On October 30, 2018, former national security advisors Stephen Hadley and Susan Rice participated in a “fireside conversation” at the Brookings Institution to discuss U.S.-China relations. The event, part of the first major collaboration between the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School and the John L. Thornton Center at Brookings, and moderated by the Yale Center’s Director, Professor Paul Gewirtz, showcased the current views about the U.S.-China relationship from two of the leading foreign policy figures in the Democratic and Republican parties. Their service in the most senior foreign policy positions in our government spanned the sixteen years between 2001 and 2017, during the administrations of President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.
They expressed a substantial degree of agreement on current challenges and priorities. Both believe that the relationship with China has entered a new stage of significantly more competition and that the central challenge is to find effective ways to manage this more intense competition while also developing areas of cooperation. And they each enumerated a range of concrete steps to advance those goals in the time ahead.
Hadley said, “China is different today, the United States is different today. … The trick will be to recognize that a more competitive relationship need not result in confrontation or conflict. But it does need to be embedded in a set of principles and understandings that put some bounds on competition while at the same time allowing us to continue to cooperate with China on a whole host of issues … where it is in our interest to cooperate. I still believe that neither China nor the United States can achieve their vision for themselves and their own country if they don’t cooperate.”
Rice commented, “We are going to be in a greater degree of competition with China than we have been in the past. But I think that conflict is neither inevitable nor desirable. The risk I see is that we somehow decide that conflict is necessary and we get ourselves on a path that is dangerous and reckless. … We are going to need to compete, and we are going to need to manage that competition so that it doesn’t spiral out of control. We also will need to find areas for cooperation, and to maximize those areas that are in our mutual interests.”
President López Obrador's extension of the term of Supreme Court chief Arturo Zaldívar is part of his strong effort to recentralize power in the Mexican presidency and hollow out the independence and power of other Mexican institutions. His other moves to bend the justice system to his will include a reform that lowered the salary of judges but did not improve the quality of prosecutors and his unwillingness to allow an independent selection of the attorney general, with López Obrador himself retaining the power of appointment. His latest move with the two-year extension of Zaldívar’s term is especially worrisome. Zaldívar is also the president of the powerful Federal Judiciary Council. The council appoints and dismisses judges, sets career advancement rules and disciplines judges. Zaldívar will be setting the council’s and, thus, the whole judiciary’s, agenda and priorities for two years. This allows López Obrador to influence how courts will rule in cases regarding the executive branch, what cases they take up and the legality of new policies. These moves are taking place when the effectiveness of the judiciary in Mexico remains limited and deeply concerning. The attorney general’s office has proven weak, unwilling to take up key cases such as against the suspects in the brazen attack on Mexico City’s security minister, Omar García Harfuch—an event that symbolized the impunity with which Mexican criminal groups operate. Mexico’s justice system showed itself equally meek and disappointing in inadequately investigating the alleged complicity of former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos and dismissing the case, potentially the most significant case of corruption and criminal collusion charges against a high-ranking Mexican official in two decades. A decade and a half after Mexico initiated its justice system reforms, 95 percent of federal cases still go unpunished. President López Obrador has scored some points, but the already precariously weak rule of law in Mexico, and thus the Mexican people, will suffer.