American anxiety

Oct 5, 2023
United States and China crisis.

Bad-tempered coverage of China continues to flourish across the entire US media. It ranges from fire-breathing to pearl-clutching. Most commentators look daggers at Beijing in a dozen different over-cooked ways – and especially at the Communist Party of China – while reminding readers and viewers of America’s continuing paramount superpower status.

What is relatively new, however, are more articles in serious-outlets expressing profound anxiety about America’s macro-dysfunctionality. A good example, from late September, can be found in the leading opinion journal Foreign Affairs, entitled: “The Dysfunctional Superpower: Can a Divided America Deter China and Russia?”.

This 5000-word article has been penned by Robert Gates, former US Secretary of Defence from 2006 to 2011 (under President George W. Bush and then President Obama) prior to which he headed the CIA from 1991 to 1993. It is attracting quite a lot of attention. To have someone of this stature comprehensively spelling out the graphic detail of American dysfunctionality is certainly unusual – even when this is meant to undergird a call to rally round the flag.

The extended handwringing about US dysfunctionality combined with recurring denigration and demonising of China and Russia and their respective presidents carries through into the final paragraph:

Xi and Putin, cocooned by yes men, have already made serious errors that have cost their countries dearly. In the long run, they have damaged their countries. For the foreseeable future, however, they remain a danger that the United States must deal with. Even in the best of worlds—one in which the U.S. government had a supportive public, energised leaders, and a coherent strategy—these adversaries would pose a formidable challenge. But the domestic scene today is far from orderly: the American public has turned inward; Congress has descended into bickering, incivility, and brinkmanship; and successive presidents have either disavowed or done a poor job explaining America’s global role. To contend with such powerful, risk-prone adversaries, the United States needs to up its game in every dimension. Only then can it hope to deter Xi and Putin from making more bad bets. The peril is real.

Interesting. The Word Bank has confirmed that over 800 million people have been lifted out of abject poverty in China – a feat unprecedented in world history. Yet Gates stresses how, in the long run China has been damaged.

This remarkable article also reminds one of certain contradictory narratives about China regularly encountered across the Mainstream Western Media. All at the same time: China is a glowering threat to the rest of the world (that is: a challenge to American hegemony); and China is (yet again) on the verge of a grave economic collapse. A series of Western commentators have squared this circle by arguing that it is when an Empire is in decline, that it is at its most dangerous. There may be cogency in this argument but, in 2023, it is not China – but the US which provides five-alarm confirmation of the validity of any such claim. And it has been doing this insistently for well over five years. The Gates article ultimately corroborates this viewpoint.


For more on this topic, P&I recommends:

China is not a threat: debunking the US narrative

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