friends and allies.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you — you’ve been an adviser to the United Nations for quite often. The issue of how much longer the permanent members of the Security Council can keep the number to five? Because, clearly, Brazil and other countries of the Global South have been saying the U.N. needs to be reformed, and countries from Latin America, specifically Brazil, and Africa should have representation on the U.N. Security Council, permanent members.

JEFFREY SACHS: Yes, you know, the P5, the Permanent Five, which includes the United States, China, Russia, France and the United Kingdom, was the group of victors in World War II. They wrote into the rules of the U.N. that they would be the five permanent UN Security Council members and also have a veto over any future changes in the U.N. Charter. So, it’s really a group that gave itself a lot of power. The other 188 UN members states look on and say, “What is this? We need change.”

I would say the country that is most amazed and frustrated by this, in fact, is India. India is now the most populous country in the world. The United States has roughly 335 million people. Britain and France have roughly 60 million. India has 1.4 billion — yet is not on the UN Security Council. India is a nuclear power, a world superpower, and the President of the G20 this year. It’s not really not happy about not being a permanent UN Security Council member. Brazil, the largest economy of South America, similarly is not on the Security Council. So, this need to reform the UN Security Council has been an issue for more than 20 years. The P5, in various ways, have blocked particular countries. Essentially, the P5 have said, “You know what? This is our club. We want to stay as the Permanent Five.”

But I think as we really face the reality of a post-Western world, not just a post-U.S.-dominated world. The so-called West means the U.S., Britain, European Union, and as honorary “Western” membership, Japan. But we’re now in a post-Western, as well as post-U.S., world. The international institutions need to change, or they won’t function in the 21st century. And if they don’t function, that’s actually a disaster for all of us. If these international institutions didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them, because we need them to function, so we also need to renovate them.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to talk about China negotiating these various agreements. Let’s turn to Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva speaking before his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

PRESIDENT LUIZ INÁCIO LULA DA SILVA: [translated] What does Putin want? Putin can’t keep Ukraine’s territory. Maybe we don’t even discuss Crimea, but he will have to rethink what he has invaded. Also, Zelensky can’t have everything he wants to demand. NATO will not be able to set itself up at the border. So, this is something we have to put on the table. … I think this war has dragged on for too long. Brazil has already criticised what it had to criticise. Brazil defends each nation’s territorial integrity, so we disagree with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

AMY GOODMAN: Because it looks like Ukraine is on the verge of a major counteroffensive against Russia, and, in order to do this, needs massive support from Western countries, meaning military weapons, can you talk about what China’s role is here, the peace plan it has put forward, but also these other deals that China is helping to negotiate, like the successful rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and then what they’re suggesting about Israel and Palestine?

JEFFREY SACHS: President Lula uttered, in a few words, the core of this issue, that most of our media dare not explain to the American people, and that is the expansion of NATO. This is a war fundamentally about the U.S. attempt to expand a U.S. military alliance to Ukraine and to Georgia. Georgia is a country in the Caucasus, also on the Black Sea. The U.S. strategy, going back decades, has been to surround Russia in the Black Sea, with Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Georgia, all NATO members, surrounding Russia and its naval fleet in the Black Sea — a naval fleet that has been Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet since 1783. Russia has said about NATO enlargement to Ukraine and Georgia, “Don’t do it; this is our red line.” And it has said that for decades. President Putin said this clearly in 2007, before George W. Bush Jr. had — I’ll call it the harebrained idea to announce in 2008, and also force NATO to announce, that Ukraine will become a member of NATO.

And this is what President Lula was saying and what President Xi Jinping of China has been saying: We can’t have a war that is essentially a proxy war between Russia and the United States over the expansion of the U.S. military alliance right up to a 2000-kilometre and more border with Russia, and which Russia views — and I would say understandably so — as a fundamental national security threat to Russia. Keep some space. Keep some distance. That’s President Lula’s meaning. That’s what China means when it says in its peace plan, “We want a peace plan that respects the security interests of all parties. That is code for saying, “Make peace. End the war. But don’t expand NATO right up to the border.”

The American people have not heard an explanation of this NATO issue during the war. It’s shocking to me, because as a close observer of this for 30 years, NATO enlargement has been the main casus belli. And yet our newspapers won’t even report the background to the war. Yet this is why China, South Africa, India, and Brazil are all saying, “We want peace, but we don’t want NATO expansion as the meaning of a so-called peace. We want the big superpowers to give each other some space and some distance, so that the world isn’t on a knife edge.” That’s exactly what President Lula was saying, and it’s exactly what the meaning of the Chinese peace initiative is saying. “Yes, absolutely make peace. Protect Ukraine’s sovereignty and its security. But no to NATO expansion.”

But the Biden administration won’t even discuss this NATO enlargement issue. That has been the major failing and the reason why we have not been able to get to the negotiating table, in my opinion. Even when Zelensky said in March 2022, “Maybe Ukraine will not join NATO, maybe we’ll find security guarantees another way.” Russia and Ukraine were in fact close to an agreement, and the United States intervened with Ukraine and said, “We don’t think that’s a good agreement,” because the U.S. neocons, so-called, have been pushing for NATO enlargement as a central US goal.

But this goes back to the more general point for us, which is that what is at stake in Ukraine and Taiwan and on many other issues, from the point of view of China or Russia or other countries, including Brazil, now Saudi Arabia, Iran and others, is whether the U.S. does what it wants to do or whether the U.S. respects some limits based on what other countries also say. They want true multipolarity, not U.S. dominance alone, rules written by all countries, not rules written just by the United States.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jeff Sachs, we only have about a minute left, but I was wondering if you could comment on the parallels between this expansion of NATO further and further east in Europe — this year marks the 200th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine, of President Monroe declaring to all the European powers that the Western Hemisphere was off-limits to them coming, attempting to move their forces and their militaries into Latin America. And for these past 200 years, Latin America has essentially been the major sphere of influence of the United States. And yet, here we are, saying that Russia has no right to declare that countries immediately on its borders cannot welcome in NATO troops.

JEFFREY SACHS: Well, yes, a little empathy would go a long way, and would have spared us, actually, a lot of wars. For Americans, it would be useful to think: Suppose Mexico made a military alliance with China. Would the United States say, “Well, that’s Mexico’s right. What are we going to do about it?” Or might there be actually a US invasion in short order or something like that? I would strongly advise to China and Mexico, “Don’t try this at home. Don’t experiment with this.” Yet the United States government refuses to put itself in the position of the other side. That’s the fundamental arrogance of thinking that the US determines the rules of the world. The problem with arrogance is not only the comeuppance from it, but you stumble into terrible crises after another. The US public has not been helped to think from the perspective of the other side. So, the analogy with the Monroe Doctrine is actually a very, very clear analogy. It is what China and Russia and others say all the time to the U.S. “Why do you have those double standards? Why don’t we actually deal with each other with mutual respect, not with the rules that you write?”

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you, Jeffrey Sachs, for joining us, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, president of the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network. We’ll link to your new article, “The Need for a New US Foreign Policy.” Professor Sachs was speaking to us from Córdoba, Spain.


An  Interview on Democracy Now! on April 25, 2023

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