Are economic and political tides turning away from America and toward China?
It is interesting that one of the most widely studied treatises on war in the world’s military academies today was written by a Chinese general who lived 27 centuries ago. The best-known quotation from “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu (544-496 BC) is, “[The] supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting,” but there are many other maxims that should merit the interest of those who would divine the intentions of China and contrast the strategy of that country with that of the United States. Of particular relevance is,“Who wishes to win must first consider the cost” and its corollary, “There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged war.”
China has not sent its armies to war in 70 years, since the end of the Korean War. In contrast, the United States, over the same period, has been at war directly or by proxy almost constantly. With rare exception, China, like Russia, has historically flexed its military muscle only in areas on its borders with which it has longstanding ethnic and/or cultural ties. The United States, like its imperial predecessor, Great Britain, has regularly sought to impose its will militarily in far-flung corners of the world.
The United States, again like its British forebear, has long been able to exert extraordinary global leverage owing to the immense might of its economy, whereas until quite recently, China — never in modern times a wealthy or economically dominant nation — has been more cautious, preferring to rattle its sabers rather than use them.
Now, at the very moment when China’s economic and military might is surging and its global influence rapidly expanding, the United States is increasingly being weighed down by the cumulative effect of prolonged war and weakened by what British historian Paul Kennedy described in 1987 as “imperial overstretch.”
The waxing of Chinese power and the waning of America’s has not gone unnoticed and U.S. enemies and allies alike have recently undertaken bold independent initiatives that would have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago. China’s success in brokering a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia — soon followed by Russia’s sponsoring talks between Saudis and another longtime foe, Syria — has unhinged U.S. efforts to build a common front against Iran-backed terrorism. Among disquieted U.S. allies, Japan stunned Washington by asserting its own national interest by bluntly refusing to honor energy sanctions against Russia, and then French President Emmanuel Macron made remarks while visiting China that signaled there may be no united NATO front in efforts to bolster the defense of Taiwan.
The intemperate expressions of indignation over Macron’s remarks by U.S. politicians of both parties blithely overlooks the fact that the French president is voicing sentiments likely shared by the many European citizens, as revealed by a 2019 poll done by the European Council on Foreign Relations that showed respondents strongly believed then that their countries should remain neutral in any conflict between the United States and China. Clearly, it is one thing to rally Europeans against a nearby and historically threatening Russia, but an entirely different proposition to enlist support for potential military conflict with distant China, with whom there is no history of aggression and which is vitally important to the economies of every European country.
It is pertinent to note the context of growing European doubts about the quality and reliability of American leadership, particularly in light of the recent painful memory of being unconsulted and blindsided regarding the disastrous withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Accordingly, it is hardly unreasonable if some Europeans see more than a touch of arrogance in Americans who think they should loyally and unquestioningly follow the United States into yet another Asian conflict — this time against an adversary vastly more formidable than the Taliban.
Also of concern to America’s longtime friends is the United States today appears as a nation deeply distracted by its increasingly vicious internecine politics — in Abraham Lincoln’s timeless phrase, “A house divided against itself” — and thus less responsive to reasoned discourse with allies who might see the world a little more clearly. Macron may be one such friend deserving of respect, not condemnation.
William Moloney is a senior fellow in conservative thought at Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute who studied at Oxford and the University of London and received his Doctorate from Harvard University. He is a former Colorado Commissioner of education.
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