America’s Retreat, Fragile Democracies and the Flaws of Chinese Leadership
Giuliano Amato 15 July 2020

This text, edited by ResetDoc and reviewed by the author, follows up on reflections that arose during this year’s Venice Seminars, which were closed by a high-level roundtable on the evolving international scenario after the Covid-19 pandemic.


Today we are faced with the prospect of possible Chinese global leadership, replacing that of the United States in past decades.

This seems feasible above all because the Chinese economy is growing and could soon become the first one in the world, depending on the outcome of the Covid-19 pandemic. Furthermore, China is also building up its military power. The historian Paul Kennedy has said as much in the soon to be published new edition of his most famous book, referring to the naval power China is acquiring, a reminder of how in past centuries British hegemony and that of the United States were such also on the seas.

Personally, however, I do not believe that this will be enough. Being at the very top of one or more sectors does not necessarily mean being the leader. American leadership certainly availed itself of economic and military primacy – and the United States still has the greatest military force in the world – but to lead the world one must be in a position to guide it towards something.

Now it is undeniable that with all its contradictions the United States was the country that embodied freedom against its opposite, first against Nazism becoming the decisive factor in defeating it in World War II and then later against Communism.

Giuliano Amato is a Judge of Italy’s Constitutional Court and a former Italian Prime Minister

I am well-aware that there is a dark side to American hegemony, one that does not remotely coincide with the American dream, ranging from the manu militari with which the United States tried to export democracy to reactionary coups d’état, as in Chile, supported and perhaps enabled by the United States in order to fight the Communist risk. It has been in the name of freedom that freedom has often been denied. For decades, however, the United States added a surplus to this dark side, thanks to which it has been a leader for the world.

What is certain is that today this surplus has vanished. The United States has started to stop looking after others so that its best ideals might overcome, increasingly thinking of itself, and if one observes the current administration one sees that – as Richard Haass has written – it now practices a “withdrawal doctrine”. In fact, there is no international organisation from which Washington has not distanced itself from in one way or another, thereby avoiding the creation of common policies. Its leadership has vanished for the moment and it is not known whether it will ever be resumed. But it is precisely in this sense that China clearly lacks that extra something needed to become the new leader, in addition to economic and military power. To this one could add questions concerning future domestic scenarios, such as what would China become if the Communist Party leading the country were to vanish and which explosion of ethnic and religious minorities in addition to other elements would end up characterising the country. To these questions one must also add some regarding the risks that the current pandemic presents for the global power of China’s economy.

The conclusions I currently tend to share are therefore those concerning a world marked by powerful unrest that we may perhaps be capable of containing, without, however, being able to rely on solidly established leadership. The new balances are therefore rather new imbalances, also marked by difficulties experienced not only by the United States, but also Europe and the entire West. These are issues that affect the very physiognomy of these countries, since they are historical expressions of liberal democracy. In fact, they are still suffering the consequences of the long economic and financial crisis that began in 2008, which has greatly increased internal inequalities, creating tension caused by the loss not only of income, but also of future prospects to the detriment of very many members of our societies’ lower middle classes. That is how the social democratic compromise on which the second half of the 20th century had built stability and balance – and thus the strength of liberal democracy – fell apart. In fact, the question that arises in these countries, following the 2008-2012 crisis, is whether the conditions that allowed that compromise during the last century are still repeatable and what would happen if they were not.

What is certain is that there is no longer an America capable of implementing a Marshall plan and there are no development prospects comparable to those of the “glorious thirty years” following World War II, nor are there any more social democratic parties in Western European countries, strongly rooted in the lower middle classes and thereby legitimatised to successfully achieve the results that at the time had led to the welfare state and greater equality.

Protests now prevail and these protests are aimed not only against inequalities as such, but also against all previous elites that did not prevent us from reaching the current situation. Our countries’ political and social fabric is changing and populist parties are taking root, opposing all that comes from the exterior with a strong propensity for illiberal democracy as Fareed Zakaria calls it and as Viktor Orbán theorizes and practices it today in Hungary.

This state of affairs should not be overdramatized as if all were forever lost, because should the economy manage to restore prospects, if not equal at least similar to those that allowed social democratic compromise in the 20th century, a lot of ground would fall away from under the feet of the advocates of illiberal democracy.

And I must say that it is striking how after the 2008-2012 crisis, not only a few solitary preachers but also the CEOs of leading American corporations advocated the principle of multidimensional welfare as the north star that must replace the exclusive interest of shareholders in company life: companies must return to put themselves at society’s service instead of doing the opposite as in the past. One could have once believed that only the Pope would express such opinions, but nowadays many do. Then there is the issue that is becoming a matter of life and death: the environment. There are many who dislike Greta, but she is absolutely right and it is no coincidence that a Swedish teenager has managed to attract thousands and thousands of young followers in so many different countries all over the world. She has succeeded because she posed a problem that needs to be resolved quickly so that instead of destroying the planet, the economy will become part of the solution and use energy resources as well as others for manufacturing that does not further damage our chances to live on this small and now overheated planet.

Both economists and politicians must embark upon a complex and difficult task. Can China discover in this task the reasons that are, for the moment, preventing it from being perceived as a leader? China is changing and is proving to be increasingly environmentalist and, when it wants to, its authoritarian regime can make fast decisions. But will that be enough to ensure it seems better than democratic regimes just because it may have a faster decision-making process?

The Covid-19 pandemic has proved that the Chinese regime can be a faster decision-maker if it decides to be. If, however, it decides not to be quick, it can cause irreparable damage without any free voice obliging it to avoid or at least reduce a delay.

In short, I believe that there is scope for recovering the strength of liberal democracies and their ability to create social cohesion thanks to a social ladder which will once again become a mobile one and thanks to policies that are in the interests of the majority and not just the interests of a few. Of course I know what the downside of what I am saying is: is it possible that democracy is after all a regime that works in times of plenty but does not work in lean years? There is no unambiguous answer, but we certainly know that what is currently being experienced proves that in lean years the diseases that democracy produces from within weaken it, even if history has not yet proved that they destroy it (Weimar alone is not enough as an example).

The question, however, is a legitimate one, as is the one concerning the suitability of authoritarian regimes to act more quickly and effectively than democratic systems, often paralyzed and exposed to conflicting powers in search of votes. Faced with this doubt, and with a direct issue such as the environmental one, the issue of hegemony, real Chinese leadership as well as all the changes that could arise in international relations cannot be excluded. It would be dishonest to exclude it, although it would be no less dishonest to take this for granted.

Taking all this into account, the effects of the lockdown and the epidemic are really a totally open book. On the one hand, the economies almost ruined by the long pause could result in an explosion of dissatisfaction and rage even greater than the one that provided initial impulse to populist parties, with even more serious consequences for the stability of liberal democracies. On the other hand, however, it may also happen that the downward curve of the economies does not reach that point and that the extraordinary measures that liberal democracies themselves have been able to take this time to protect even the poorest, may manage to avoid the explosion. And if the economy were then to recover at a pace equal to that of its descent, then it may be that this drive could set our societies back on track.

Finally, we must not absolutize Trump’s America. I have always considered it superficial to absolutize the present without grasping the prospects for change that are always present in history. I know full well that the change in America’s role in the world had already started with Obama. I am well aware that Obama’s great speech in Cairo already contained the United States’ partial withdrawal, even though this was a withdrawal that did not go against multilateralism, but instead relied on it and on the commitment of others to play their part in a context of collective leadership that was called for and that is perhaps still the most in accordance with future prospects. Of course Obama will not be the next president of the United States, but there could in any case be someone who differs from Trump. This too must be taken into account so as not to end today’s editorial with the most disquieting question as the only idea left in the minds of our readers.


Photo: Michele Eve Sandberg / AFP

If you liked our analyses, stories, videos and dossiers, follow us on Facebook and Twitter and share our contents.

To get all of the latest, sign up for our newsletter (twice a month)



Please consider giving a tax-free donation to Reset this year

Any amount will help show your support for our activities

In Europe and elsewhere
(Reset DOC)

In the US
(Reset Dialogues)