The end of American optimism

If you are wondering what geopolitical optimism looks like, consider this bright-eyed example. In 1989, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama boldly told the world that, with the end of the Cold War and the demise of the USSR, we had reached the end point of mankind’s ideological progress because the US-led, Western form of liberal democracy had evolved as the final form of universalized, human government.

In fact, this announcement stood on the shoulders of decades of American orchestrated postwar global optimism. The US emerged from World War II largely unscathed internally, replete with natural resources and world-leading universities spread across its vast remarkable geography. Consider the contrast with its primary competitor after that war. According to the National WWII Museum in the US, during World War II, the USSR suffered around 24 million civilian and military deaths compared to 418,000 American deaths (mainly military).

America dominated the rest of the world economically and militarily as the global postwar recovery began. And it was determined to maintain this ascendency. As The Economist recently explained, the US was instrumental in creating postwar globally focused institutions, like the International Monetary Fund “that could both serve American interests and claim to represent all humanity”. The IMF anchored, and financed, the “Washington Consensus”, which insistently advanced the US view of what was good for the rest of the world, creating a perception, as The Economist notes, of “imposing austerity on workers to benefit rich creditors”.

If, unfortunately, you found yourself dangerously on the wrong side of America’s optimistic global planning, the predictable consequences could swivel between dire and horrific: Consider Korea, Iran, Vietnam, Laos, Chile, Afghanistan and Iraq, for example. In certain cases, massive bombing was considered necessary to redirect the “ill-advised” back onto the road leading to abiding, liberal-democratic harmony. Laos is still suffering appallingly from unexploded bombs and land mines, decades later, after Washington ordered the pitiless bombing that turned that nation into the most-bombed country in history.

Despite these profoundly contrasting aspects, the Western media was, on balance, conspicuously successful, during the Cold War, in promoting the optimistic aspect of this American-led global rebuilding story as the very essence of the entire narrative. It helped greatly that these Hollywood-to-Fleet-Street media outlets had affirmative substance to work with, as the Anglosphere, Western Europe and parts of East Asia, for example, rebuilt with conspicuous speed and success.

This brings us back to that pinnacle of America optimism recounted by Fukuyama over 30 years ago. Having brought the USSR, the then-supreme enemy, to its knees, America, instead of pausing for deep reflection, soon redoubled its global crusading effort (with close allies joining the cause) as the war on terror accelerated frighteningly. Levels of serious concern about how balanced American foreign policy was began to increase across the global south — and especially throughout the Islamic world. Here was the US, once again plunging into horribly bloody, direct and indirect conflicts, especially in Asia and the Middle East. This did not look or feel optimistic.

American optimism was not truly set for terminal decline, though, until the US decided — as only it could — that it faced, in China, a new, exotic existential threat — a foe more frightening than the vanquished USSR.

During the initial decades, after 1978, as the rise of China became evident, many in the West expected that China would adopt and converge with that Washington Consensus. Then-US president Barack Obama, though, developed a view that China was — alarmingly — daring to choose its own path. As one commentator recently noted, Obama’s “pivot to Asia” over a decade ago was primarily a pivot against China. Since then, this negative pivot has been ramped up by then-president Donald Trump and amplified by President Joe Biden. It has evolved into an open project to contain and confront China, approvingly identified as a “new Cold War” by some American commentators.

In fact, in 2008, shortly before Obama came to power, the US came perilously close to an American-incubated financial meltdown — soon after exported to the world as the global financial tsunami. Since that turning point 15 years ago, China, using its own blueprint, has, as Hank Paulson recently noted writing in Foreign Affairs, seen its economy grow by 300 percent. Over the same period, the US economy has grown by less than 70 percent.

A range of well-worn political marketing initiatives, including repetitive “Democracy Summits” and the strident application of Washington’s “democracy versus autocracy” template, is meant to explain and justify the extraordinary level of Sino-resentment evident today in America. However, the comparative economic figures just noted revealed the main reason why the US has come to direct so much crusading antagonism toward Beijing. China is, fundamentally, too successful.

America is fortunately still blessed with some of the world’s best critical observers. Fareed Zakaria recently openly called in the Washington Post for the US to step firmly away from a China-related foreign policy “forged out of paranoia and hysteria”. He compared the current grave dysfunctionality and panic-driven decision-making in Washington to the worst of the Joseph McCarthy era in the 1950s. Professor Stephen Walt from Harvard University soon after, in Foreign Policy, censured the Biden administration’s diplomacy for underperforming “except at time-wasting talk about democracy”. Professor Tom Plate, meanwhile, argued in the South China Morning Post that the “US pandemic of dogmatism must end before it leads to war”.

Subsequently, Ian Bremmer, founder of the Eurasia Group, reminded us that the dominance of the US dollar as the world’s de facto reserve currency remains secure. In essence, the world needs a reserve currency, and it is stuck with the dollar as “you can’t replace something with nothing”. However, Bremmer went on to note how “the single biggest risk to the dollar’s global status is that growing inequality, tribalism, polarization and gridlock eventually undermine trust in America’s stability and credibility”.

Despite this searching, critical commentary, those wielding serious power in Washington are becoming more heedless rather than less, as evidenced in the recent, disgraceful congressional hearings centered on the remarkably popular, Chinese-designed social media platform, TikTok.

Here the world has witnessed a peerless American demonstration of how to apply a level of bullying official interrogation that would surely score a thumbs-up from the Spanish Inquisition. Congressional panel members were poorly prepared on factual issues but well-equipped with pre-set conclusions. A single Singaporean Chinese TikTok executive was subjected to their hectoring interrogation over several hours. It was an ugly spectacle to watch. It will have largely been seen this way outside the US, not least across the global south.

This offensive political theater appeared to be laying the groundwork for some legalized intellectual property misappropriation. Several commentators have argued that TikTok will either be removed as a competitor in America by the US authorities, or there will be a forced transfer with fire-sale pricing.

Meanwhile, China, exasperatingly, just keeps pressing on: thinking, planning, creating and building. There is no question that Beijing faces many problems, but that distinctly positive track record stretching back over 40 years explains why China still looks set to create a remarkably thriving future for itself, which so many others can share.

What an exceptional interchange of world-shaping roles is, thus, now steadily becoming apparent to billions of people around the globe. The largest and most enduring civilization on Earth today displays a highly watchful but fundamentally optimistic view looking forward. America, still braced by incomparable military power, now chiefly radiates a starkly pessimistic view of the future — one which, ultimately, can best be put right by going backward in time to restore unchallenged American global hegemony, never mind what the world may think.

The author is an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Law at Hong Kong University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.