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Foreign Policy

Great Again or Steady Decline?

Jan 29, 2021
  • Wu Zurong

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

Will the United States become great again or continue to decline? And what will President Joe Biden’s China policy look like? These two questions are closely interrelated and have caught the attention of the whole world.

It may be not possible to make any detailed predictions, but outlines of the general direction might be worth discussing.

First, the U.S. has already begun to decline politically, with extreme conservative policies leading it nowhere. The policies of the Donald Trump administration over the past four years essentially focused on representing the interests of conservative, populist and economic nationalist factions, with hegemonic unilateralism at the core of its foreign policy. Under the slogans of “American first” and “Make America great again,” Trump and his policymakers put the seizure and maintenance of governing power above everything else at home and tried to dominate world affairs at will.

In a deeply divided America, Republicans and Democrats take turns governing. The 2020 presidential election showed that the old political system, with a weakened ability to improve itself, had to face a lot of new challenges while making tough decisions about whose turn it was to govern. Because electoral politics had degenerated into profound divisions in society, voting results managed to stand, but only with sharpened antagonism between partisans. A transition of power would most likely only occur only after unprecedented troubles.

The worrisome social phenomenon is the fact that the social divisions have existed for a long time, with no reconciliation in sight, as deep-rooted perceptions have been closely associated with the ideology, economic predicament, race and social status of voters. Many now believe that social divisions will go deeper, rather than being gradually bridged, even though the new president, Biden, has expressed his desire to heal the country’s wounds. The widening gap between rich and poor under the capitalist market economic system, which is the fundamental cause of social division, shows no signs of easing.

The political decline of the U.S. can be seen in two recent examples: the 2020 presidential election and failed efforts to suppress the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the case of the election, the contradictions between the Republicans and Democrats had become so acute that unprecedented challenges have emerged to the current political system. The election results managed to stand, but without the comforting concession of the losing candidate. The degeneration of electoral politics has even produced violence between supporters of the two major parties’ candidates.

By endlessly repeating his baseless claims of massive election fraud, Trump obstinately demonstrated his obsessive desire to remain in power. His constant effort to realize this dream led to a loss of life in the ugly seizure of the Capitol by rioters, who came very close to lawmakers, some of whom hid under their seats while awaiting evacuation from the building. As rioters shouted their desire to “hang Mike Pence,” the vice president, the Congressional joint session to count the electoral votes of states was interrupted.

Days before this violent episode, there had already been more 50 lawsuits by Trump to alter the election result, all of them dismissed and two appeals rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court. Deceptions and misinformation were everywhere. Personal integrity was absent as Republican disputed the election results.

Money politics also played an important role in the attempt to overturn the election results. And some elected public servants were negligent in their official duties.

The consequences were disastrous, and amplified by the coronavirus crisis. Federal budget review and decision-making on defense, urgently-needed public health relief funds and normal federal government operations were sidetracked. As a result, the low efficiency of federal governance only got worse, hindering economic recovery and leading to more loss of life in the pandemic.

In a word, the underpinnings of American democracy were damaged, and the traditional values of democracy seem to have lost their luster. It may be true that that the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, expressed in his hope that government “of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth”  had been forgotten.

In the case of the pandemic, the plain, harsh truth is that while the U.S. has been a superpower in the world for more than a hundred years, it is now defeating itself — like a man who has grown old and lost his vitality. Without a doubt, U.S. performance is lagging behind many other countries in the world.

The U.S. arguably possesses the best medical and human resources in the world for dealing with a pandemic, but it has achieved the worst results of all developed countries in suppressing this one. It is sad and shocking to see more than 21 million infections and to learn that nearly one in 1,000 Americans infected had died from COVID-19 since the first reported infection in late January 2020.

It is widely believed that some politicians’ distrust of medical science and experts, the lack of coordinated control and prevention measures nationwide and failure to properly balance the suppression of the disease with needed economic and social activities lie at the root of the disaster. The U.S. refusal to cooperate internationally, highlighted by its withdrawal from the World Health Organization, has proved counterproductive.

From the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic, there were politicians who fueled confusion and conspiracies, misleading the public about the true dangers. Lies and controversies followed over wearing masks, discouraging people from effectively avoiding infection. Large-scale gatherings for political, economic or entertainment purposes violated the principle of social distancing, with high risk of infection for participants. Divisive political activities and public opinion are destroying the most needed, most powerful weapon against the coronavirus — the unity of the whole country.                 

As the world’s sole superpower, the U.S. had done a lot of damage over the past four years — to globalization and the political, economic, financial and security order. But it is not powerful enough to establish any new health mechanisms under its sole leadership. As foreign policy is an extension of a country’s domestic affairs, the continuity of the foreign policy of a deeply divided America could be hardly expected. The Trump administration deviated from or reversed the policies of previous administrations, and it is believed that the Biden administration will most likely pursue a different path.

An assessment of the so-called tough two-party consensus on China policy is only one side of the coin. Though it is true that both Republicans and Democrats share a desire to contain China so that it will never grow strong enough to challenge the U.S., they never seem to agree on the details of strategy and tactics because of their different interests. China and the U.S. live in the same small earth village and share the same broad destiny. One cannot destroy the other without being destroyed. As both clearly understand that a large-scale hot war would produce no winners, this scenario won’t end as many have predicted.

But if the Biden administration and its followers continue to pursue the Trump administration’s extreme, frantic anti-China policies, the U.S. will be worn out in the next 30 or 40 years. Its political decline will lead to a decline in financial, economic and military strength. This could happen because of overextended military spending, as well as the waste of other strategic resources in a quest to destroy China. Under such circumstances, it’s no fantasy that the U.S. could become a second Soviet Union, even as China overcomes all kinds of difficulties to achieve its second centennial social and economic development goals.

The 2020 world situation, and that of China and the U.S., have provided some meaningful initial clues supporting this assessment. China grew remarkably over the past four years, becoming the only major economy in the world to achieve mild growth in 2020, as the Trump administration frantically stepped up its unprecedented malign actions — actions unseen in the last 48 years of Sino-U.S. relations.

Rationally, the Biden administration should be neither overly optimistic nor overly pessimistic about China. It is expected that Biden will not be so unwise as to repeat the mistakes of the Trump administration when dealing with China. He understands that the Trump administration’s China policy was not based on diplomacy in the U.S. national interests, nor for the interest of vast majority of the American people, but for a small group of extreme conservatives.

The new administration also understands that the Trump administration’s widespread sanctions against China and Chinese businesses, in the final analysis, hurt U.S. businesses, resulting in a loss of U.S. market share in China and a reduction of Chinese investment in the U.S. Refusal to cooperate with China in areas where there are common interests damages U.S. interests and its reputation in world affairs. Trump’s obsessive provocations of China placed heavy burdens on limited U.S. resources, leading to an unbalanced strategy and isolation from other countries.

It is possible that the two countries will resume their contacts and dialogues under Biden, and pragmatic cooperation in some areas may be carried out. But bilateral exchanges and cooperation come with many obstacles, some of which are not likely to be removed anytime soon.

As Democrats now have a slim majority in the House and delicate control of the Senate — nowhere near two-thirds of either house — the Biden administration may find it difficult to remove the restrictions on bilateral exchanges and cooperation already imposed by various U.S. laws.

Healing the wounds inflicted on the bilateral relationship will require the reversal of the U.S. containment strategy and a sincere return to the principles of no confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.

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