Thursday, January 15, 2004

Solipsism in Company

Before the colossal distraction of 9/11, the Bush administration obsessed over China, which had pretty obviously become the enemy elect for a politics absolutely dependent on having enemies. Recently, this theme has begun to surface again. I tend to be less alarmist about the Chinese myself, both because I am very mindful of the huge internal problems faced by that nation and because China has no tradition of projecting power outside of its Eurasian sphere and, in any case, will lack the military power to do so for a long time. Even on the economic front, I tend to agree with Peter Drucker that the most significant rival for the U.S. is not China but India, a nation with hundreds of millions of well-educated people, many of them English speaking; enough nuclear weapons to deter the United States; and a rough and ready but authentic democracy. Because of the on-going drag of character-based literacy, it plain costs more to educate a Chinese kid than an Indian one. One also cannot count out the Europeans and Japanese as economic if not political rivals; for their supposed great economic disadvantage, a declining birth rate, may turn out to be a huge strength if they prove to be the first societies that learn how to persist and prosper on the other side of the demographic transition. They have also begun to wean themselves from petroleum while the U.S., like an oversized baby, still wallows in the cradle endlessly screaming for the bottle.

All of this handicapping is pleasant enough, but obscures the more important fact: the likelihood that the center of gravity of history over the next century will not be in North America. Of course there is nothing intrinsically surprising about this fact, if it is a fact, and nothing untoward either. Indeed, the only plausible outcome that would leave us as the protagonist of the story would be a vast tragedy. Declining nations sometimes protest against their loss of power by using military violence to preserve a preeminence that is no longer merited by superior population, wealth, growth, creativity, or culture. The Spanish, French, and German examples are not encouraging in this regard. At any event, it is very likely we’ll have a terrible time coming to terms with a transition to a less exalted status, ignorant as we are of the world and its history, addicted as we are to national vanity, subjected as we are to non-stop flattery by cynical politicians. After all many Americans actually believe that the Soviet Union fell because a nice old guy made some stirring speeches. The notion that the Russians have their own history is too great a reach. Fog in the channel. Continent cut off.

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