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Society & Culture

America’s 21st Century Wake Up Call

Mar 27, 2021
  • Tom Watkins

    President and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, FL

America needed a good kick in the rear – and China obliged.

U.S. President Jimmy Carter does not get the credit he deserves in predicting that closer relations with China would not only benefit China, but also the U.S. and indeed, all humanity. At the height of the Cold War, President Carter and Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping looked beyond their respective nations’ many differences to find common ground and make the world a safer place. Carter was ahead of his time in many ways during his presidency, addressing the need for America to wake up. Instead, he was ridiculed for talking about an American “malaise,” although he never used the word. Yet history has proven him right – America has lost our belief in ourselves. Forty plus years ago, President Carter was calling out Americans – challenging us to find “our better selves,” calling for national civic sacrifice, pulling together as a nation to beat that decade’s energy crisis.

In 1979 the New York Post bemoaned that on "Independence Day, the American paradox seemed bleakly apparent....As a nation, we appear to have become steadily more dependent on forces seemingly beyond our control, losing confidence in our ability to master events, uncertain of our direction." The editors wrote: “The United States is now a victim of a loss of nerve and will, wracked by indecision and groping for a glimpse of inspirational and innovative leadership."

Fast forward to the 21st century and today, after four years of chaos under former President Trump, America is again searching for itself’ even as a more confident, more bellicose China has pushed through the COVID pandemic stronger than ever.

Republicans and Democrats can’t seem to come together over anything except a common “enemy” – China – in order to survive and maintain our stature in the world.

It has been said “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This could never be truer today as it relates to the hyper-partisan rancor between the two major U.S. political parties. China becomes that common enemy.

China Fear

China is on the verge of overtaking the United States in areas that affect economics, national security, and technology – artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data, 5G and quantum computing. They are also gaining on the U.S. when it comes to military power and a blue water navy. Fear is a powerful motivator. Especially when that fear is another nation rising to knock you off your throne. There is fear in the halls of both the White House and Congress that China is breathing down our neck, and if we do not pick up our pace, they will likely surpass us on multiple fronts as the 21st century unfolds.

It is this ‘fear’ that E.J. Dionne Jr. opined in The Washington Post – that China is driving the U.S. leaders to wake up to a new reality. It is the common enemy that enables adversaries to bond. American leaders on the left and the right are beginning to absorb that what we once had is now gone, with a rising China casting a shadow over all we do. What we make of this new reality is entirely up to us.

Even as Republicans and Democrats battle each other over the most trivial of issues, they just may be able to pause their hyper-partisanship long enough to forge a plan that assures China’s rise does not come at the U.S.’s demise.

The hyper vigilant sensitivity towards China could significantly re-order Republican philosophy toward the government’s role in the domestic economy in ways that make the United States stronger. There is a window of opportunity coming off the devastation of the economic tsunami that the COVID pandemic wrought – it may very well allow for a massive government re-investment in America itself.

President Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said, “U.S. firms will continue to lose ground in the competition with Chinese companies if Washington continues to rely so heavily on private sector research and development, which is directed toward short-term profit-making applications rather than long-term, transformative breakthroughs.” This new realization is being dubbed ‘Sullivan’s Law.’ What we do on foreign policy impacts what we can and cannot achieve here at home. 

Wake Up America

American comedian and political commentator William (Bill) Maher, known for his “Politically Incorrect” show, smacks the American people between the eyes with a monologue exposing many Americans to the reality of a rising China. “America sees problems and ignores them… In China, they have 40,000 kilometers of high-speed rail. America has none. We've been having Infrastructure Week every week since 2009 but we never do anything. He concluded: “Americans are a silly people” while China is deadly serious about its rise.

Sadly, to date, most of the anti-China rhetoric has focused on holding China back rather than propelling America forward. To be clear, China is challenging America on many fronts — from who controls the South China Sea to the future of 5G. But given the wealth and power China has amassed, much of it with the West’s assistance, our current U.S. defense strategy is like building a chain link fence to hold back a tsunami. Budgets are statements of priorities — transparent for the all the world to see where China is headed as it invests the globalization gains it has accumulated.

China and the United States have intertwined economies and shared interests and need to jointly work on finding solutions to the problems that threaten all of humanity.

America is at a precipice. We can accept the analysis of foreign policy experts, swallow the fear of politicians - Republicans and Democrats alike – comedians, and social commentators, or we can harken back to the days of President Carter when he challenged America to believe in itself again. President Carter’s landmark “crisis of confidence” speech was a bold, albeit ultimately ill-fated attempt, to lift the American spirit. We need to do so again today and can’t afford to fail.

President Carter saw one viable path forward toward a “common purpose and the restoration of American values working toward the common good.”

President Biden has begun his “build back better” plan with a $1.9 trillion COVID relief stimulus win – an investment in the American people. He needs to build on this American investment strategy – not as a way to hold China back – but as a means of catapulting America forward.

America must come together to solve the intractable problems facing this nation or expect to be pushed aside by a rising China. It is that clear.

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