The BBC seemed to derive great pleasure last week from two stories it aired back-to-back on an ascendant China. The first covered China's successful launch of its second manned space mission, while the following story related archaeologists' discovery of 4,000-year-old
lo mein noodles, proving conclusively that pasta comes from China.
Chinese authorities felt confident enough in their propulsion improvements to carry the space launch on live TV, and a boisterous shopkeeper was heard to predict that China would be a greater nation than the United States "in five years, maybe 10." While the BBC commentator joined with unattributed senior Chinese officials in chiding the woman for her irrational exuberance, the early 21st century certainly is being touted as an era in which China rises while the United States deteriorates.
The laws by which empires work have been on my mind since I picked up Peter Turchin's fascinating new book, War and Peace and War: The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations, a popular interpretation of the author's math-laden work on how empires evolve. In Turchin's analysis, every empire goes through a period of assuring its citizens that it is carrying out the mandate of heaven. The sooner its citizens can get beyond such thinking, the more resilient a nation can be in moving through the stages of empire.
American intellectuals, even those representing a conservative establishment, tend to look at the claims of an undefeatable China with a jaundiced eye. Evidence of their attitude can be seen in the September/October Foreign Affairs special issue on China, where pundits were careful to warn that confabulations of 10-foot Guangzhou Goliaths were as misplaced as the widely held belief in a Japanese juggernaut, heard 15 or 20 years ago.
The problem in putting the China myth in its place rests in the inability of the American public to get beyond its own preferred brand of myths, led by a belief in national exceptionalism. Whether expressed as the 200-year-old seeds of the nation's Calvinist forefathers, assuring us we were a nation uniquely blessed by God, or the more recent Reagan ramblings of the "city on a hill" protected from all harm, our brief stint as a unipolar superpower has somehow morphed into the right and proper order of the universe.
Sure, we are unique in our beliefs in individualism and human rights, and our Constitution has held a 200-year test of time better than some. But we also need to be mindful of our limitations. We can do little about our current deficit when our people still shy away from paying additional taxes or beefing up their personal savings accounts. Despite our outpouring of aid for crises as close as Katrina or as distant as Kashmir, we still avoid public service whenever possible. We are averse to using "soft power" to expand our influence abroad; bullying seems to be our preferred way of making other nations like us.
This is not a good recipe for longevity.
Nevertheless, not all is gloom and doom. The United States' aging demographics, bolstered by healthy immigration, look far better than those of Europe or Japan, making it likely that the U.S. will remain a powerhouse for several decades. But notice that modifier, "healthy immigration." Those who want to retain myths about the exceptionalist nation often are the same ones who want to join militias at the U.S. borders to keep out foreigners.
In short, the United States will remain strong by leveraging the famous economic concepts of comparative advantage, not by believing we can always remain first because God made us an exceptionalist nation. But the problem we face is that politicians of both parties are reticent to point out the limitations of these myths, because they can use them to advantage in elections.
Maybe the world needs a new breed of "myth busters" analysts independent from either major political party who are willing to loudly proclaim the hazards to our nation's future when citizens maintain unsupportable myths about the factors that make the nation great. Personally, I'd like to be a giant-slayer when it comes to this one: The voice of authority should always trump known facts or empirical observations. ("My president, preacher or mommy told me it was true, so don't confuse me with evidence!")
But that seems an awfully big dragon. Perhaps a more reasonable start would be to burst the bubble of national exceptionalism in favor of a model that says we can remain strong along some metrics in some areas, but need not fear new nations that come in as partial competitors.
Nations have ebbed and flowed, each believing it was fulfilling a divine mission. Turchin or Collapse author Jared Diamond would beg to differ, even as they remind us that the United States holds no claim to being the first to make pasta.
By Loring Wirbel (firstname.lastname@example.org), communications editorial director for EE Times