Are friendships in international relations useful? Is this a question worth asking, or do we risk substituting emotions for analysis, sentiments for interests, examining what we like rather than what works? These questions are worth considering at a moment when the world’s two leading powers, each with rich traditions of friendship, seem to have considerable trouble with this elemental component of statecraft.
At base, friendship means providing something of value without any stipulation or expectation of reciprocity or payment. A friend in personal life will help you push your stuck car out of the snow or let you drop your kids off because you have an emergency at work. A friend in international relations might provide aid for disaster relief, or accord another country public recognition or credit on an issue, or offer a trade concession on a sensitive matter. So it is understood that the other party has needs, and that a friend should respond to those needs even if there might be a more immediate cost. This cost might be perceived as a concession to the other party, but foreign policy practitioners would contend that it could be useful to let the other party have some “wins” as long as there is a long-term balance of interests in a relationship. It is understood (or at least it should be) that the conduct of foreign policy is not a series of transactions in which the costs must equal the benefits at each turn. In this sense friendship is the difference between narrow self-interest and enlightened self-interest.
Generalizing from this view, let me postulate that friendships, defined in these terms, are harder to cultivate for authoritarian regimes like the one in China. Let me further postulate that, at this moment, the United States also seems to be limited in developing friendships with other countries.
The Friendship Challenge in China
In the case of China, this difficulty in winning friends is one of the more serious constraints on China’s diplomatic success. Although the friendliness required by protocol is easier, genuine friendship is hard to win. What friendliness and friendship means in the context of international relations deserves a discussion.
In the China experience, the most important element of statecraft has been power. The harsh lesson of several thousand years of border conflicts is that you improve security by being stronger than your neighbors. At times when China was not stronger than its neighbor, it was a subordinate power. There is not much history of China matching a neighbor’s might and achieving stability through a balance of power. Nor is there much history of China and its neighbors treating each other as equals, or building a relationship based on trust and mutual benefit. An Asia security system based on inclusion and compromise has never existed.
This appeal of power is reinforced in an authoritarian system, where there is no open communication, open participation, or domestic give and take. Most importantly, Chinese diplomats have to show support for the regime’s decisions and cannot deviate.
Thus we see the emergence of “Wolf Warrior” diplomats in which stridency and assertiveness are understood as a measure of success. China’s Ambassador to Germany, Wu Ken, warned Germany as the debate over Huawei and telecommunications infrastructure raged, “If you decide to exclude Huawei this will have consequences. You sell a million cars per year in China. We may also declare them unsafe.”
Or take China’s Ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou, who responded to Sweden’s complaints over the kidnapping and imprisonment of one of its citizens by saying, “We treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we got shotguns.”
The New York Times noted that in one week alone, “officials in France, Britain and nearly two dozen African nations have rebuked actions or statements by the Chinese government.”
Friends or Friendly?
One could probably make the case that the concept of diplomatic protocol was invented, or perhaps perfected, by the Chinese—the art of using statecraft, soft power, and social courtesies to pursue national goals. So why, then, would a country as steeped in diplomacy as China resort to such behavior? Can the Government of China develop friendships, or does the combination of a cruel history and an authoritarian system make that difficult? Are there examples of countries that have policy differences with China, where China is nonetheless able to concede they are right? Or is China doomed to be absolutist in its policy formulation? If this is its obligatory approach to policy, China is unlikely to be effective in advancing its issues or in cultivating friends. Once these avenues are closed off, dispensing largesse or projecting power are the chief means to advance a position.
China has shown that it is very capable when it comes to dispensing largesse—perhaps too capable. The most prominent example of this style of influence is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the umbrella term for the series of infrastructure projects across Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, and Africa that can involve Chinese concessionary loans and Chinese construction firms. But success in making grants and loans is not the same as success in friendship. A great deal of the foreign policy benefit of this initiative might have already dissipated with a few projects overly laden with debt, and as the coronavirus-induced economic problems have led to a sharp drop in infrastructure needs. Nonetheless, the BRI remains a useful tool in China’s foreign policy toolbox.
China’s fundamental challenge in developing government-to-government friendships is that China is largely trapped in its absolutist policy positions. Its behavior toward other countries has less to do with that country and more to do with itself. The highest value in the Chinese system is internal cohesion. One of the implications of a policy statement is to reinforce this internal dynamic. No one in China can say, “You might be right,” if someone else in China has already said, “You are definitely wrong.” No one in China can argue for a concession in the interest of a broader relationship if the stated Chinese position is to make no concessions. China has spent 70 years refining a unitary state, and they have succeeded. So the Chinese government brooks no public discussion of policy alternatives, no texture or color.
The policy result of this requirement of internal cohesion is that at times it is nearly impossible to act as a friend. No one is allowed to create goodwill. Bullying and threats might be clearly counterproductive; at the same time they become almost a requirement. Behavior that is perceived as bullying takes place not because the Chinese government necessarily enjoys forceful tactics, but because this is the choice that is cost-free domestically, even as it incurs costs internationally. Friendship, almost by definition, carries a cost.
In addition to the limitations of its Leninist political structure, China’s ministerial silos and a weak Foreign Ministry compound the problem. The Chinese Foreign Ministry is not represented on the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, making it the only Foreign Ministry among major powers not to be represented in the highest bodies. Again, foreign policy is less about foreigners and more about China.
China’s silo approach to ministries means that it is difficult for them to work cross-functionally. When I was working on the Doha Round trade negotiations, we encountered a proposal to liberalize wool exports worldwide. China opposed this initiative, even though China, the largest wool exporter in the world, would reap the most benefit. When I asked the Chinese negotiator what prompted this reaction, his comment was that there were 40,000 sheep farms in China. In other words, he could not risk those 40,000 farms in order to increase the higher-paying and much more numerous textile and apparel jobs that would be created with free trade in wool. In some respects, this might not be terribly different from the U.S. system, but at least the U.S. has a cabinet process, with Domestic Policy Councils, as well as an NSC mechanism, Deputies’ Committees, and so forth. In Chinese terms this means that the Foreign Ministry and the Commerce Ministry cannot effectively lean on, say, the Agricultural Ministry to eliminate wool trade barriers. If that is the case, we could hardly expect the Foreign Ministry to go toe-to-toe with the Defense Ministry regarding the utility of harassing Japanese or Philippine ships.
Then there is the human factor. I remember slurping noodles in a Taipei restaurant with a former Taiwan cabinet minister whom I had met in graduate school. He was telling me about his experiences in the United States. “Do you know how many times I was invited to people’s homes for dinner? Eleven times in a school year. More than once a month. How many other societies would invite a stranger to their home? Don’t let anyone tell you that Americans are not friendly.” What shaped his working relationship with Americans was not our military might or our economic power, but our openness and our friendliness. People in the United States wanted to reach out to him, to hear his views, to establish a relationship, and all this when he was a mere graduate student.
Chinese government officials are not allowed to entertain foreign diplomats in their home. Indeed one of the “reforms” under Xi Jinping was to prohibit government officials from participating in civic activity with foreigners. So no more basketball games or book groups with foreigners. When I served overseas, it was the reading groups, the dragon boat races, and the food festivals that allowed diplomats and officials to explore ideas, test options, take soundings, and tell jokes—all in an informal setting. Without informal relations, formal diplomacy is undermined.
China tends to use protocol as much to restrict and channel relations as to facilitate them—using segregated diplomatic compounds to isolate foreigners, imposing limitations on informal socializing, using large-scale formal banquets to circumscribe informal conversations. Modeled on the Soviet system, these banquets and ceremonies are lush, scripted productions that stymie spontaneity and individual forms of expression. Almost out of awareness of the absence of friendship, the Chinese government has the peculiar habit of formally designating certain individuals as lao pengyou, or “old friends.”
Isn’t the formal designation of a friend almost a self-negating assertion? In most societies, friendship is not a title to be awarded, but a status to be earned. If you have to be formally deemed a friend by a government spokesman, it is a pretty strong indication that the government does not have a concept of friendship. So China’s idea of a lao pengyou is meant as an honor bestowed by the government, but is likely to be perceived ironically or cynically by non-Chinese.
But let’s consider the contrary view. Don’t simple facts belie this theory? China has rapidly emerged on the world stage, established political and economic relations to broad success, joined and led international bodies. Over the past three decades since the start of Deng Xiaoping’s opening, China has perhaps enjoyed the greatest improvement in diplomatic stature in the world. And I know from personal experience that trade discussions with Chinese diplomats are not radically different than discussions with Japanese or Indian negotiators. So how bad can China be? All of these counterarguments are valid, at least to some extent. But much of China’s success is relative; it started from a low base. Only in the past decade or so has China been a major power. And only in the last decade has there been friction.
The Friendship Challenge in the United States
If the central lesson of Chinese history is the utility of power, the central lesson of U.S. history is the importance of coalitions, the ability to work with like-minded nations across a variety of political systems and cultures. This defined the U.S. approach to World War II and the Cold War and laid the foundation for a diplomacy that emphasizes consensus-building and outreach. But this style seems to have faded in recent years. The United States does not have the structural impediments of China, but its current political leadership seems to be skeptical of the intrinsic value of friendships. With a history of promoting democracy and human rights, supporting open trade and international institutions, how can the United States be viewed as unfriendly? What has changed?
When I served as U.S. Commerce Undersecretary under President George W. Bush, I had responsibility for the part of trade policy known as Trade Rules, which includes anti-dumping and countervailing duty actions. The trade dispute that occupied much of our attention was Canada softwood lumber, which had the unfortunate distinction of being the longest-running trade dispute in U.S. history. This issue attracted almost no attention in the United States outside of the affected parties, but it attracted front-page news coverage in Canada, where it was viewed as a sign of U.S. recalcitrance and even bad faith. It was in this context that Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper was visiting the White House and President Bush summoned me and U.S. Trade Representative Sue Schwab to the Oval Office for an update. I related the above details, and the President’s response was brief and categorical: Find a way to wrap this up. No sense delaying this, and I do not want this to fester when the Prime Minister visits.
The President was clear. The friendship with Canada was worth more than potentially prevailing on this issue. Many other countries would take a similar approach to policy formulation: Don’t pursue victory on an issue at the cost of a broader relationship. It isn’t enough to be friendly. We also needed to be friends. Could a U.S. government official make the same call today?
There are at least two changes in the intervening years. First, the populist mood in the United States uses grievances as an organizing principle—that foreigners have abused their relationships with the United States, and that it is to our benefit to reduce relationships with them. Second, President Trump seems to favor friction as a management and a communication tool, basing foreign policy around what he does not like rather than around a vision of America’s role in the world. Trump might be a master pianist, but there is apparently only one note on his piano. Indeed, Trump seems to view international behavior the way a Marxist views business behavior. Mutual benefit is impossible. The system itself is exploitative. Nominal goodwill is only camouflage for someone trying to beat you, so you need to beat them. There is more than one Wolf Warrior about.
There is a certain validity to the analysis of grievances. There are enormous benefits to friendships, as there are in personal life, but there can be costs as well. There can be abuse of a relationship, free-riders, even exploitation of trust. More challenging, the benefits can be latent and the costs can be immediate and noisy. Some countries will abuse friendship. There are NATO members who fail to meet minimal obligations. There are UN bodies that enjoy significant funding from the United States even though they are replete with mediocrity and tendentious behavior. These are lazy or even empty friendships.
So it is not a bad idea to tackle this set of problems. But criticizing false or empty friendships is not the same as building genuine friendships. Scorn is not a substitute for management.
China and the United States have both arrived at roughly the same position, albeit by different paths.
Leadership of both governments seemingly subscribe to the view that:
- interactions are transactional, not relational;
- a win-lose dynamic characterizes typical interactions, not win-win;
- the cost of friendship will exceed the benefits;
- showing flexibility in policy or accommodating other points of view can be seen as a weakness;
- what might be perceived as aggressive behavior internationally will be met with approval in domestic political circles.
Thus the decision to attach less value to friendships is not because these countries are led by difficult personalities, but because alternative approaches seem to be easier to achieve or seem to produce better results.
Are there any exceptions to this bleak analysis? Many U.S. Presidents had rapport with world leaders, and Chinese leaders such as Deng Xiaoping were also able to strike a resonance. There has frequently been mutual respect, if not warmth or trust. But we are now in an era in which Chinese and American leaders rise almost exclusively through their domestic credentials rather than their international reach. Presidents Obama and Trump proudly proclaimed that they would do less overseas, and the Chinese leadership can be even more adamant in their domestic focus. Just as China and the United States would benefit from better international reach, they fall short.
The chief difference in circumstance is that American history suggests this is an aberrational moment, driven by a personality, whereas China’s challenge is systemic. Additionally, the United States has an established international role, whereas China is still in the process of definition. This creates a paradox whereby China will continue to push its policies through public assertions, because it is the easier and safer course, even as such an approach redounds to China’s long-term detriment (and the world’s as well).
It might just be that the country most hostile to the rise of China is China. And the country that most effectively undermines the U.S. role in the world is the United States.