It’s a quiet Sunday afternoon in the nation’s capital, September 27th, 2015; the day after Chinese President Xi Xinping departed for New York City. Chinese flags placed on the light posts along Constitution Avenue still wave. They flow with the cadence of a cool fall breeze, flanked on either side by the flags of the United States of America and District of Columbia. Following this strip of pageantry east leads one to the steps of the Capitol Building, its dome shrouded in scaffolding as the cracks from the 2011 earthquake continue to be repaired.
Under the subdued light of this cloudy day, the cracks can seem like those split along America’s standing in the world following over a decade of war and a financial crisis that cratered the U.S. economy. The strain of being the lone superpower, foundation of global trade, world’s police force, and bearing a dysfunctional government having finally produced physical representation along the building that so stoically symbolizes America. The country’s house of governance sits in a sling.
And here came China for two days of pleasantries and policy talk. The rock amid the Great Recession, whose continued economic growth saved it from depression and helped pull the world back from the brink. The mighty newcomer whose economy will inevitably surpass America’s, whose military increasingly pushes up against its East and Southeast Asian neighbors and U.S. allies, and who now speaks openly of the impending end of American global predominance. An eager challenger parading in the shadow of the limping champion.
But America’s weakness is only visible from a certain angle. A clear day lets in the light of economic reports and experts that repeatedly show the U.S. economy has made a dramatic recovery from the Great Recession and continues to be robust despite the growing weakness of international markets. What other country could simultaneously take on two wars on the other side of the planet, maintain its other global commitments, and weather one of the most severe economic downturns in history? And partially undertake all of this during a period of profound government dysfunction, when a Republican Congress and Democratic President were almost completely unable to get along. Such a colossal feat requires a nation of extraordinary strength; a sovereign bulwark against storm surges that would have washed away anything lesser.
Yet America did not withstand this onslaught by simply standing firm. Even a state of such unmatched durability must adjust its positioning so as not to be subjected to a never ending torrent of harm. Given enough time and damage, even the mightiest eventually fall. So the country took a step back from the adventurist foreign and military policies that guided its actions at the beginning of the new millennium. It wound down two wars and avoided getting drawn into any more. Violence once again roiled across the Middle East, Russia violated the borders of its neighbors and flouted U.S. international goals, and China expanded its regional footprint in the face of U.S. objections. And America’s responses? A limited bombing campaign over Syria and Iraq, economic sanctions against Russia, and naval “sail bys” of China’s disputed man-made islands challenging its imperious territorial claims. No full scale invasions, no bellicose threats of bullets and blood. Rather, intelligence gathering and targeted strike operations—carried out by drones and special forces—became the weapons of choice. What’s more, long-standing hostilities were tabled as the U.S. reached historic agreements with Iran and Cuba; combativeness replaced by restrained dialogue.
To many, America’s revamped approach to international issues is a model of prudence and hard-learned experience. But others deem this posture anemic. If you don’t act strong, then you aren’t strong. Power is as much a matter of objective capability as it is outward manifestations of it. If you don’t exhibit your strength, then others will keep pushing against you. Worse yet, they will cease to believe that you’re strong at all. After all, if you had the strength, wouldn’t you employ it? And if not reminded through aggressive foreign policy, Americans themselves might come to believe that their country is withering away.
In fact, many believe just this. And it is from their vantage point that the cracks across the Capitol Building are mirrored by cracks in the foundation of America’s global stature. They believe the country has grown weak by kowtowing to the assertive actions of the likes of Russia and China, negotiating with pariah states, and refusing to employ more of its considerable military might to address international situations. Objective strength be damned; use it or lose it, America.
These perceived cracks have freed an “us versus them” mentality that has largely been muffled since its heyday in the early and mid-2000s: in order for the U.S. to rise, others must be knocked down; for us to succeed, others must fail. Even though only some can see these cracks, they are threatening to release nationalism upon the whole country; that never far away influence that so often draws states into conflict.
But what of that eager challenger who strutted through Washington, DC? What of China? How will it proceed in the face of a “cracking” America?
While many have predicted a Chinese economic slowdown for some time, the beginning of 2016 saw the numbers and stock market action to finally back them up. Both consumption and production in the Middle Kingdom have fallen, along with the country’s overall economic growth, and there are scant reasons why they should go back up anytime soon. Cracks are forming along the foundation of China’s international standing. And, as opposed to those in the U.S., these ones are visible from almost any angle.
These troubles are quite concerning given that economic development—brought about by the introduction and expansion of “Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics”—has been the bedrock of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) political legitimacy for roughly three and a half decades. Essentially, its claim to authority goes something like this: Citizens! Don’t worry about having no say in your governance, the economy is growing and your lives are getting better! We clearly know what we’re doing, leave it to us!
But what happens when economic growth diminishes? Surely people will become disgruntled and begin questioning the existing arrangement.
Those who are angry often turn to those who echo their anger for leadership. If waning economic success begins to cause stirrings of discontent within the populace, why not blame others and commiserate in victimhood? Accordingly, a very reliable base upon which the Party can rest is nationalism: It’s someone else’s fault, and we are standing up for our glorious homeland against those wicked others! Keep your faith in us, because we are the only ones who can protect you! The “us versus them” mentality has incredible political pull.
Certainly, keeping one’s footing atop surges of nationalism isn’t easy. But given the right incentives, it’s an effort the Party would likely undertake. And maintaining the support of the people in the face of a flagging economy provides incredibly compelling motivation.
Thus, what we are currently witnessing are American and Chinese cracks splitting along the floor of the Pacific Ocean toward one another; those emanating from North America largely illusory but nonetheless impactful, and those springing from Asia very real. So what happens if they meet, say, in the South China Sea, or in the Taiwan Strait, or around the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands? What would these corresponding ruptures spew forth into each other? Or would they simply combine to bore a chasm into which everything around falls?
Whatever the result, it most certainly won’t be positive. So let’s hope Americans adjust their footing to view their country in a light that reveals its true stature and the positive global engagement that built it. And let’s hope the Chinese realize that a likely cure for economic malaise—and thereby political discontent—is openness and cooperation rather than self-focus and hostility. Let’s hope that cooler heads prevail and those foul cracks can be stopped and filled in.