The United States narrowly passed China on the final day of Olympic competition in the gold medal count. The tight finish is an apt metaphor for what’s happening on the global stage. America is still in the lead, but China is a serious and growing threat. In the ancient, original Olympics, there was only first place … and then everyone else. You either won, or you lost — second place was a tie for last place.
Geopolitics among great powers often follows the same rules. Carthage disappeared after scoring second place to Rome. France secured a miserable second place to Hitler. China and Korea suffered as second place to Imperial Japan. It will be a global disaster if America ever comes in second place to China. And yet, that appears to be where we are headed.
Commentator Bill MaherWilliam (Bill) MaherBill Maher criticizes NFL for playing Black national anthem 9/11 sparked a surge in Islamophobia — for years, the media fed the flames Psaki defends move to oust Trump appointees from military academy boards MORE went on a rant in March about Americans being “ a silly people” while China is on the verge of dominating the U.S. on the world economic, political and military podiums. That was early in the Biden administration. It has only gotten worse.
As with Olympic sports, since 1949 China has been running a “hundred-year marathon” to become the world’s leading power by 2049. The race may be entering its final stages: China’s admission to the World Trade Organization in 2001 opened the door for dramatic economic expansion; the U.S. government, corporations and research centers have allowed China’s colossal pilfering of U.S. technology and military secrets; the rapid buildup of Chinese military capabilities, including massive shipbuilding, highly effective weapons to resist U.S. intervention, an alarming buildup in their nuclear weapons arsenal and, of course, space and cyber capabilities; China’s securing/cornering critical natural resources and alliances throughout the world with its Belt and Road Initiative; and China’s aggressive military moves in the South China Sea, Taiwan Strait and Indian Ocean (in conjunction with Russia and Iran).
Both the Bush and Obama administrations, distracted by crises elsewhere in the world, did little to challenge China’s aggression, and in many ways aided it.
The 2049 finish line was temporarily disrupted by Donald TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE, who, while disinterested in much of the history, facts and other “details” of foreign policy and geopolitical strategy, understood clearly there was a problem and moved the U.S. Navy further into the eastern Pacific as a warning to China and North Korea. He encouraged U.S. companies to redeploy investments back to the United States to create U.S. jobs and reduce technology pilfering, negotiated a new trade deal with China, and challenged China’s aggression in the South China Sea. Although Trump was thin on the details, he acted and spoke in a way that put China’s leaders and their long-term strategy off-balance.
Fortunately for Beijing, the COVID-19 pandemic became a wildly successful political countermeasure to the Trump problem.
Now, with Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race On The Money: Democrats get to the hard part Health Care — GOP attorneys general warn of legal battle over Biden's vaccine mandate MORE in the White House, China’s strategists seem to believe they have not only gotten back on schedule but are actually moving ahead in the race with America.
Certainly, the meeting with Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenOvernight Defense & National Security: US-Australian sub deal causes rift with France Oversight Republicans seek testimony from Afghanistan watchdog France cancels DC gala in anger over Biden sub deal: report MORE in Anchorage — as well as the apparently choreographed Biden meeting with Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich Putin Putin says dozens of staffers infected with COVID-19 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Schumer: Dem unity will happen eventually; Newsom prevails Overnight Hillicon Valley — Ex-US intel operatives pay to settle hacking charges MORE in Geneva — confirmed the weakness in U.S. leadership. Both Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are brilliant, highly capable leaders who have survived difficult climbs to power in unforgiving systems. They are consummate poker players who can read an opponent quickly and accurately, and devise strategies to defeat them. Mind-reading Xi and Putin, what they likely see in Biden is a mediocre, predictable retail politician, reminiscent of the many run-of-the-mill bureaucrats they crushed on their way to power. In Blinken they probably see a weak apparatchik who was no match for China’s foreign affairs team.
What they must see in Biden’s policies are massive over-spending on government “infrastructure projects” (translation: pork and waste), leading to massive inflation (which implicitly cuts real defense spending) and higher interest rates. This will lead to market retreat, high unemployment and recession. They see Wall Street, some in the U.S. manufacturing sector, naive and self-absorbed sports celebrities, research institutes and many other greedy Americans willing to trade national security for the profits in doing business in China. They see “woke” distraction and no repercussions for the COVID-19 disaster or China’s horrific mistreatment of its Uyghur population.
Above all, Xi and Putin see a weakening America. They see a string of “green lights” prompting recently increased aggression on Taiwan, the South China Sea, expansion of their nuclear arsenals, and internal ethnic repression.
Of course, both leaders are competitive nationalists who likely watched the Olympics. There they saw self-promoting American “social justice warriors” and corporate commercials insulting America — the same America that sent one of the most diverse Olympic teams in the world (compared to China, by contrast, the least diverse) — reflecting an American diversity that came from decades of civil rights progress, trillions of dollars spent on social safety nets, and Black and white “freedom riders” who risked their lives together in the 1960s for real social progress on integrated buses that no current American soccer, football or basketball player likely would have dared set foot on (where’s the fame and money in that?). What they saw in the Games were losers gleefully criticizing America, building their “brands,” but careful not to criticize China.
They saw the “silly people” about whom Bill Maher ranted, evidently bent on self-destruction.
Grady Means is a writer (GradyMeans.com) and former corporate strategy consultant. He served in the White House as a policy assistant to Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. Follow him on Twitter @gradymeans1.