Great powers, the global economy, and America’s changing role
Watch the UVA Democracy Biennial
The Biennial was originally broadcast September 24-25, 2021
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May 21, 2019
John Negroponte, Bob Rubin, Ann Compton (moderator)
By Christopher Tyree
Around the globe, democracy is under threat. Global alliances have weakened while nationalism and populism are on the rise. But Robert Rubin, former secretary of the treasury under President Bill Clinton, and John Negroponte, former ambassador to the United Nations and Schlesinger Distinguished Professor at the Miller Center, saw one key to renewed stability in an unlikely place.
“When you look at the transnational threats, climate change, nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction, pandemics and all the rest, they can be catastrophic," said Rubin. "None of us are big enough or strong enough to deal with by themselves. I think the best chance we have is to develop a constructive relationship with China but we are clearly not on that path at the moment.”
The Sino-American relationship must assume primacy in U.S. foreign affairs, both men agreed, but in recent weeks President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping have traded economic tariffs, escalating a trade war that has already shaken global markets.
“For eight consecutive presidencies, relationship with China was kind of a win-win, positive sum relationship. That’s the way that president’s chose to view it. And it took leadership to assert that,” said Negropnte. “I think there are ways to working this issue on a basis of some kind of mutual respect and partnership rather than just automatically going right to the adversarial alternative—the adversarial default position, if you will, which seems to be the tendency at the moment.”
“One thing that is certain, is that the 21st century will be very different if we have a constructive relationship as opposed to an adversarial relationship. We have an imperative self interest, and an economic as well, in working together,” added Rubin.
The two statesmen also linked a prosperous and equitable American economy to foreign policy success. “We need to get our own economic policy house in order because unless we’re successful economically then we can’t accomplish anything we want to do, including developing a new peer to peer, constructive relationship with China," said Negroponte. "I think we have done almost nothing to deal with the policy issues that will determine whether or not we will succeed in the years and decades ahead.”
"We are not on a sustainable path," said Rubin. "What is our immense problem is our inability to function effectively as a government to deal with the many, many, many issues that are critically important to both the function of our economy and the social safety nets in dealing with inequality, wage stagnation, et cetera.
"We are behaving like the big bully in the street and we are going to sanction all the people we disagree with," he continued. "I think that’s not going to work. It creates animus towards us for the long run and I think it makes us unreliable partners in agreements. I think we are positioning ourselves very badly, both now and in the long term. I think we should be reaching out to work with other countries and the use of sanctions should be the rare exception rather than what seems to be now almost the centerpiece of our foreign policy.”
Because economic turmoil can make democracies unstable and lead citizens to question the system itself, Negroponte believes that civic education is critical in times of stress: “Democracy can’t exist unless each citizen takes it upon him or herself to actually be knowledgeable about the kinds of issues and problems that we’re dealing with. We desperately need to strengthen the interest in and the commitment to educating our citizenry in civic topics.
“The question is, can you really have an effective democracy in a society with 330 to 340 million people? It's a challenge but I think we have to be able to do it.”
Key quotes from this session
When you look at the transnational threats, climate change, nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction, pandemics and all the rest, they can be catastrophic. None of us are big enough or strong enough to deal with by themselves and I don’t think the international institutions [John] the U.N. and the Brenton Woods, etcetera I don’t think they are particularity effective to begin with and I think that’s diminished from that baseline. I think the best chance we have is to develop a constructive relationship with China but we are clearly not on that path at the moment. —Bob Rubin
One thing that is certain, is that the 21st century will be very different if we have a constructive relationship as opposed to an adversarial relationship [with China]—Bob Rubin
I think it has to start with the administration in our country that is committed to the concept of a constructive relationship based on our mutual self interest. Then you reach out to China to see if they are receptive. —Bob Rubin
I think our relationship with China is so critically important because if the two of us together can work on these issues then you have a real force. —Bob Rubin
You know how Mr. Trump is. He’ll make statements very controversial then back off of them over time. —John Negroponte
Intelligence is not a panacea. It is the best available information that we can obtain and then the best available analysis that you can apply to whatever it is you collect. Then what it helps you do is narrow the level of uncertainty. —John Negroponte
I think the global order will not work. I don't think we will have an effective transnational approach to climate change and nuclear weaponry. I don’t think we will have a successful global economy unless the United States is strong and effective economically and then reaches out on a multilateral basis to work with the rest of the world. It doesn’t mean that we'll be the hegemony anymore because we’re not. We need to recognize that China will be a peer. —Bob Rubin
Maybe our position in relative terms is somewhat different today because of the rise of China. We are still a heck of a strong country. Both the economy, the size of our military budget, the capabilities of our military which are unparalleled and the strength of many of our social institutions like our university systems which is still the envy of the world. —John Negroponte
In the world we have today, the majority of American people aren’t benefiting from the economic growth we have. —Bob Rubin