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China, the United States and the high stakes ahead

William A. Macdonald is a corporate lawyer-turned-consultant with a long history of public service and social engagement.

After six centuries of expanding freedom and technological development since the Renaissance, the West has weakened and provoked counterforces both within and beyond its borders. As it relinquishes its role as leader of an inclusive world order, drastic changes will test every country in the years ahead.

The world we have known since 1945 focused on fairness, peace and prosperity, supported by good jobs and economic security. By 2000, these ideals had given way to lesser visions, such as shareholder value and regime change. This consumer-driven society brings different policies and political battles to the fore as the effectiveness of the old policies declines. Postwar growth seems to have peaked, as have the central banks, free markets and government-sponsored social security programs it fostered. Only technology remains a big growth story; the rest will continue, but without the same potential for expansion.

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The year 2018 resembles 1945 in many important respects. In 1945, after 30 hellish years of two world wars, a global depression, a Holocaust and a Europe that almost committed suicide, the U.S.-led West advanced new visions, ideas and projects powerful enough to get a broad global consensus on the direction to follow, though without support from China, Russia and Iran. This momentum lasted for the rest of the 20th century and transformed the world – mostly for the better.

We need a comparable consensus now, though it must come from determination and skill, not war and economic decline.

Today’s rising power is China. Over its long history it created an impressive civilization, and it is emerging as a great country again. It has an important contribution to make as a world leader, though it still lags behind Western countries because of its limits on freedom and mutual-accommodation. Its social contract with its citizens is vulnerable because of its economy, which in turn is dependent on the global economy. Still, over the past few decades, China has built on the strengths of its historic achievements, bolstered by access to the U.S.-led economic order.

Over these same few years, American achievements have been undermined by overreach and underreach. The United States started withdrawing from overreach under Barack Obama but has since moved into disruptive disarray under President Donald Trump. He has an uncertain political future, and his goals are measured in hours, not decades. By contrast, China’s President Xi Jinping has a long view and a seemingly assured political future.

We need a multicountry approach led by the United States and China if we are to attain a world worth living in. The basics of the postwar Western approach still apply: Broaden the inclusive order within and between countries, and contain what cannot be included. Our first task is to find the political will and consensus for an orderly path forward in our closely connected world. It’s not possible for any country today to go it alone – mutual- accommodation is essential.

The West needs to focus on strengths, not weaknesses, and finding a renewed global order for all. Its strengths in politics, economics, resources and values are unmatched, as are its military power, alliances, sense of inclusiveness and capacity for change. Today, no other countries, ideas or civilizations can threaten the West. We are only threatened by our own inherent contradictions.

China and a deeply divided United States will make the decisive choices of our era. Can they find a grand plan that will create a peaceful, prosperous and inclusive global order that works? Ideally, they will discover a way to reduce terrorism, contain broken states and civil wars, abolish walls between countries and establish safe places for refugees.

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Mr. Xi seems to understand elements of the situation and believes he can look out for China, the Chinese Communist Party and himself in a reshaped global order. The West is still stronger than China, but its advantages are being undermined by centrifugal forces and populism. It must recognize that its strengths rest on five institutions: the rule of law; democratic ways; free markets; a robust media; and fear-free universities. The United States is floundering in Mr. Trump’s “no man’s land” as he bullies his enemies, threatens to withdraw from trade agreements and international deals, builds walls, blusters and contradicts himself, all in the name of making the American great again.

Faced with this crisis, the West would be wise to draw on Canada’s mutual-accommodating ways. We do what it takes to make things work, and every outcome is custom-made.

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