Prophecies of American decline are almost as old as America itself. Until now, the United States has had a stubborn and inconvenient habit of defying such predictions. But in the wake of the American response to the coronavirus pandemic, proclamations of national doom have accelerated and intensified.
The most recent such missive comes from British war reporter and international-relations student Aris Roussinos, who declared earlier this week that the pandemic “has exposed America as a failed state.” And while Roussinos does offer some worthwhile observations about the challenges America faces, his analysis betrays a regime-centered view of America that mischaracterizes its attributes, understates its strengths, and overestimates its challenges and its challengers.
It’s worth starting with what Roussinos gets right: America faces a significant challenge from the rise of China. He is also right, to some extent, that “China’s rise is as much a direct product [of] as it is a challenge” to the global order that America helped to create. It seems hard to deny now that many people failed to anticipate what would happen when a nation that openly rejected the principles on which this order depended became thoroughly enmeshed in it.
Roussinos begins to go off track, however, in identifying why this happened. He variously describes the people responsible for the decision as a “blob” incapable of effective action and a ruthlessly efficient cabal acting in the service of billionaire paymasters, the only beneficiaries of a globalization that he claims was “never real.” There have been costs to globalization, to be sure. But it is definitely “real,” and if it were a completely deleterious enterprise, even the thickest “blob” would have had trouble justifying it in the first place, much less keeping it going for decades. The tricky thing about globalization, particularly as it pertains to China, is that it has a complex matrix of costs and benefits; if one is intellectually honest, it doesn’t lend itself well to Manichaean analysis. As Nicholas Eberstadt and Daniel Blumenthal write in the current issue of National Review:
If the current arrangements were overwhelmingly disadvantageous for the U.S., it would be a straightforward matter (albeit painful and unpleasant) just to end them. But this is not the case. Instead we find ourselves in a tableau mainly painted in shades of gray. Careful discrimination and informed judgment will be required to determine whether each of the myriad cords that bind us to China today is actually in the American interest.
That process of “careful discrimination and informed judgement,” in turn, requires a proper accounting of America’s own strengths and weaknesses. This is something Roussinos does not provide. He is instead content to attribute America’s ills to its “civic religion of liberalism,” which has been with it from the beginning and is today manifesting itself in a disastrous foreign policy and the spectacle “of American states forming regional blocs to counteract the incompetence and total incapacity of its central government to save lives.” Roussinos believes that America is characterized by “its epidemics of death by drug overdose . . . its collapsing middle class, its worsening health outcomes and declining life expectancies, the capture of the state and economy by rapacious oligarchs, and . . . the occasional bouts of interethnic violence leading to demonstrations, riots and broader political dysfunction.”
This analysis bears the mark of someone who has read what he is “supposed” to have read about America, but does not have much actual knowledge of the country. Our coronavirus response has been imperfect, and its deficiencies are not fully excused by the similar deficiencies seen in most other Western countries’ responses, nor by the fact that we are the West’s largest and most disparate nation. Yet it is a curious endemic flaw that takes more than two centuries of incredible prosperity and accomplishment to manifest fully, and does so by producing a decentralized response largely in keeping with the nation’s original design.
Indeed, the system that Roussinos derides as fatally flawed has given the United States “an economy [that] dwarfs that of any other nation, save China,” with an “empire [that] is still intact, and [a] military [that] spans the globe more powerfully than any single challenger,” as he himself admits. Whatever America’s flaws, its military power and economic might speak for themselves. Even manufacturing, the sector cited most frequently as damaged by globalization and Chinese competition, remains a considerable part of the American economy. And while the nation has serious economic and social problems, such as the opioid epidemic and the current racial tensions, it is nowhere near the postindustrial hellscape that Roussinos and those he cites seem to think it is. It still has ample resources to meet the very real challenges it faces. Roussinos is blinded by his (understandable and even somewhat merited) contempt for America’s governing class. America’s leaders can facilitate the nation’s greatness, but it has never entirely depended on them.
For that matter, for as much widespread scorn as they rightfully attract, Roussinos is sometimes too hard on America’s elite — that is, when he is not citing former diplomats and professors who happen to agree with him:
Only a couple of months ago, warning about dependence on China and the fragility of our supply chains, and urging decoupling from the aspiring hegemon, was viewed as the preserve of cranks of Right and Left, considered romantic at best and xenophobic at worst.
When Trump urged the same thing for the United States, China’s autocrat Xi was treated to a standing ovation at Davos, and hailed as the new champion of the global liberal order. But now Larry Summers, the high priest of globalisation and of America’s offshoring to China, is warning us against fragile supply chains and the urgency of decoupling with no reference at all his long and glittering career midwifing this catastrophe.
Later in the same piece, however, he muses that “it is hard to imagine an American governing class scandalised at calling Covid a Chinese virus waging an existential conflict against China to a successful conclusion.” If the people he considers the facilitators of China’s rise to prominence are capable of such an about-face, maybe others are as well? Indeed, from the very heart of the “blob,” courtesy of the American Enterprise Institute (where, full disclosure, I used to work), National Review itself has published Eberstadt and Blumenthal, who provide a more clear-headed analysis of the challenges China presents to the world order than Roussinos’s.
Some of Roussinos’s misunderstandings proceed from a specific kind of analysis that, by its very nature, views America and its leaders in a harsher light than China and its leaders. It’s a kind of grudging admiration of totalitarian states, a longing for a system in which leaders needn’t let democratic niceties stop them from getting things done. You see this in his contempt for an electoral system that has produced a choice between “two gerontocrats of dubious mental acuity against each other,” a contest with echoes of “the late Soviet era, before the regime collapsed under its own absurdities.” You see it when he writes that:
In a manner we can safely assume is not replicated in China, the architects of America’s endless policy failures, like the Iraq War, are not punished by the system, but awarded further sinecures and promotions by an establishment which rewards failure and hobbles success. Defeat is baked in from the outset: the rot is now so widespread it will likely become terminal.
Yet Roussinos also asserts that “an America may throw up a more competent caudillo than Trump in time.” He seems to believe that America is simultaneously paralyzed by diffuse chaos and ripe for tyranny, hamstrung by its political system and yet already descended into a kind of despotism. The implication is that China does autocracy right, because its system has the functionality to clear out those who hamper its success.
In fact, what Roussinos perceives as China’s strength could end up being a fatal defect, and what he perceives as America’s weakness is actually its strength.
The United States is a divided nation, though it has been even more divided before. It has made many mistakes recently, though it has made worse ones before. But the nation is stronger than its government; indeed, much of its prosperity results from the kind of entrepreneurial innovation that government is just as apt to stifle as to foster. America can react to errors, form a consensus about how to correct them, and, through that same government, put the resulting solutions into action. Indeed, there are signs that this may already be happening where China is concerned: Witness the otherwise unthinkable alliance between Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez against Beijing, reflective of broad bipartisan skepticism of Xi’s regime, which 72 percent of Republicans and 62 percent of Democrats oppose, according to a recent Pew poll.
China’s strength, meanwhile, is its main weakness: It is a totalitarian system. Its consensus is determined unilaterally without the consent of the governed, insulated from blowback and prone by design to groupthink. Its top-down decision-making process channels dissent into potentially even more destructive forms of discontent. Its regime’s success depends considerably on the stifling coercion of its own people, and mimicry of and theft from other nations. This can render it vulnerable both to unpredictability and to systemic errors, such as its one-child policy, its brutal suppression of restive ethnic and religious minorities, a foreign policy that has left it virtually without allies except those forced ruefully into financial reliance upon it, and a dependence upon ever-increasing material prosperity to keep its populace docile.
The United States faces many challenges, China perhaps chief among them. But it has faced down other dangers before, under even more dire circumstances. Roussinos argues that America is now simply a “cautionary tale, a burning city on a hill,” and that the notion that it could be “a viable model of governance to follow is now patently absurd.” To write this is to be ignorant of all that our nation has achieved in its short history. It would be one thing to harp on America’s defects and to write it off as a lost cause. But Roussinos seems to place his hope in . . . Europe, with its “older traditions on which to draw.” Setting aside the historical problems of such a view, the idea that a Western order anchored on a continent with massive geopolitical challenges of its own — a continent that has been, if anything, even weaker than the U.S. in checking China’s ambitions — would do better than a Western order led by America is dubious at best.
Washington, and the West, do need to think seriously about the rise of China. But Roussinos should hope that the United States proves its doubters wrong once more.