Think about the 2016 U.S. presidential election in the context of renowned Sinologist Orville Schell’s analysis of modern China in this recent essay. Some excerpts:
This confidence in the strength of the China model—and the supposed weakness of its Western competitors—has reshaped the way Beijing relates to the world. Its new confidence in its wealth and power has been matched by an increasingly unyielding and aggressive posture abroad that has been on most vivid display in its maritime disputes in the South and East China seas.
Couldn’t one say about the U.S., “Its longstanding confidence in its wealth and power has been matched by an unyielding and aggressive posture abroad that has been on most vivid display in it disputes in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.”
Obama has been far more restrained than his predecessors when it comes to conventional warfare, but we can’t bury our heads in the sand when it comes to his unprecedented, unyielding, aggressive use of drones.
One clear message of this turbulent week is how interconnected everything actually has become in our 21st-century world. Financial markets, trade flows, pandemics and climate change all ineluctably tie us together.
This irrefutable insight is lost on Trump’s followers mired in 20th century notions of politics as a zero-sum game that we’re predestined to win as the world’s sole economic, political, and military superpower. Trumpism rests upon notions of American Exceptionalism mixed with nostalgia for the past when the relative economic, political, and military strength of the U.S. was undeniably greater than it is today; as well as competition between nations at the expense of cooperation; and scapegoating the newest citizens for pernicious public policy challenges that preceded their arrival.
Of late, China has been acting in an ever more unilateral way, perhaps at last enjoying the prerogatives of its long-sought wealth and power. Mao imagined a China rooted in the idea of “self-reliance,” zili gengsheng. The most encouraging news out of this week would be for Mr. Xi and his comrades to recognize that China can no longer be such an island—that China cannot succeed in isolation, much less by antagonizing most of its neighbors and the U.S.
As large, dynamic and successful as China has become, it still exists in a global context—and remains vulnerable to myriad forces beyond the party’s control. It must take the chip off its shoulder, recognize that it is already a great power and begin to put its people, its Pacific neighbors and the U.S. at ease. Any truly great nation must learn that the art of compromise lies at the heart of diplomacy, that it is almost always better to negotiate before resorting to war and that compromise is neither a sign of weakness nor surrender.
If the alarms over the past few months presage such a revelation in Beijing, it would not only enhance China’s stability but its soft power and historic quest for global respect. Given Mr. Xi’s track record, one dare not be too optimistic.
Is any U.S. intellectual in position to lecture China’s leadership about soft power and global respect? “Make America great again,” trumpets Trumpism, meaning less compromising, less diplomacy, more unilateralism.
Trumpism thrives on the insecurities of a people who feel their world dominance slipping. Ahistorical to the core, it has no patience for the complexities of public policy, environmental degradation, or globalization. It assumes people aren’t smart enough for the complexities of 21st century life. It advocates sloganeerism, brashness, and business principles as panaceas for problems real and imagined. It asks no questions, listens only for openings to speak, and never admits fault.
Eventually, enough people will see it for what it is, and reject it.