We know now that this leap forward was to collapse a few decades later. We have known for some time (although not then) the brutal costs paid by the peoples of the USSR for this over-centralization of power.
My topic today, however, is not the Soviet system’s successes or failures. Rather, I want to highlight the precariousness of the current American image in the world.
While the US was eventually dominant in the global cultural cold war of the 20C, the competition between the US and China in the 21C could well come out differently. The smugness of the ‘90s about the triumphalism of the modern/liberal/Western/capitalist approach to the world was severely punctured on 9/11. Still, the absence, until recently, of any viable competitor has made it easy for Americans to pretend that our exceptionalism was unique/inevitable/eternal and to dismiss the Chinese as parvenus, whose dictatorial tendencies and inscrutable language made them—at most—problematic.
The expectation that China will overtake the US in terms of GDP in the next decade and the emergence of China as an active wielder of the world’s second most powerful military will affect our broad understanding of the two countries’ relationship. But these phenomena will not be tangible to most folks whether Chinese, American, or otherwise.
Instead, the two biggest developments of the last 12 months have the potential to shift the global perceptions of these two giants. China has successfully managed the outbreak of the Coronavirus and the US has been incompetent. Both in terms of culture and governmental power, China has got the pandemic under control and those who challenge its success on the ground of the surrender or suppression of individual liberty must get past a tall list of deaths, disabilities, disease, and economic pain at both the macro and micro levels as an “acceptable” cost for political “freedom” and cultural individualism.
The insurrectionist spasm at the Capitol on January 6 could profoundly undercut the US as a role model for the rest of the world. As one Columbian newspaper asked: “Who’s the banana republic now?” There are many reasons (economic inequality, racial treatment, hyper-active military) why the US’ global image has plausibly suffered of late, but Confederate flags in the halls of Congress make it difficult for us to claim to be the “shining city on a hill” of our national mythology. Even if Trump is an aberration as a person, the endorsement of over a quarter of Congress undermines our desperate claims that “this is not who we are.” To the extent we have been successful in promoting democracy on a global basis, there are many countries who manage better-run (and more-widely accepted) electoral systems than we operate. [What would it mean for Rudy Giuliani to be as passionate about real voter suppression as he has been about his fantasies?]
China recognizes and is taking advantage of this, as they have generally, as Trumpian withdrawal of American presence and influence across the world has created opportunities for the opportunistic and ambitious Chinese. They are often clumsy and prone to repeat the arrogance of American power in countries around the world, but they are also sufficiently savvy to repress freedoms in Hong Kong and across China itself just when the US is hobbled from its usual finger-pointing about the global preservation of democracy.
Beyond the fact that the “leader of the free world” is MIA when it comes to freedom, our sorry performance in pandemic management undermines our claim to technocratic and moral leadership. While our science has performed miracles, our social fabric has unraveled. At a global level, this is evident in our refusal to join the world-wide vaccine alliance.
Global public opinion is no longer limited to gentlemen who can decipher the discreet implications of the Times (of London). The social and traditional media of the 21C ensure that ordinary people around the world will see these pictures and words and have some sense of our fumbling pandemic management. What happens in the US is still far more likely to show up on the news everywhere just because we are the center of the media universe. The pictures and numbers of the impact of the pandemic are all the more startling to those who expected that, if we were going to hoard our resources in order to take care of our own, we would at least do a better job of it.
PR matters. Soft power matters. Geopolitics is not just about the range and sophistication of drones and the number of “feet-on-the-ground.” Regardless of bragging rights, there is something in the argument that it is in the American national interest to have friends overseas (lots of them!). There is something in the argument that we have something important to offer to others to see our example (positive and negative).
Our self-inflicted wounds will require considerable attention if we are to heal for our own benefit. They will require more and attention if we are to resume the effort to show other countries “how its done.”
It might be that China’s pandemic-management success is an echo of the Soviet’s industrialization and growth of the 1920s and ‘30s and that the underlying hollowness of an unconstrained bureaucratic system will, in due time, become clear. Or, it might be that we will look back on the US of 2020 and say: “I have seen the past, and it didn’t work.”