Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit this week has rekindled the familiar debate over American “decline.” Our sole-superpower moment is over, we’re told, and the 21st century will prove so much tougher than the 20th.
I’m just not sure what all the fuss is about.
Perhaps one source of confusion is this whole sole-superpower business. It’s true that from the early 1990s until around now, America has been essentially alone at the top of the world heap. But that hasn’t meant as much as a lot of folks claim. During this Pax Americana, a nasty war broke out in Europe, genocide materialized in Africa, and the United States was harassed and wounded by stateless Islamic terrorism.
We also fought a war in Iraq that ended in a bloody armistice, requiring constant policing for more than a decade. Now we’re in another expensive war. Meanwhile, our trade deficit only gets worse, and our industrial base has been outsourced to Mexico, Vietnam, and (of course) China.
Next, we’re told, one of the consequences of the new multipolar world will be that we won’t be able to do things unilaterally anymore. Anymore? What movie were they watching?
When we were supposedly cock of the walk, under Democratic and Republican presidents alike, anti-Americanism flourished. The United Nations refused to authorize the use of force to stop ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. Sure, we didn’t take no for an answer, but we didn’t go it alone. We joined with our NATO allies to put an end to the bloodshed.
During the Persian Gulf War, America had that “grand coalition” that Sen. John Kerry talked about. During the second Iraq war, the “coalition of the willing” was smaller, but we were hardly flying solo. U.S. leaders decried unilateralism, an odd sentiment for the undisputed global hegemon.
Another reigning cliché is that the sun is setting on us as it did on the British Empire. But what does that mean? China isn’t remotely powerful, influential, or rich enough to play the leading role of America, and we aren’t nearly so weak, ignorable, or poor as to deserve the supporting gig as 1950s Britain.
Besides, although China clearly wants its moment in the sun, it doesn’t seem particularly eager or able to lead. “When was the last time Beijing offered its own peace plan for the Arab-Israeli conflict, for instance?” asks Jonathan Eyal, Europe correspondent for the Straits Times in Singapore.
“Other emerging powers are no better,” he adds. “What is India’s contribution to, say, solving the crisis in Sudan? Or Russia’s plan for dealing with the North Korean nuclear problem?”
In other words, American leadership is still the global norm.
Then there are China’s very real problems. China has 700 million very poor people. By 2050, it will have 400 million very old people. It will “get old before it gets rich,” as conservative writer Mark Steyn likes to say. The country is shot through with corruption, bogus accounting practices that make subprime-mortgage bundles look like gold bullion, and a political elite that remains terrified of democracy. A confident government doesn’t banish its Nobel Peace Prize winners.
Even with its copycat stealth fighter, China is certainly less of a military threat to the United States than the Soviet Union was. It’s more of an economic challenger, but that’s a good problem to have, right? Currency wars are better than nuclear ones.
The most important point is that China’s rise doesn’t reflect some grand failure of American foreign policy but its success. Drawing China into the global economic and political system has been a bipartisan foreign-policy goal for generations. That creates new problems but better ones.
China is still governed by a fundamentally evil system. Hu has blood on his hands — he ordered the slaughter of hundreds of unarmed Tibetan protesters in 1989. But it’s less evil than when it kept a billion people in poverty and killed 65 million of its own citizens. That’s progress.
For the last century, America was the good-guy lead on the international stage. In that role, we relied on a broad arsenal, literally and figuratively, to help move the world to democracy and prosperity. Contrary to a lot of nostalgic nonsense about the simplicity of the Cold War and the ease of our “unipolar moment,” that effort was hard, complicated, and punctuated with surprising successes and unpredicted failures. In that sense, the new normal looks a lot like the old normal.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.