As a correspondent in East Asia in the 1990s and 2000s, I was constantly struck by the ways China’s behavior seemed to model that of other recent great powers. Beijing launched a space program, which is as much a surrogate for military ambition as it is a rallying symbol for patriotism or an incubator for pure science. China also began creating a so-called blue water navy, giving it the ability to project force far from its shores. And, sure enough, before long it acquired and retrofitted a secondhand aircraft carrier built by Ukraine.
China pursued many other projects that the United States and others had rolled out much earlier, not all of which involved any obvious expression of hard power. It built a national highway system, just like the mid-20th-century United States had. It experimented with the concept of think tanks. And it began elaborating its own national regulatory standards, much as the United States had done in creating agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the Food and Drug Administration, helping extend U.S. influence far and wide as other countries took cues from U.S. regulatory standards.
That China had little recent history of wars of aggression (save for a failed and largely forgotten punitive invasion of Vietnam in 1979) and no alliance system like those of the United States and the bygone Soviet Union helped Beijing promote the line that it was a new kind of world power, one that would never pursue hegemony or interfere in other nations’ internal affairs.
As a New York Times bureau chief based in China, I was impressed by how thoroughly my very smart and able local staff had subscribed to this view. “China has no need for a fleet of aircraft carriers,” they told me. “You are reading too much into this one, already outdated purchase,” they said, referring to the Ukrainian ship. “What if the space program really is only about science?” they asked.
Later, as I began to research what would become my book about China’s burgeoning relations with Africa, China’s Second Continent, they scoffed at the idea that China was pursuing old-fashioned self-interest in a continent that for most Chinese seemed remote from their country’s daily concerns.
The last thing I want to do here is to ridicule my friends and former colleagues for their credulity. They were hardly alone.
As I toured African countries researching that book, I encountered U.S. diplomats who also thought it silly to make much of Beijing’s growing diplomatic and economic activity in Africa, just as the national security establishment back in Washington was having trouble imagining China’s potential to become a full-fledged rival to the United States.
Describing what I had seen during that trip, I wrote in the New York Times in June 2007 that Chinese “diplomacy has been on a tear across the continent recently, writing off debt, exempting African exports from trade duties, lending increasingly huge amounts of money, and, generally speaking, making things happen quickly and in a big way.”
Yet in an interview I did at the time, the U.S. ambassador to Chad patronizingly told me, “It is ridiculous to think of China challenging the United States. China is just one country among many that are represented here, and there is plenty of room [in Africa] for everyone. This is not a contest.” The “plenty of room” line seemed intended as a disarming non sequitur. What this really amounted to was a justification for the utter lack of U.S. policy dynamism in this part of the world.
I saw this same phenomenon during the Obama administration. I wrote stories about Beijing’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea and about the early phases of what became known as the Belt and Road Initiative, a sprawling and monumental effort by Beijing to draw Central Asia and Europe closer to China through giant infrastructure projects financed by Chinese state banks.
Later, as I finalized a book on this subject, Everything Under the Heavens, I was on tenterhooks imagining that any minute Washington would roll out some major initiative in response to China’s growing ambitions that would require big, last-minute revisions of my manuscript. Yet these concerns were for naught: As before, Beijing’s new initiatives generated little substantive response from Washington.
My purpose here is not to decry China’s actions. As with any powerful country, there are plenty of things to criticize, but they are best left for future columns. My point here is that great powers are as great powers do—not necessarily as they say. China has spent several decades engaging in impressive great-power behavior while provoking hardly any innovative policies by its principal rival, the United States.
How has the United States—a country that has so long fancied itself a world leader—become so marginal to the priorities of so many other societies outside of its traditional alliances in Europe and Northeast Asia?
Part of the answer lies in buying too fervently into one’s own myth. Americans specifically and Westerners in general have oversubscribed to notion that modernity and progress naturally flow from their Westernness and that the normal order of things is for them to lead and for others to follow, whether happily or grudgingly.
We are just now emerging from a decadeslong interlude during which influential Westerners likened East Asians to ants and routinely wondered whether their societies, lacking the liberal political foundations of Western Europe and the United States, could progress beyond a copycat existence and become competitive in technological innovation. Western-style democracy and what are fancied as “free markets” were held to be fundamental to lasting national success. Even now, many are rushing to resubscribe to this kind of thinking, citing the Russian debacle in Ukraine as sufficient proof of Western political models’ superiority.
During China’s long and steady rise, though, this kind of doctrinarian certainty excused Americans and others in the West from the need to renew themselves, and it would be a mistake to take too much comfort in cherished ideological certainties.
For Americans in particular, another part of the answer lies in the country’s deeply habitual overreliance on military solutions to world problems. The U.S. military long ago supplanted every other part of the U.S. government in overseas engagement—including an atrophied State Department, which has neither the kind of human resources needed to constructively engage with much of the world nor the financial means to have much programmatic impact.
The final piece of the answer is Washington’s obliviousness toward all but its most traditional partners: a core of Western European nations led by Britain, as well as Israel, Japan, and Australia. This self-imposed ignorance has left most of the rest of the world open to advances by Chinese diplomacy and business. Who can blame them for filling a vacuum?
I’ve seen this play out in Africa over my entire career. In the mid-1990s, as countries across the continent were establishing democratic governments—ending a bleak, decadeslong period of dictatorship fueled in substantial part by great-power competition during the Cold War—Washington mustered few additional resources to support participatory politics or economic revival in Africa.
In 1996, I asked George Moose, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa at the time, about this as we rode in a limousine together during his visit to newly democratic Mali. He told me unsmilingly, “Virtue is its own reward.” In other words, democratizing Africans should expect nothing from the United States by way of a post-Cold War peace dividend. Moose then told me that his job consisted largely of preventing African topics from rising to the level where the U.S. president would need to pay attention.
I don’t know how aware Moose was that thinking like this about Africa, and indeed about much of what was once fancied as the Third World, had a very old pedigree. At least as far back as the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration, U.S. leaders have actively deferred to Western Europe, assigning it the front-line role of engaging with the parts of the world where black- and brown-skinned people and often Asians lived. The logic was that this approach would allow Washington to concentrate its attention on the putative big fish—the people and places that mattered, meaning the core nations cited above.
The John F. Kennedy administration partially broke with this approach, and not entirely successfully (think the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Vietnam War). But for a time, it devoted serious attention to Africa and Latin America, among other regions America’s elites and foreign-policy establishment traditionally ignored.
The Lyndon B. Johnson administration quickly reverted to form, however. As Philip Muehlenbeck wrote in his book Betting on the Africans: John F. Kennedy’s Courting of African Nationalist Leaders, “The Johnson administration effectively ended the era of major American funding for African development,” leaving the continent “once again relegated to the background of American foreign policy,” from which it has never reemerged.
Dismaying African leaders of his era, Johnson even reverted to the Eisenhower policy of supporting António de Oliveira Salazar’s dictatorship in Portugal, which retained colonial control over Mozambique, Angola, and other African territories, and the apartheid state in South Africa in working to stave off nationalism on the continent.
In 1965, a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on sub-Saharan Africa stated: “There is a desperate shortage of virtually all kinds of technical and managerial skills; indeed, the basic institutions and staff for economic development are often inadequate or absent. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that most African countries will obtain external assistance or investment on anything approaching the scale required for sustained economic development.”
The role of a National Intelligence Estimate is not to push policy proposals, but it’s clear that under Johnson, U.S. engagement with Africa lost most of the momentum it had briefly enjoyed during the Kennedy years. In fact, as one recently retired prominent U.S. diplomat wrote in 1967, the “mini-states” of Africa were “so insignificant” that they hardly merited a consulate.
A few years later, as Brenda Gayle Plummer wrote in her book In Search of Power: African Americans in the Era of Decolonization, 1956-1974, a National Security Council advisor to then-President Richard Nixon wrote about Africa: “We aim at minimizing the attention and resources which must be addressed to them.”
This is not just ancient history, nor is it limited to Africa. Consider Washington’s recent hurried and belated diplomatic engagement with small island nations in the South Pacific. The United States seemed caught off guard by the signing last month of a security pact between the Solomon Islands and China. If Washington was surprised, though, it was only because of the old problem of supposedly small fish not rising to a level worthy of its attention. The United States had been following the Nixon staffer’s playbook and didn’t even maintain an embassy in the island nation that was the site of the famous World War II naval battle at Guadalcanal.
By contrast, China had been gradually bidding its way into that country’s favor by building badly needed infrastructure and funding other development projects that seemed to correspond with the Solomon Islands’ needs.
There are important lessons to be drawn from this. Let us hope that U.S. competition with China does not come to lean increasingly on the United States’ default toolkit: the military—not least because wars directly fought between nuclear-armed powers are too devastating to be truly winnable, but also because of something called the tyranny of distance. The era when the United States could project and sustain enough force into China’s region to even make a classical—that is, non-nuclear—confrontation attractive, if such an era did indeed exist, is coming rapidly to a close.
So where does this leave us? In an era when costly symbols of national might like the aircraft carrier are increasingly vulnerable to Chinese defenses in the seas off Asia, the familiar but bygone style of muscle-first great-power competition must give way to something else. The big contest of the future will be where most of the people of the world live, meaning well outside of America’s traditional core areas of diplomatic focus: the erstwhile Third World.
Whatever one thinks of its politics or methods, China seems to have grasped this with far more urgency than the United States has. In Africa, Central Asia, and many other parts of the world, while America sleeps, China has become the leading bilateral foreign provider of public goods, with development project lending that also outstrips that of the World Bank.
To a degree that few in the West yet understand, this will be the most important domain of great-power competition in the decades ahead: meeting people where they live and addressing the practical problems that dominate their lives—things like helping connect people through infrastructure and improved public services, broadening prosperity, and protecting the environment. Old rhetorical standbys like democracy and human rights are important, but it is hard to imagine them flourishing without foundations like these.