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Is Faster American Decline A Good Thing…For America?

Rebecca McKinnon has a very interesting post at her blog “Thomas Friedman gets the middle finger in the Middle Kingdom”, which was part of her coverage of the World Economic Forum at Dalian.

During a panel, Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat, accused China of being a “free-loader” while the US carried the heavy load of being a “global guardian”. I really love the term “global guardian”; what does it mean? Does it mean that the US is protecting the globe
from an attack by Mars? Or Jupiter? Or is it some unknown Deathstar which we don’t know about? Does it mean that Beijing is keeping this a secret from the rest of the world so that it won’t have to publicly acknowledge this enormous debt to Washington DC?

Who defines the role of “global guardian” and the role it involves? It takes a lot of hubris even to bring the phrase up. How would you react if your spouse calmly announced that he was the “global guardian of our world against evildoers who want to destroy our way of life”? I think you get the drift…

Then in the post,

Friedman also argued that it’s in China’s interest to work more directly with the U.S. on geopolitical issues because if the U.S. fails, then China will have to pick up the pieces. “If there is too little American power China will be forced to respond to that,” he said.

Now I get it, Beijing is supposed to change Washington DC’s diapers when it makes a mess! So now Beijing is going to be the “global diaper changer” when the “global guardian” has… well, nevermind.

Unfortunately for Friedman, Sha Zukang, told the audience that the Chinese government is not anxious to assume this new role.

Sha rejected the whole idea of “soft power,” calling it a “condescending approach” and “notion created by Western developed countries.” When it comes to world leadership, he said the world’s leaders should not be “self-proclaimed” – he said they should be elected. China, he said, would not self-proclaim itself a world leader, because China’s policy is always to treat other countries as “equals.”

Translation: “Let’s take responsibility for changing our own diapers, instead of expecting someone else to do it for us.”

Another very interesting viewpoint put forward by Clay Chandler of Fortune magazine is that now that China is a world power (I really love the way the words “world” and “global” are thrown around), Chinese politicians are still giving boring speeches. Of course, American politicians never give boring speeches; I’m sure that any intelligent reader of this article can recite all the speeches of George W. Bush and the Senate and House heads by heart. Yes, I too, am deeply disheartened that Beijing has not announced plans to stage a pre-emptive attack against Mars so that the “global guardian” can at least take a small rest and enjoy a cup at Starbucks.

Seriously though, Friedman’s criticism of Chinese policy is, at its very least, an acknowledgement that the US has not been able to carry all its burden by itself and needs help. In this light, it should be interpreted more as a plea for help and assistance for the global guardian than as a rebuke of current Chinese policy.

In the article, Rebecca recalls:

A couple years ago a Chinese academic who advises the Chinese government on foreign policy issues told me that the best way for China to build global power, good will, and international credibility over the long run is to mind its own business, avoid criticizing the U.S. whenever possible, sit back and let the U.S. destroy its own power and credibility by itself.

There is a strong argument to be made that it isn’t so much that China has risen quickly out of seemingly nowhere, but that China’s growth appears accelerated because of rapid American decline. Put it this way, if China is riding an up escalator, and the US is riding a down escalator, at some point they will pass each other at an intersection point.

The only question is “When?”

Now the question becomes whether it is a good thing to accelerate decline. Wall Street routinely rewards companies which make dramatic management changes when they are in decline. The thinking is that it is better to make dramatic, even wild, changes in the face of falling sales and market share. Share prices go up even before the results of those changes become apparent, based on the hope that the new management can make the changes necessary. Wall Street is hoping for a happy ending, even though most of the time it doesn’t work. Doing something, even if it is madly wrong, is better than doing nothing when confronted with a bad situation, according to Wall Street. Then, when the company has hit bottom, it can either be acquired or claw its way back to recovery.

My question is whether this same rule should be applied to countries and governments? If the US is in a state of systemic decline, is it better to accelerate the decline, so that the country can eventually climb out of the mess it is in? The problem with this approach is that when a company screws up, a few hundred thousand people lose their jobs.

The problem with a country, especially one as big and powerful as the US, is that no one knows what the bottom looks like.

For this reason, the slow erosion and decline of American power will continue.

5 Responses to “Is Faster American Decline A Good Thing…For America?”

  1. [...] McKinnon (in Global Voices, h/t China Vortex) points to a serious discussion on China’s “Soft Power” in which the US side got a bashing [...]

  2. Rick says:

    I think Friedman had a point.

    And I think that Sha would not have dismissed the idea of Soft Power, if China had any soft power.

    I think the world does need a global leader in situations like Rwanda or Bosnia. I think keeping to yourself and “changing your own diapers” in a situations such as those is irresponsible.

    Those who can help, should help.

    And I think in the future, China is going to be in a position where it is looked to for help, simply because they will be one of the few nations who can help.

  3. [...] McKinnon (in Global Voices, h/t China Vortex) points to a serious discussion on China’s “Soft Power” in which the US side got a bashing [...]

  4. SD says:

    You somewhat missed Chandler’s point. Even if he did say Chinese politicians speeches are boring (which he responded to in his blog, to just brush it aside saying US politicians make boring speeches, too, entirely ignores the question of degrees. Sure, all politicians make boring speeches, but the degree of boredom instilled by Chinese leaders is much higher than any US politicians. A similar mistake is made when people talk about the importance of guanxi (connections) in China. Some dismiss it, saying, “you need connections everywhere,” but that, too, ignores the difference of degrees between “connections” and “guanxi”.

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