Public diplomacy is perception. Remarkably—and, unthinkably, as recently as one year ago—today China seems to be the world’s most likeable superpower.
Compare Donald Trump’s recent visit to Europe with that of Premier Li Keqiang, China’s second-in-command. Li, who landed in Berlin on Wednesday, hoped to use his three-day trip, with stops in Germany and Belgium, to “voice support for an open economy, free trade and investment [and] global regional peace and stability,” according to China’s state news wire Xinhua. Trump, on the other hand, failed to support NATO, decried Germany as “very bad” for its trade policies, and even seemingly pushed aside Montenegro’s prime minister to barrel his way to the front of a group photo. On Thursday, Li reaffirmed China’s support for the Paris Agreement, stating that there is an “international responsibility” to fight climate change. Later on Thursday, Trump announced the United States would exit the landmark climate-change treaty. In that speech, Trump reaffirmed his commitment to his “America First,” policy, while Li, in his meetings and speeches in Europe, successfully painted China as a liberal, responsible, globalist power.
Yet in this case, perception is not reality. China is an illiberal, authoritarian nation, run by the Communist Party for the last 68 years. The United States, for all its faults, is a far more natural partner for most of the world’s countries. It’s a stable, multiparty democracy with a healthy, developed system of alliances, decades of experience in global intervention, and a proud tradition of defending both human rights (in words, if not always in action) and free trade. China is none of these things. But because of Trump’s shambolic presidency, a series of disastrous foreign-policy decisions, and Beijing’s concerted push to peel away U.S. allies, it currently seems to be winning the global battle for hearts and minds.