Thursday, March 11, 2021

The Long View

It's been said that the 20th Century was the American Century. World War I saw the collapse of all the great European empires. Even England and France, which were victorious in war, emerged as much weaker nations. America was on the rise. It was challenged by Japan and Germany (again), but those countries were utterly devastated by World War II, leaving America and Russia competing in a Cold War for leadership in a bipoplar world. The collapse of the Soviet Empire at the end of the century left America unchallenged as the only tentpole left in a unipolar world. Americans could be forgiven for thinking that the 21st Century would be the second American Century. But then, as it often does, shit happened.

American leadership was founded on liberal democracy and capitalism. The attack on 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated that the rest of the world wasn't content with America's liberal democracy. The rise of authoritarians like Putin (Russia), Bolsonaro (Brazil), Duterte (Philippines), Orbán (Hungary), and others demonstrated that the discontent wasn't limited to the Middle East. The rise of Donald Trump and the insurrection at the US Capitol demonstrated that even the United States itself had a weakness for populist authoritarianism over liberal democracy.

The other foundation for American leadership was capitalism. America's rise to greatness made capitalism's superiority appear self-evident. Then, the economic crisis of 2008, followed by the Great Recession, caused many in the world to question the primacy of unregulated capitalism as an economic engine of prosperity. The rise of China, which adopted a form of state capitalism without adopting liberal democracy, has shown the world a competing vision for others to follow. China is set to overtake the US as the world's biggest economy well before the mid-21st century, leaving many to predict that historians will call the 21st Century the Chinese Century. We'll see.

If this comes as a surprise, it could be because we were fooled by the incompetence of the 20th Century tyrants.

Would the Soviet Union have collapsed if its tyrannical system had somehow provided material well-being, and only our moral advantage remained? The experience provokes a question that the Cold War never raised but that looks increasingly like the central question of this century: What do we do if tyrants become competent? Fifty years ago, only a fanatical ideologue or an adventurer would choose to live in China or the Soviet Union. Now the choice is harder.

The shift in advantage towards China is made greater when American leadership loses competence itself. Several times in the past four years, I wondered if American constitutional democracy was saved only by the incompetence of President Donald Trump. We might not be as lucky next time.

The A.E.I. study found that fifty-six per cent of Republicans believe that the use of force may be necessary to save “the traditional American way of life.” The obvious concern should be that January 6th was not a culmination but, rather, a preface to more violence conducted under the same banners.
Source: The New Yorker.

Newly achieved competence in China paired with American abandonment of democratic elections together leave the future leadership of the world in the 21st Century open to change. That's the long view from the US in 2021.

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