The Sino-American clash has been escalating and some commentators claim the arrival of “Cold War 2.0.” Some scholars argue that this competition will reveal the answer to a fundamental question: political capitalism versus liberalism capitalism. In contrast, some realist experts foresee Thucydides’ trap, where the current dominant power takes pre-emptive measures against the rising one.
However, it seems that all of these theories ignore one simple fact: that global influence is the natural extension of domestic strength rather than a deliberate and excessive overstretch. Without the underpinning of internal vigor, overextending external power may not be sustainable over the long term.
There isn’t any zero-sum game between a country’s primacy and its people’s well-being, because it is the people’s welfare that guarantees and nurtures a nation’s supremacy and in return, a country’s superiority promotes people’s well-being. The co-existence and complementarity of both can be managed.
Unfortunately, the US is choosing to assert its dominance through battling against China but putting less emphasis on the needs of its own people. Washington’s recent mishandling of Covid-19 is the quintessence of this attention imbalance.
Bill Kristol, an American political analyst, has commented, “In Australia, with a spike to 13 Covid deaths a day, the government declares a disaster and imposes emergency restrictions in Melbourne.” In contrast, in the US, “with a surge to 1,200 Covid deaths a day, the president goes golfing” – and, of course, keeps provoking China.
It is understandable that the showman President Donald Trump should be denounced for his disastrous crisis mismanagement. But is it all his fault?
Both Western and Eastern intellectuals agree that it isn’t ideologies or political systems that matter in the governance of a pandemic, but functioning public services and domestic institutions are the game-changers.
Niall Ferguson, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, has argued that Trump “isn’t really supposed to micromanage our response to a predictable event like a pandemic, instead calling the response a failure of the bureaucracy in the US government,” where federal agencies and public health officials should also be accountable.
Academic Brian Kim has observed that “the legal instruments that shape America’s toolkit in a public health emergency are strikingly unspecific.” More directly, Wendell Potter, a former communications director at the insurance giant Cigna, said that because of its high costs, “the health-care system in the United States is built for the elite,” either the politically influential or economically wealthy.
Presumably, with improved health care, fewer Americans would have died because of Covid-19. However, according to American economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, the US is the only major developed country in which the real incomes of the bottom half of the working class have dropped for 30 years.
As political scientist Bruno Maçães has pointed out, the US is home to “crumbling and outdated infrastructure, which went in half a century from awing foreign visitors to making them wonder if they had in fact landed in the right country.”
That said, as the only superpower in the world, where has America’s cash gone? In 2019, the US spent more on defense than the next 10 countries combined, accounting for around half of total discretionary spending.
Former Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani has written, “If America had disbursed the roughly $5.4 trillion it spent on post-9/11 wars in the Middle East and Central Asia on its own people instead, each member of the bottom 50% of the population would have received a check for more than $33,000.”
Mahbubani notes that Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda Bilmes have said that if the money used on Iraq “had been spent on providing health care, it would have made a difference to hard-pressed middle-class families.”
Tragically, American people are, to some extent, paying with their lives for the myth of America of being an unrivaled shining city on a hill. A place of dreams should be increasing the people’s happiness rather than losing it if it is to keep the promise made two centuries ago.
The late US president Dwight Eisenhower’s seven-decade-ago alarm bell still rings today: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.… Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
However, power hubris, especially indulgence in the magnificence of historical and permanent victory, may be a sign of terminal decline.
Legal scholar Bruce Ackerman has said that in the past, Americans recognized that their political structure was imperfect, while currently, triumphalism has become dominant. The energy that had kept the American experiment alive may have dissipated.
History can be a reincarnation. The Soviet Union, the former rival of the US, wasted too much attention and national resources to fight against the US but rarely looked at itself, obscuring the seeds of its impending collapse. Similarly, the US may be consuming excessive momentum against China.
Washington might have already forgotten its late diplomat George Kennan’s admonition during the Cold War that the ultimate consequence would be determined by “the degree to which the United States can create among the peoples of the world generally the impression of a country … which is coping successfully with the problem of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a world power.”
In the end, as the Western philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Similarly, a Chinese poet of the late Tang dynasty, Du Mu, wrote that the later generations of the dynasty felt the impact of its failures, yet did not learn from the past, continuing the cycle of collapse.
When it comes to the balance between serving the people and showing off national power, history sees no difference and evolves in the same way, either in the West or the East.