Chinese are educated in national pride; increasingly the opposite of what goes on in our own schools and universities. And Chinese are extraordinarily efficient, with a manic attention to detail. Individuals are certainly more concrete than the mass. But that does not mean national traits simply do not exist. I have flown around China on domestic airlines with greater ease and comfort than I could ever imagine flying around America at its airports. And that is to say nothing about China’s bullet trains.
Of course, there are all sorts of political and social tensions inside China. And the unrest among the middle classes we see today in Brazil and the rest of Latin America could well be a forerunner to what we will see in China in the 2020s, undermining Belt and Road and the whole Chinese imperial system altogether. China’s over-leveraged economy may well be headed for a hard, rather than a soft, landing, with all the attendant domestic upheaval which that entails. I have real doubts about the sustainability of the Chinese political and economic model. But the last thing American policymakers or strategists should assume is that somehow we are superior to the Chinese, or worse: that somehow we have a destiny that they do not.
WE HAVE entered a protracted struggle with China, which hopefully will not be violent at certain junctures. And it may become more dangerous precisely because China could weaken internally due to economic upheavals, causing its leaders to dial up nationalism as a default option. It will be a struggle (or war) of integration rather than of separation. Throughout the human past, wars have seen an army from one place and an army from another place meet somewhere in the middle to give battle. However, in the cyber age, we are all operating inside the same operating environment, so that computer networks can attack each other without armies ever meeting or even blood being shed. The Russian attempt to influence our politics is an example of war by integration, which could not have existed even two decades ago. The information age has added to the possibilities for warfare rather than subtracted from it. The enemy is only a click away, rather than hundreds of miles away. And because weapons systems require guidance from satellites, outer space is now a domain for warfare, just as the seas became once the Portuguese and Spanish had begun the Age of Exploration. Every age of warfare has its own characteristics. Increasingly, warfare has become less physical and more mental: the more obsessively driven the culture, the better suited it will be for mid-twenty-first-century cyber warfare. If that seems offensive to the reader, remember that the future lies inside the silences—inside the things we are most uncomfortable talking about.
In functional and historical terms, this will be an imperial struggle, though our elites both inside and outside government will forbid use of the term. The Chinese will have an advantage in this type of competition as they have a greater tradition in empire building than we do, and they are not ashamed of it as we have become. They openly hark back to their former dynasties and empires to justify what they are doing; whereas our elites can hark back less and less to our own past. Westward expansion, rather than the heroic saga portrayed by mid-twentieth-century American historians, is now often taught as a tale of genocide against the indigenous population and nothing more—even though without conquering the West, we never would have had the geopolitical and economic capacity to win World War I, World War II and the Cold War.
Moreover, the Chinese have demonstrated an ability to quickly adapt, which is the key to Darwinian evolution: the continual changes that they are making to their Belt and Road model are an example of this.
The Chinese also have more capable leadership than we do.
Undeniably, our post-Cold War presidents have been dramatically inferior to our Cold War presidents in terms of thinking strategically about foreign affairs. Bill Clinton was not altogether serious about foreign policy, especially at the beginning of his presidency; George W. Bush was in significant measure a failure at it; Barack Obama too often seemed to apologize for American power; and Donald Trump is frankly unsuited for high office in the first place. Compare them to Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan and the elder Bush. Compare, too, our post-Cold War presidents to Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Xi is disciplined, strategically minded, unashamed of projecting power, an engineer by training, with living experience in the provinces, and perhaps, most importantly, someone with a deep sense of the tragic, as his family was a victim of Mao Zedong’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. This is a man of virtu, in the classical Machiavellian sense. One could go further and say that there is not only a crisis in American leadership but in Western leadership in general. The truly formidable, dynamic leaders, whatever their moral values, are more likely to be found outside the United States and Europe. Witness, in addition to Xi, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, India’s Narendra Modi, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. They have all grasped the art of power; they are constantly willing to take risks, and they are in office not only out of personal ambition but because they actually want to get certain things done.
Thus, the competition between the United States and China will coincide with a political-cultural crisis of the West against a resurgent East.
We have truly entered an American-Chinese bipolar struggle. But it is a bipolar struggle with an asterisk: the asterisk being Russia, which can always inflict consequential damage on the United States. Yet, whereas the Russians appear to our media as classic bad guys, the Chinese are more opaque and business-like, so the gravity of our competition with Beijing is still insufficiently appreciated by our media.
TRULY, THE sense of invulnerability the United States felt at the end of the Cold War and the onset of globalization is gone. Initially, post-Cold War globalization meant a Westernization of the world to go along with the adoption of Western-style management practices and America’s so-called unipolar moment. Now that this moment has passed, and with middle classes enlarging throughout the developing world—while different shades of authoritarianism compete with democracy—globalization is becoming more multicultural, with the East assuming an equal position, helped also by demographic trends. In this competition, the United States is wrong to promote democracy per se. Instead, it should promote civil society whether democratic or of the enlightened authoritarian mode. (Witness the liberalizing yet authoritarian monarchies of Morocco, Jordan and Oman. And I could give examples beyond the Middle East.) Hybrid regimes of an enlightened authoritarian mode have been more of a norm throughout history than democracy has been. Moreover, it has been my clear experience that people in Africa and the Middle East care first about basic order and physical and economic protection before they care about political freedoms. As the late liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin writes: “Men who live in conditions where there is not sufficient food, warmth, shelter, and the minimum degree of security can scarcely be expected to concern themselves with freedom of contract or of the press.”
Obviously there exists a hierarchy of needs, and meaningful improvement in people’s lives as a first priority should demand flexibility on our part—or else it will be harder to compete with the Chinese. The expansion of middle classes worldwide will by itself lead to greater calls for democracy: for as people’s material lives improve they will increasingly demand more political freedoms anyway. We do not need to force the process. If we do, it will be we who are the ones being ideological; not the Chinese, who have the civilizational confidence and serenity to accept political systems as they already are.
Yet, even at our worst, our political system is open and capable of change in the way that China, and that other great autocratic power, Russia, are not. A world in which the United States is the dominant power will be a more humane world of more personal freedoms than a world led by China.
I concentrate on China in this essay because China constitutes a much stronger economy, a much more institutionalized political system, and a more formidable twenty-first-century cultural genius than Russia. Therefore, China should be the yardstick or pacing power by which our diplomatic, security and defense establishments measures themselves: merely by competing with China we will make our own institutions stronger. Such competition is all that might be left to jolt our bureaucracies out of their ongoing decrepitude and decline. Indeed, the profusion of travel orders, security clearance paperwork, unnecessary receipts, and so forth, even as the hacking of our systems continues, are all ways in which we deliberately deceive and defeat ourselves. Paperwork arises out of the lack of trust. The more paperwork, the less trust that exists within a bureaucracy. The Pentagon is a prime example of this. We should always remember that there is no regulation or procedure to instill basic common sense.