The issue of the day - as clearly framed at the March 18-19 meeting of top U.S. and Chinese and officials in Anchorage - is whether China's ascendency over the past four decades is matched by an inevitable decline of the United States. The New York Times professed in 2012, that the centralized authority of the Chinese planning system was superior to messy Western democratic capitalism, and a quick Google of "Chinese System Superiority" provides a flood of similar sentiment today. The tone of Chinese Foreign Affairs Commissioner in his 20 minute attack was reminiscent of Nikita Khruschev's "we will bury you; your children will live under communism" rant in 1956. Whereas Russia had a relatively small population and an economy based heavily on oil, gas, and wheat. China has more than four times our population and a diverse, robust manufacturing economy. The implications for American primacy are worth contemplating.
Those of us born in the United States around the end of World War II have enjoyed an unusual period in world history, with one country representing about 5% of the world's population, setting up the management structure and writing the rules - particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 80's. We have occasionally found limits - the Vietnam War; the 2008 economic crisis - and we have relied on allies - particularly western Europe, Japan, the British Commonwealth, South Korea - but it has been our game. We have run the international banking system and enjoyed the global currency; English is the de facto international language (for civil aviation for example); when things go wrong we have deployed our overwhelming military strength. American companies have dominated the age of the internet. Our farmers feed much of the world. At the moment this legacy remains ours, but the Chinese have overtaken us in patents issued and will soon in Gross Domestic Product (although we remain far ahead per capita.) With this competitor we will need to bring our "A Game"
The editors of the Wall Street Journal are fearful that, despite a hostile assessment of China and some rhetoric matching the perspective of the Trump administration, Team Biden (with many of the same players) will revert the Obama administration's feeble response to challenges from Russia (Crimea; eastern Ukraine), China (cyber attacks; intellectual property theft), and Iran (Suleimani's local wars; the nuclear deal on which the WSJ believes that John Kerry was "fleeced".) Beyond some specific decisions and rhetoric, there are a few things to watch to see if what results will be China achieving near parity with a still vibrant America or whether our paths are going in the opposite directions.
1. Whether our politicians and our thought leaders can objectively analyze strengths, weaknesses, and recent events. The Trump administration cleaned up the mess that it inherited in the Middle East, and shifted the national attention to China with a major emphasis on trade - a subject of central importance to the Chinese and leverage for us. The fact that trade was a Trump focus cannot be allowed to put it off limits for the Biden administration. The fact that Trump was more active than recent presidents in supporting Taiwan should not result in a retreat by Team Biden.
2. Whether we can end our flurry of woke self-flagellation that has been driven by several high profile killings of Black males by police and the NYT-driven narrative that our society has always been racist and sexist. Chinese propaganda draws heavily on Black Lives Matter talking points and stresses the moral bankruptcy of the imperialist West. US advocates need to move beyond "consciousness raising" to proposing solutions. The American model is the embodiment of Enlightenment thinking; generations of legal immigrants have come here successfully seeking liberty and opportunity; we are a "Work in Progress", but far superior to the dehumanizing, centralized control model of the Han Chinese. If we are to remain the world leader, we need to have confidence in our principles.
3. Whether we can get control of our mushrooming debt. The self-absorbed Baby Boomers (ages 57 to 75) and Millenials (ages 41 to 56) have discovered that they can have guns, butter, and low taxes by passing on the bill to Generations X, Y, and Z. The Coronavirus relief bills have provided a break with the traditional American values of fiscal discipline and personal responsibility. We have crossed over from debating how low personal taxes should go to debating how high government payments should be for people who are not working - and whether there should be any work requirements at all. Now comes the Infrastructure Bill spending with some investments which will have a long term benefits, but with many which are liberal wish lists of government expansions such as child care and free community college. If we are willing to trade off a bit of growth for higher taxes on corporations, that could be a rational decision, but more unfunded spending on social programs will sink us when that day eventually comes.
And then there is the problem of Joe Biden whose mental health has held up better than expected in his first few months in office. There is a reason that Xi Jinping is asking to meet with him despite Biden calling him a thug, and there is a reason that Vladimir Putin has proposed a debate with Biden despite Biden calling him a murderer. And then there's Hunter .... Leadership matters also.
This week's subject seemed to call for an old favorite from Bob Dylan.
Bill Bowen - 4/1/2021