Conflict or Collaboration with China?

As the Trump Administration rachets up the pressure on China it has become unclear exactly what the United States government wants: economic reform in China, establishing limits to China’s regional influence, destabilization of China’s economy, or — as President Trump’s now infamous campaign slogan suggests —a return to a time when America no longer had to contend with China as a near peer competitor, a time when American was great again, and when China knew its place. Today it would seem that America has two choices: conflict or collaboration with China.

A collaborative framework of engagement towards China would not have to be conciliatory, or require that the United States turn a blind eye towards China’s many failings; rather, it would seek out common ground on economic and foreign policy matters, viewing such an effort as the basis of a relationship where hard conversations could not only be had, but where progress towards America’s interests could be achieved. Collaboration would force America to identify where both countries have shared interests, and then make an even deeper commitment to bilaterally binding trade, environment and military agreements.

But for this to happen, America will need to avoid blaming China for structural problems that have taken decades to take root.

China is not the reason Middle America is struggling; the inability of American politics to recognize and proactively address how global changes would impact the American worker are.

A chronic lack of vision by America’s political leaders, an unwillingness to sacrifice rigid political orthodoxy at the altar of pragmatic policies, to take political risks deliberately designed to test new ways of helping average Americans pivot into this new world, and exceptionally poor decisions on where to spend limited human and financial capital, are all why Middle America is struggling.

The world is seeing something new in Trump. Politics as usual has failed too many Americans, and in their frustration they are willing to act in unpredictable ways, channeling their rage into ideas and actors that even a decade ago would have been laughed off of any major news show. Trump has exposed long-standing economic grievances in Middle America that have been trivialized by mainstream politicians from both parties. He has taken advantage of politics as entertainment, a whole form of discourse that markets resentment and outrage. He is certainly not the only American politician to pander to the country’s baser instincts, but he is by far the most manipulative, thus far. Absent a unifying ideology other than self-aggrandizement, Trump’s daily violation of the norms that have held the American experiment together has paved the way for even more manipulative players, with much darker agendas that do have a unified worldview, which will include outside actors like China to blame for America’s problems.

The path of conflict with China benefits from the various ongoing economic difficulties felt by the American middle class, whether those are actually the result of globalization, automation, or elaborate financial engineering, in particular as their elected leaders prove to be feckless at how to address these concerns. The alternative, a path of collaboration, begins by focusing on those structural problems within American life that are within our power to change: these almost entirely revolve around requiring of our political leaders a positive vision of the future, and the hard choices we will have to make in order to get there. Today, this sort of clear vision is nested entirely within rigid political worldviews, ones that do not reflect the lived realities and shared values of most Americans. The central question that may determine whether or not the US and China go to war will not be China’s policies in the South China Sea, or its treatment of political dissidents, or its trade policies; no, what will determine if the US and China lock horns in war will be whether or not Americans can again discover political courage, and demand of their leaders candor, clarity and competency.

Everyone understands the stakes if the US and China were to become enemies. But too few believe this is possible, another example of where global elites may be guilty of a tragic inability to conceive of a world where their ideas are no trusted by the average person. In the aftermath of Brexit, the 2016 American Presidential election, and the deep insecurities these moments captured, might the world today be guilty of the same complacency as what characterized Europe in its slow march to war in the years prior to World War I? Are we really so different and that much more enlightened, to avoid the same pitfalls that have occurred in prior eras? The globalized world many of us have grown up in, the one our businesses have invested in, and our economies have become dependent upon, could collapse more quickly than it came together.

Think this is hyperbole? Remember the ground the world have covered since 2008: the bulletproof American housing industry collapsed, the American financial system went through a structural crisis not seen since the Great Depression, and America’s political system descended into levels of acrimony and dysfunction rarely before seen, culminating in a 2016 election that sent Donald Trump to the White House. Today, the Eurozone seems wobbly, riven by many of the same economic, ideological and national security insecurities that America also struggles with today. Each of these should have been a reminder that history is most certainly not dead, that it is still with us. The lessons of history offer up warnings about what happens when complacency and ineptitude infect politics, if only we will listen. The most human of follies and hubris is to think we are so different from those who came before us, so much more sophisticated and enlightened, that we can rise above the mistakes they made and forever avoid global contagion and conflict.

In the aftermath of every war, mankind steps back and wonders aloud how we can prevent such atrocities from ever happening again. We survey the national cemeteries, look at the wounded and the families left behind and demand of ourselves that we never let such a moment happen again. And yet it does. Again and again men throw themselves at one another, equally committed to their cause and country, equally sure of the justice and righteousness of their actions. And every time as the heat of battle fades, we wonder aloud how humanity could have been guilty of such a moment of irrationality. Yet here is the deeper truth: war is always rational. It is always the sensible choice as understood by the people who stand up and offer themselves at the altar of each generation’s god of war. It is rational because their leaders understand two essential things about human nature: insecure people need someone to blame, and blaming an outside actor is always the preferred choice, as opposed to dealing with deeper and more problematic structural problems at home.

As rhetoric towards China has heated up over the last several weeks, many have found themselves going back to the often-derided Thucydidean Trap, the idea that wars of choice often go hand in hand with great powers who perceive themselves to be in decline, and who fear the rising power of a competitor. The question now many be less about China, and much more about whether American political life is capable of summoning the courage and grace to redirect its shared anxieties away from outside actors and toward choices the United States much make about our future. The answer to these questions will be answered to profound consequence in the coming years.

Portions excerpted from Blaming China: It Might Feel Good but It Won’t Fix America’s Economy by Benjamin Shobert. Copyright © 2018 by Benjamin Shobert. Excerpted with permission by University of Nebraska Press.

Author of Blaming China, a new book that argues American society is angrier, more fragmented, and more polarized than at any time since the Civil War.

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