From recent global summits, contrasting messages from the leaders of China and the US clearly define the two schools of international relations — “me first” versus “we first.”
The “me first” school consists of a majority of one, namely the United States of America. President Donald Trump summarizes the principle of this school simply as America first.
In the world of “me first,” the US makes the rules and the rest follow. If there are exceptions to the rules, only the US gets to make and take them. All the followers must be content to play second fiddle.
One unmistakable example that boggles any reasonable mind is the Trump declaration: “We are going to build the wall and you [Mexico] are going to pay for it.”
Many nations find ‘we first’ a sensible option
China has been vocal in promoting the “we first” school of international relations but they are not the only voice. Leaders from many other nations find the “we first” idea sensible and have joined in support of its principles.
“We first” means let us build bridges, pave highways and lay high-speed rail together because we know infrastructure improvements will be good for the economies of those involved.
The principle of fairness undergirding the concept of “we first” is why most countries have signed on.
Nobody has to play second fiddle and there is no conductor calling the shots. Every member-nation belongs to the community of “we first” countries. The principle of fairness undergirding the concept of “we first” is why most countries have signed on.
The railroad in Kenya built with Chinese help is an example of “we first” in practice. Kenyans laid the tracks with the assistance of technical advisers from China and were trained in track maintenance.
The new railroad replaced the old line between Mombasa and Nairobi built in the colonial era. Chinese trained the locals as conductors and engineers. The Chinese also helped to select and design stations along the major economic lifeline of Kenya to maximize the benefits of the new railway.
China has included the Kenya project in its ambitious Belt Road Initiative. To facilitate and expand the scope of such BRI projects around the world, China created the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank to finance selected projects.
In the first 18 months, AIIB has provided more than US$4.6 billion spread among a dozen countries and entities. Interestingly, India has been the largest recipient with nearly 20% of all AIIB funding.
‘We first’ nations ignore Washington warnings
But the bank did not suit the American “me first” policy and the Obama administration actively advised second-fiddle nations to stay away. In this case, nearly every major nation ignored Washington and jumped to become a member.
Leading the charge into AIIB was the UK with then-prime minister David Cameron. That was before Brexit. Since Brexit, Cameron as a private citizen has brokered a private-equity fund to invest in Belt Road projects.
Given Britain’s likely economic isolation after Brexit takes effect, current Prime Minister Theresa May is understandably eager to strike a free-trade pact with China. Yet during a three-day visit to Beijing this week, she was reluctant to endorse BRI.
Some say May is being pressured by Trump not to endorse BRI. A “me first” nation simply doesn’t have room for a “we first” community of nations.
It’s not as if Trump doesn’t understand the importance of a first-rate infrastructure. He has asked Congress for US$1.5 trillion to upgrade America’s failing infrastructure.
Where will the funds come from? Easy. From the printing presses of the Federal Reserve. What about nations that follow the “me first” nation if they need assistance? Sorry, you second fiddles are out of luck.
US ‘big-stick’ threat aimed at defiant countries
How does the US keep the followers in line if not with lending an economic hand? With the world’s largest arsenal of weapons and military might, that’s how. Lately, the Trump White House has been hinting that even a preemptive nuclear strike is an option.
Obviously, the two schools of international relations are not in conflict and can co-exist. Countries can belong to both schools. A good example is India which looks to the US as a counterweight but also works with China for their participation in infrastructure spending.
However, there will come a day when the “we first” nations have so many members all intertwined in cross investments and overlapping interests. They would no longer feel that their security is tied to the fortunes of the “me first” nation.