Lenin may or may not have said that the capitalists would sell him the rope by which he would hang them, but the proverb is assigned to him for good reason. Any revolutionary who dreams of destroying the free-enterprise system can count on a valuable ally within the system itself, in the form of the capitalists’ own incorrigible naiveté. What Lenin might have said a century ago, Chinese president Xi Jinping can just as rightly say today.
Two events in early March tell the tale. As Xi arranged for the Chinese Communist Party to remove the term limits on his presidency, Donald Trump faced an uproar from the serried ranks of America’s pundits, economists, and establishment politicos for having dared propose steep tariffs on steel and aluminum in response to Chinese market-flooding practices. At the moment Xi afforded the West’s free-market idealists proof positive that decades of globalism had failed to turn the People’s Republic into anything like a liberal democracy, those idealists were busy assailing the American President for favoring our own country’s industry over our most dangerous rival’s.
To be sure, we are not simply selling the Chinese the steel they will use to win a war against us: Our suicidal liberals have instead, in effect, been selling them our very capacity to make steel. The justification for this supposedly lies in the benefit Americans derive from cheap consumer products, as if more flat-screen TVs are a good trade-off for industrial jobs, the strong working and middle classes they make possible, and the strategic advantages that accrue to a great manufacturing nation. It is not as though cause and effect are difficult to determine here: As China has absorbed manufacturing from the United States and elsewhere over the last 30 years, a new Chinese middle class has sprung up, and China has grown more militarily assertive, while strategically expanding her influence and leadership around the world through what we might quaintly still call “dollar diplomacy.” China is following a standard playbook here, the one that turned the U.S. and imperial Germany into industrial world powers in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Liberal globalists can no longer claim that integrating China into a worldwide market economy will lead the People’s Republic to evolve into a free country. That hypothesis has been put to the test and failed. The evidence from other experiments—from the postcommunist experiences of Russia and Eastern Europe—only serves to reinforce the conclusion: Globalism as it has been practiced since the end of the Cold War does not lead to a spontaneous and lasting outbreak of liberal democracy. This is not to say that trade never has a moderating effect on regimes; the weakness of the liberals’ case has always been its exaggeration and claims to universality. Trade can be politically as well as economically good without being, as liberals habitually make it out to be, the supreme good. The everything-or-nothing mentality of the liberals is the hallmark of an ideologue, and it goes far toward explaining their confused and shrill demands for absolute adherence to their program, even when adhering to it produces obviously poor results.
But if dreams of a democratic China are long gone now, a different kind of illusion today comforts liberals: the reassuring notion that Beijing simply benefits too much from the present global order to dream of disrupting it. As John Lukacs might say, this is true, but not true enough. China’s leaders take a long view of historical development; they are in no hurry to tip over the chessboard while they are winning. But the interplay of power between nations is not, like chess, a game of fixed rules: The rules change as players rise and fall. Under the current rules, set by the United States and her own liberal ruling class, China is accruing the means that will allow her to dictate a new game when the time comes—which, to be sure, may yet be decades from now. The myopic leadership class of the United States plans only in terms of an eternal present; elites elsewhere who look deeper into history understand that the order we know is not a permanent feature of human life: It has been remade before, and it will be remade again.
Americans have a habit of telling themselves triumphalist tales, and this is particularly true of liberals. The U.S. can indeed in one sense be said to have won the Cold War, but not because liberal democracy defeated Soviet communism. Rather, Soviet communism was defeated by its own victims, by the peoples of Eastern Europe and the USSR. A broader variation of the Cold War victory narrative is the idea that capitalism has conquered the world. One hears libertarians boast of how free markets have lifted billions out of poverty. This, too, is true, but not true enough. What has actually happened is that industrialism and certain elements of market economics, though hardly the pure system that libertarians insist upon for their own country, have primarily lifted billions out of poverty in countries whose regimes are characterized by high degrees of statism and nationalism, with China as the supreme example. What we call global capitalism has benefited a communist regime most of all. Perhaps this system should have another, more honest name.
The tariffs President Trump has proposed will not by themselves reverse the course of globalism. They may not even work for the limited purpose of aiding the American metals industry. The rules of the economic game, after all, are still for the most part those of globalism, and the strategies and institutional tools available to the administration are limited, all the more so given that Trump cannot count on support from Republican leaders in Congress. Nevertheless, the President has made an important psychological stand, showing that resistance to the suicidal impulse of globalism is possible. Americans and their government have a choice; they do not have to keep selling China the rope.