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U.S. Confusion Within and Without

Jul 13, 2022
  • Han Liqun

    Researcher, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on abortion rights has caused an uproar across America, with pro-lifers cheering the outcome while pro-choice advocates bash it. In a country as modern as the United States, the issue of whether women are entitled to abortion has been a topic of debate repeatedly, driving deep rift between supporters and opponents. But if we put all this into perspective and combine it with other domestic problems, it points to the fact that the U.S as a nation is undergoing severe internal confusion.

First, the political dynamics are in disarray.

Gender, immigration, race, guns, drugs, abortion, medical care, employment, prices and other topics have become daily concerns for ordinary Americans, and they are hot issues that could swing the midterm election, with distinctive American characteristics. Because of the political structure, relevant issues often move back and forth, generally lacking a consistent direction or serious coordination between issues. The decision on abortion rights came a day after the Supreme Court ruled that outdoor gun possession was legal and ruled New York City’s gun restrictions unconstitutional. In the court’s view, the U.S. Constitution protects an individual’s right to carry a gun for self-defense, but it does not enshrine in it the freedom for a woman to control her own body.

As of mid-2022, drugs are being legalized in the U.S. while abortion is being outlawed. People have more freedom to choose their sex, but racial discrimination is more entrenched. The right to own guns is protected, while the right to employment and health care is curtailed. Decisions about whose rights are protected and whose may be trampled, whom to support and whom to oppose, are not coordinated, and many of these changes are driving social fragmentation. In this regard, the legislature, judiciary and administrative arms of the United States are all sticking to their own positions. None can win over the other.

Second, the strategic focus has drifted.

Reviving manufacturing and restoring U.S. competitiveness is the current mantra of America’s political elite. As this logic runs, the strategic plan to revitalize the country deserves heightened attention and should be carried out more smoothly. This is justifiably an internal affair of the United States, and there should be nothing wrong with it. But this is not the case. The American Compete Act of 2022, for example, aims to bolster U.S. semiconductor, chips and manufacturing industries and advance U.S. competitiveness by clamping down on China and other competitors. The Act has been welcomed by high-tech and manufacturing companies in the United States, many of which have priced in subsidies in their future investment plans.

But the bill’s prospects have been clouded by multiple votes in the House of Representatives and Senate as the two chambers have their own versions in mind. A group of U.S. tech companies, including Amazon and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, recently signed a petition to Congress to appeal for swift adoption of the bill. In stark contrast, some bills that make virtually no sense to the United States have flourished. For example, the Uygur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which took effect on June 21 this year, barely has any bearing on the U.S. itself, other than aggravating the gap between China and the U.S. and benefiting a few politicians.

Third, the U.S. is at a loss in its global strategy.

The United States seems to have misjudged the three major events, the magnitude of the ongoing unprecedented changes, the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The Trump administration identified China as a strategic rival, while the Biden administration identified China as its biggest strategic competitor. In a recent policy speech, Secretary of State Antony Blinken argued that China is the only country that has the ability and the will to change the international order and challenge the United States. Following this logic, the U.S. should focus its primary resources on strengthening coordination and communication with China to ensure strategic stability.

However, what is surprising is that from the Obama administration to Trump and then to Biden, the United States spent all its time piling up divergences in the Eurasian region, culminating in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The entire West and even the whole world is grappling with ramifications of the conflict. The U.S. and its allies spent major resources on sanctions against Russia, and Europe is gradually falling into despair.

At the same time, the United States appears to be ambivalent about its overall strategy toward China. Regarding the pandemic, the U.S. did not expect China would recover quickly and develop steadily from the crisis, nor did it expect that the pandemic would have such a huge impact on the world, nor figure out exactly what role it should play in response. It seems the U.S. global strategy is seriously out of kilter.

Fourth, foreign policy rings hollow.

Since President Biden took office, the U.S. has been engaged in a flurry of summit diplomacy, holding dozens of meetings online and in person, ranging from traditional U.S.-EU summit, the Summit of the Americas, the NATO Summit and the G7 Summit, to the so-called Democracy Summit and the COVID-19 summit, as well as the QUAD, AUKUS and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, all aiming at advancing the so-called new strategy. But these summits look hollow compared with the various summits and foreign projects it hosted a decade ago.

Take the Summit of the Americas as an example, it is the mechanism that best reflects the regional hegemony of the United States, but it has become Biden’s nightmare because of its empty and two-faced policies. It has been boycotted by Latin American countries and the number of leaders attending the summit was the smallest in history. Compared with the TPP and RCEP, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is more like a policy report authored by the State Department, which is unlikely to impress seasoned politicians in its intended audience. These empty foreign policies are a symptom of the steep decline of America's ability to get things delivered.

Fifth, the U.S. is straining its development resources.

It has a population of over 300 million and a median age of 38 years. It has a much envied geographical location, mineral resources, market size, scientific and technological innovation, social vitality and talent base. It could well remain the top power simply through unblocking its potential and living in harmony with the world without crushing China. Unfortunately, over the past decades, the United States has not only overstretched the resources for its own development, but also undermined many of the international institutions it helped create.

One of the main reasons is that the concept of development and growth in the United States has gone awry. On its own terms, the long-term benefits of healthy competition with other countries would far outweigh the short-term benefits of ill-willed containment, not to mention the lose-lose consequences that do no good to the U.S. America’s approach is undermining its own long-term development prospects, and it is not conducive to the shared and balanced development of the world.

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