US President Joe Biden delivers his Inauguration speech after being sworn in as the 46th US president on January 20, 2021, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP / Patrick Semansky / Pool

Since the inauguration of US President Joe Biden, many experts have presented an ex-ante assessment of the new administration. These assessments appear to aggregate a very cautiously optimistic outlook.

The projections consider the most pressing challenges facing the new administration both at home and abroad. Some of the global challenges are gigantic in proportions, although, these challenges are only symptoms of a single underlying problem.

The central problem at the heart of America’s top global challenge is redeeming democracy. The apparent end to liberal democracy is in reality an existential threat to the US and, by extension, the Western way of life as we know it.

China, by official definition, is the primary challenge facing the United States. There are many aspects to the challenge posed by Beijing’s “wolf warriors.” 

As recent statements indicate, these mostly entail China’s increasing strategic assertiveness, manipulative trade and financial practices, disrespect for intellectual property, abysmal human-rights record and a general lack of regard for established rules of the game.

The United States, in comparison, created these rules, and remains to this day their main protector and patron. It is assumed that it is in the best interest of the US to perpetuate these rules, strengthen the many institutions these rules helped create, and thereby preserve the global order that keeps Americans at the top.

The fact that the US also never hesitated to discard these rules whenever expedient is not lost on the “revisionists” of the world. Regardless, China is anathema to the free world, so we are told.

China has continued to rise as a great power and, with its rise, increasing discussions of a neo-Cold War have continued to animate academic and policy circles in the US. Some even whisper their fears of a possible militarized conflict between the two great powers.

Out of academia, the question reverberates to the world at large: Will the US go to war with China to prevent its further rise? Will they actually fall victim to the Thucydides trap? Some suggest that these passionate discussions are just reflections of paranoia and innate weakness of a great power in decline.

A sizable majority in academia believes the US-China competition is unlikely to result in an outright war because of their mutual economic dependence. But some in academia also believed in the “end of history” and the “triumph of liberal democracy” some 30 years ago.

One of political science’s sore moments as a discipline was its inability to predict the fall of the Soviet Union. Another failure was to predict how populist leaders could turn democracy to fascism. If the last four years have taught nothing about the fragility of this optimism, I wonder what will.

China’s increasing belligerence is symptomatic of its eagerness to take over the role of the next hegemon. Hard power is a function of military and economic might. China’s economy is already the second-largest in the world, tailgating the US. And it is still booming compared with the exhausted US economy, which needs a serious kick to pick up again. The Chinese economy is set to overtake the US economy before the end of the decade, maybe even sooner.

The Chinese were already a formidable ground power 70 years ago during the Korean War. The sheer technology gap in maritime and air power, though, kept them lagging for decades. But China has been catching up fast in recent years, and it will overtake the US sooner rather than later. It is sure to surpass US primacy on all accounts.

The passionate academic discussions about the growing great-power competition lack attention to America’s diminishing credibility. The last four years have displayed America’s political dysfunction for everyone to witness, as Shlomo Ben-Ami, former Israeli foreign minister, has rightly concluded.

The real damage Donald Trump’s presidency has done is to show the world how overrated and vulnerable democracy really is. The United States’ oldest and closest allies are now as unsure about America’s commitments as are its adversaries in Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere. The challenge to democracy in America today is not singularly American, but for Americans it has surely come home full circle.

The US never cared about democracy abroad. It invaded and bombed countries in the name of democracy when it was expedient. At the same time, it found no moral contradiction in propping up dictators and directly dealing with rogue militaries the world over.

America’s dealings with dictators and violators of human rights across the world continues to affect its reputation negatively as a serious leader. America’s decline now as the global hegemon coincides with the decline of the democratic enterprise the world over. The global tide of democratization has reversed and America’s credibility has suffered too much to stop this backsliding.

The Chinese on the other hand are here to stay, and they mean business. The rise of China is not just a young power taking over, but in essence a very different power.

The Chinese are living proof that greatness is achievable without democracy. They provide a credible, serious alternative to the Western version of the good life.

For the aging new US president, the apparent end of liberal democracy compounds the strategic challenge posed by China. The US is running out of both time and options to prevent itself from becoming the power that was.

There are only two likelihoods from here on, and the likelier of the two leads to history’s trap. Whether Francis Fukuyama calls America’s current dilemma “the end of liberal democracy” remains to be seen.

Bilal Khan

Bilal Khan is pursuing a PhD program at the University of North Texas. He studies civil-military relations, democratization, political violence, conflict and war.