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Society & Culture

Navigating Nomadland

Jun 07, 2021
  • Xiao Bin

    Deputy Secretary-general, Center for Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies, Chinese Association of Social Sciences

Anthony Oliver Scott, an American journalist and culture critic, published a piece in the New York Times titled “Nomadland Reviews: The Unsettled Americans” in which he portrayed the tension between stability and displacement, between the illusory solace of home and the dangerous lure of the highway — a theme at the heart of the movie “Nomadland.”

A striking parallel can be drawn regarding global strategic stability, which is also in a state of Nomadland. 

How the Nomadland came about

Richard Haass, president of Council of Foreign Relations, and Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Institute of Russian and Eastern European and Central Asian Studies, co-authored a piece titled “The New Concert of Powers: How to Prevent Catastrophe and Promote Stability in a Multipolar World,” which was published on the Foreign Affairs website on March 23. The article argues that the Western-led liberal order that emerged after WW II cannot anchor global stability in the 21st century, and a rising China, assisted by a pugnacious Russia, seeks to challenge Western authority and republican approaches to domestic and international governance.

However, a review of post-WWII international politics shows that it is the United States that is responsible for the imbalance in global strategic stability. After the Cold War, because of the absence of “checks and balances” in the international system, the United States became the sole global superpower. Subsequently, it has trampled international norms based on the Charter of the United Nations, under the pretext of a litany of excuses. It not only rejects multilateralism in favor of unilateralism, but also makes preemptive strikes against other countries under the belief that the countries that do not conform to U.S. national interests or values are adversaries and therefore should be contained.

In America’s geostrategic discussions on Eurasia, Russia is always its rival, while China is a potential rival or challenger. On Jan. 19, the United States Congress issued a report titled “America's Role in the World: Background and Issues for Congress,” which argues that the purpose of establishing NATO was to forestall and contain Russia from becoming a hegemonic power in Eurasia. Coalitions in the Asia-Pacific region are meant to contain Russia and China. Even in the new global market of COVID19 vaccine sales and donations, the U.S. is more concerned that China and Russia may use it to boost their soft power rather than focusing on how cross border vaccine drives would help other countries overcome the pandemic.

Where the Nomadland is headed depends on the United States

Haas and Kupchan advocated the establishment of a global coordination mechanism to make up for the inefficiencies of existing multilateral institutions, but this is a utopian idea. First things first, the United States needs to reconcile the relationship between the primacy of American national interests and the interests of other countries and multilateral institutions. In a speech titled “A Foreign Policy for the American People,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said his job was to fight for the interests and values of the American people. But if the U.S. adheres to this doctrine, it begs the question of what kind of global mechanism can underpin global strategic stability? A Sri Lanka diplomat by the name of Dayan Jayatilleka hit the nail on the head by pointing out that the U.S.-led Western world is seeking to maintain a unipolar system hegemony along two parallel tracks, wherein the neoliberals try to combine unipolar hegemony and multilateralism, and new conservatism is trying to preserve the unipolar hegemonic system by pursuing unilateralism. Both approaches are offensive and in breach of the agreements reached by the great powers under the Yalta and Potsdam frameworks.

I believe that the U.S. government is a model for many countries when it comes to defending the interests of its own people. Nevertheless, in order to serve its own political interests, U.S. political elites go to great lengths to attack other countries and distract voters at home, an act that clearly goes against maintaining global strategic stability. 

To avoid further deterioration of global strategic stability, major countries must step up their communication and resolve their differences — encounters such as the meetings in Anchorage, Alaska, between Chinese and U.S. officials, the Chinese and Russian Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Guilin, the top diplomats from Russia and the U.S. meeting in Reykjavik, and the upcoming summit in Geneva between the U.S. and Russia. But before the root causes are addressed, Nomadland will persist. How it evolves, therefore, depends on U.S. foreign policy. 

China needs global strategic stability

Counterintuitively, Nomadland is not in China’s national interest. It is labeled by a global power and its allies as a country that undermines global strategic stability. In terms of comprehensive national strength, it was only 11 years ago that China rose to a position as the world’s second-largest economy. Not until last year did China lift its 100 million rural poor out of extreme poverty. There are still 37.69 million illiterate people in the population.

This year, the U.S. will rank fifth in the world in per capita GDP, while China ranks 61st. Last year, China’s military spending was only one-third that of the U.S. The increase in China’s military spending is the instinctive response of any country to changes in its external security environment. As a country stands to benefit from global strategic stability, why would China want to undermine it? 

In the international political system, any act is based on systemic coordination. For the U.S. and its allies, portraying China as an adversary (or even a major threat) in their political narrative gives much leeway for the U.S. to take action globally, and U.S. allies are ready to jump on the bandwagon.

Global strategic stability is bound to be out of kilter in a unipolar world, and it will take a long time for it to return to equilibrium. Over the long course of history, the swings from imbalance to equilibrium have been but fleeting moments. While in the midst of Nomadland conditions, China needs to adapt to the global imbalance in strategic stability and respond accordingly.

The great Chinese thinker Confucius said, “A gentleman seeks harmony without uniformity.” In this vein, China should not fear power politics in Nomadland. Rather, it should adopt the right tactics and policies and let the world see the real China, thus debunking the China threat theory. In pursuing international cooperation, the authority of the United Nations and other international organizations should be upheld to ensure they can play their due role in maintaining global strategic stability.

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