It will take a bit of persuasion from the unborn generations that it all started with washing machines. In three years, the divide between the United States and China has widened since the trivialities of commerce to something like a clash of philosophical systems.
In retrospect, an original belligerent, Donald Trump, always seems more tamer. Imagine the former US president invoking the “Freedom loving nations” against Beijing, as its secretary of state did last year. Or to refute, like his successor Joe Biden, that “autocracy is the wave of the future”.
Mercantile cynicism has its uses. A current account imbalance is negotiable like “stocks” are not. If Trump was the first U.S. leader since Jimmy Carter not to start new war, this welcome omission stemmed from something dark: his indifference to internal depredations of foreign governments. Those who applaud the return of idealism to American politics do so with kindness. But then they also need to budget for the messy implications.
the focus on values doesn’t just raise the stakes of the superpower contest. He also ties America’s hands in his victory. Biden has embarked on the long game of weaving a network of states (“alliance”, not to mention “coalition” seems too much) that worry about China. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to New Delhi this month was suggestive. It was the same for inaugural summit the Quad that connects India, Japan and Australia to the United States.
This diplomatic work is more difficult and the resulting force in numbers more formidable than direct confrontation with Beijing. In this measurement, Republican insults about democratic softness on China are as insignificant as ever. Once again, however, liberal values have perverse consequences. The United States can be morally scrupulous. He can link up a powerful network of friends. But he cannot achieve both feats at the same time.
Will the United States refrain from courting, say, Thailand, on the basis of its breaches of the junta regime or its lese majesty laws? As the Philippines blows hot and cold, will Biden stop asking for his loyalty if his populist government violates a liberal standard too much? As for the greatest potential friendship of all, the one with India, is there something Prime Minister Narendra Modi could do out there to make the United States refuse such a grand prize?
Neither of these assumptions is fantastic. These are real, recent or plausible scenarios. And they say nothing about the even tougher choices that await the United States outside of Asia. In countering Chinese or Russian influence in the Middle East and Africa, Biden can hardly apply a “democracies only” rule to local allies. Too many countries fail this test but remain in balance between the great powers. It would be a masochistic act of self-sacrifice to let them slip into the morally undemanding patronage of a rival. But then after the “America is back” noises, it would be a waste of face to kiss illiberal partners.
In this way, the administration will come up from time to time against the moral bar it has set for itself. The more rigorously Biden applies American values, the narrower his strategic options will be. The more he observes them in the breach, the greater the cost of America’s reliability and credibility. For a 78-year-old man, the situation is only softened by his strange familiarity. Her country struggled with her for much of her life.
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The US-Soviet conflict was an inaccurate trailer for today’s great power battle. Communism was an essentially closed world: a “cold war” with the world number one merchandise trader will take some time. Yet one theme promises to hold up and that is society the United States needed to keep, or felt it needed to keep, against the lapping of communism. The Greek colonels, the Pakistani generals, the thugs gallery in Latin America: it was sometimes a kind of flexible free world that America ruled.
On the contrary, the temptation to compromise moral is much stronger now. The front line of the Cold War was Europe, which had democratic governments in place from Dublin to Bonn. There are prominent examples of those in Asia, the new competition zone, but there are also military rulers, technocratic cities, one-party systems, vulnerable democracies and established ones that have a bad tendency.
If Antony Blinken’s commitment to “support the democracy around the world ”while renouncing force means anything, the secretary of state must be prepared to renounce convenient relations on a liberal principle. The regional winner, if he does, hardly needs to be named. And so he probably won’t. There is no shame in such pragmatism. But there is disillusion and acrimony stored in pretensions to the opposite.