Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1991, the United States has been the only hegemonic power in the world. The power structure of the international system has undoubtedly been in a “unipolar system”. However, due to the rise of emerging economies and renewal of the Eurasian geo-economic map, a new historical process of transformation from a unipolar system to a multipolar system has emerged.
Even though the Biden administration took office as expected and Trump was saved from being impeached a second time, the U.S. today does have a lot of domestic problems. . Violent attacks on the Capitol and Blizzard in Texas have exposed many deep-seated contradictions. Yet, it is still too early to say that the “post-American era” has arrived.
“American values” in trouble
The international system underwent several changes after World War II, and the United States emerged as the most powerful country in the world. America’s power lies not only in its military strength, economic scale and share in the global trading system, but also its global leadership in high-precision manufacturing, higher education, scientific and technological innovation, and basic and applied research, as well as the hegemony of the U.S. dollar – the currency issued by the U.S. accounts for two-thirds of the world’s total currency circulation, and the United States has a dominant position in the international system, rules, and governance system.
Especially important is the fact that the U.S. has for long had unparalleled influence in the construction of the world’s discourse and international governance mechanisms in the post-World War II period. For example, the concept of global governance, which is familiar to people today, can be traced back to the “Fourteen Point Plan” issued by President Wilson in 1918. The “Wilson Doctrine” is recognized as the origin of the American liberal internationalist diplomatic tradition.
However, the sadness of decline and the prosperity of rise are destined to be equally dazzling and eye-catching. Today, American power is in decline. This is not because of external factors such as the rise of China and other emerging countries, but because “American values” are caught in huge internal troubles. This is not only manifested in the antagonism between the two major political forces represented by the Democratic and Republican parties, but in the partisan politics that has begun to hijack the country’s governance propositions and the high degree of division in American society and public. And a divided America is destined to be a struggling America.
Is America a “multicultural nation” or a “white supremacist nation”? Is America’s racist bias institutional, or is it culturally determined? Will the U.S. economy grow by continuing to cut taxes, or by raising them? Should the nation’s responsibility to the lower and middle income classes continue to be reflected in a culture of free-for-all where Americans are more “on their own,” or should the government’s state responsibility for social welfare distribution be expanded? Should U.S. diplomacy put “America first” or return to the responsibility of a “world leader” with allied coordination? Does the United States need to open up conventional energy sources to become the world’s leading energy exporter, or does it need to pursue a “green energy” program and strengthen its commitment to environmental responsibility? Today, the internal controversies in the United States are so profound. Combined with an aging infrastructure, the loss of white-collar jobs due to the relocation of manufacturing, inflated securities and financial markets, and the Federal Reserve’s money-printing frenzy and rising U.S. government deficits, the pressure and distress inherent in the U.S. desire to remain at the top is unprecedented.
Is the “China focus” a political imperative?
U.S. elites are now very concerned that infighting, epidemics and economic decline in the United States may actually cause a “post-American era” to come to be. Richard Haass, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, tweeted after the Jan. 6 outbreak of Trump supporters taking over Capitol Hill that the day would mark the beginning of the “post-American era”. However, US politics and policies as a whole will firmly reject and reject the “post-American era.” This is not only because of a need for the interests of the United States to maintain its hegemonic status, but also a product of the U.S. perception of its own strength and status, which is rife with “American exceptionalism, the U.S. elite’s political philosophy of international relations.
The U.S. elite’s philosophical understanding of international relations and politics is rooted in the theoretical perception that the “post-American era” will be more turbulent and conflictual. As a result, the more internally divided and fragile the United States becomes, the heavier the US national power apparatus will exert strategic pressure on competing countries such as China and Russia.
What is particularly worrying is that an internally divided United States will increasingly need to shape and focus on “foreign enemies.” Only by portraying China, Russia and other countries as a huge “immediate threat” to the United States in accordance with the needs of American values and interests, can opposing domestic political forces find room for compromise and cooperation, and the huge social and political divisions be restrained temporarily in their infighting and remaining “united”. British scholar Kanan Ganesh recently wrote in the Financial Times recently that promotion of the “China threat theory” is “highly opportune” for the United States for maintaining cohesion, revealing pungently and clearly that both in the past and now, “shaping the promotion of the “China threat theory is required by the domestic political interest of the United States.
It has been more than a month since the Biden administration took office. Biden and his policy team have made massive and rapid changes to the Trump administration’s original practices in domestic and foreign affairs. However, the “de-Trumpization” of China policy is not only limited, it is even continuing. The Trump administration’s practices in the fields of trade with China, science and technology, hare being played as a “value card”, highlighting the differences and opposition between the political and economic systems of the United States and the West and China, and arbitrarily accusing China of “abusing the international system.” At present, the Biden administration is evaluating the industrial chain and supply chain adjustment plan. The “China Working Group” of the Pentagon of the United States held its first meeting to re-evaluate and review the United States’ China-related military and security strategy. It is quite possible that the Biden Administration’s global security posture will further “focus on China” and continue to promote “de-Sinicisation” in the high-tech and trade sectors.
Wrong Response Will Only Accelerate Decline
At present, the hegemonic advantage of the United States is still obvious, but the power gap between China and the United States is also narrowing. In particular, the core elements of strategic competition among major powers are not only technology, industry, and market, but also the number of allies and the international strategic mobilization and action capabilities based on them. The historical process of “rising eastward and descending west” of international power balance is difficult to stop, but too sudden an emergence of the “post-American era” is in fact not in China’s interests. Whether the United States can get out of the shadow of today’s infighting and rejuvenate, time alone can tell.
Today, in the 21st century, is the era of the community of human destiny, in which all countries share honor and disgrace, sorrow and joy. The historical process of China’s rise is not determined simply by the interaction between China and the United States, or by the rise and fall of the other. To hope for a “post-American era” is not only simplistic but also blind. On the contrary, we need to soberly see the special nature of the discussion on the “post-American era” in which the U.S. policy toward China has become more serious and complex. This will be an enduring strategic contest that will need to focus on the U.S.-China relationship, but also go beyond it. Demonstrating to the world the goodwill and softness of a rising China, as well as the inseparability of interdependence and common development, is the key to breaking the U.S. desire to continue to shape the “China threat” and the Biden Administration’s efforts to bring together European and Asia-Pacific allies to “encircle” China in terms of technology, trade and industry and “contain” China.
Washington needs to realize that if it is unrestrained in shaping “China as an enemy of China” based on domestic political interests, it will be self-defeating. The history of international relations is also not lacking in cases where the overreaction of defensive powers to rising powers has led to their downfall. As long as China takes its own path steadily and the United States blindly indulges in “extreme strategic competition” without facing up to and solving its internal problems, the “post-American era” can be expected to arrive ahead of schedule.
(The author is the Dean of the Institute of International Relations, Nanjing University)