A recent Pew Research Center global survey revealed that attitudes toward China have drastically darkened in a number of countries, sinking to all-time lows in an array of nations such as Canada, Germany, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Xi himself didn’t fare any better. Though his image around the world is still a bit better than Trump’s, a median of 78 percent of respondents said they had little or no confidence that Xi would do the right thing in global affairs, a sharp spike from 61 percent in 2019. In almost all of the 14 countries included in the report, negative opinion of Xi reached the highest levels on record. With Joe Biden about to become the next U.S. president, Xi may have lost any chance of fixing his mistakes, and the consequences for China’s role in the world could be huge.

This disaster underscores how China’s political system is ill-suited for the role of global superpower. Beijing is undoubtedly more powerful than it was in January 2017, when Trump entered the Oval Office, yet what is perhaps not fully understood is how much stronger it could have been. Power is about more than simply military might, financial leverage, or economic size—it includes the exertion of a softer form of influence, whereby countries follow a hegemon’s example not because they are forced to, but because they want to. A pillar of Pax Americana has been the ideals it has traditionally promoted, including free speech and free trade, that appealed to other societies…

The problem is that China’s leadership is too consumed by domestic concerns, and too insecure in its standing at home and abroad, to allow its diplomats to do their jobs with the deftness and flexibility to exploit opportunities. That means China will struggle to take over the role the United States has played in the world for the past seven decades.