America first

No one can sensibly doubt that American primacy is much more agreeable to us than Chinese hegemony


This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To read more articles from our China Special series click here and to get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Whose problem is China? As Patrick Porter reminds us in his piece in our China special this month, she’s ultimately America’s. The United States is in first place and China is not. Whatever there is to be “lost”, it’s America’s to lose. But what is at stake for everyone else in the rise of China? And should other nations act before — or even beside America — in dealing with her China problem?

The first thing to appreciate is that there is as yet no “war of American succession”. We are plainly not where Britain, America’s predecessor as global hegemon, was when she reeled under the assault of global war from without, and financial and industrial near-collapse within. 

Next year is the centenary of the Chanak Crisis, when Lloyd George’s Hellenophile anti-Turkish foreign policy saw Canada dissent from a unified British imperial response. We are not on the brink of California, say, acquiring dominion status and declining to fight in America’s convoluted foreign wars. 

By any meaningful historical standard, the United States remains politically united at home, with a sound economic base and a remarkably benign immediate security environment. Washington would not soon trade her neighbours, or oceans, for Beijing’s. The prize may be America’s to lose, but thus far, all the advantages — and allies — are with her.

But what is that prize? Crudely reductive as “being first” might seem, no one should doubt that it’s a real thing both to American and Chinese leaders. But primacy brings with it legacy issues. America, for example, has commitments which perhaps she would be better off liquidating. Perhaps any number of places where US prestige is currently at stake, from Taiwan to South Korea, should have been ruthlessly dispensed with. She had the president to do that in Donald Trump, but he did not.

We are some distance from the People’s Liberation Air Force supplanting the American 100th Air Refuelling Wing at RAF Mildenhall

The American military pre-eminence Joe Biden has inherited in East Asia might seem an unlikely thing to try and retain in the face of inexorable Chinese growth, but prudently redrawing red lines is easier said than done. Politically, the domestic cry would inevitably be a cry of “retreat!”. Militarily, the siren song would be, “if only.” If only such and such seeming diplomatic liability had been held on to. “How useful it might have been,” the wargame simulation whispers. 

To put the American dilemma this way seems to elevate war above all other statecraft. As rightly we should. States as much as men live under the shadow of the executioner’s axe. And hard as it seems in times of peace and prosperity to bear this in mind, the prize — pre-eminence — is one that states explicitly and intentionally work towards, and about which their thinkers strategise.

In the geopolitically placid last years of the Clinton administration, the thinkers associated with the Project for a New American Century were explicit about the goal: 

At present the United States faces no global rival. America’s grand strategy should aim to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible. 

We are now in that future, but that rival is not global. Pre-second world war America’s economic heft did not automatically upend Britain’s global system and nor has China done the same to America’s. 

We are some distance from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force supplanting the American 100th Air Refuelling Wing at RAF Mildenhall. In this edition, Olly Wiseman and Rana Mitter suggest that the lure of China is infinitely more limited than were even Soviet charms. Chinese intellectuals such as Wang Hui might believe they are in a cultural cold war with the West, but for as long as the West doesn’t read Chinese, this is likely to remain a vain delusion. 

There are not two ways of life at stake in the Sino-American competition, simply a question of which country will be on top. American aspirations about a civilisational “alliance of democracies” fall short not just because of the evident reluctance of most of China’s neighbours, including those with democratic institutions, to engage in military confrontation simply for the sake of hangover US local ascendancy. That is not their fight. 

But there’s also the domestic political implausibility in America trying to promote a Rodrigo Duterte or even a Narendra Modi as “our guy” in the manner of an Augusto Pinochet or Ferdinand Marcos. As China lacks Soviet Russia’s fellow travellers, breathing intellectual life into a second Cold War at home is a remote possibility.

What then does a country like Britain do, sailing her carriers out East for purposes inexplicable and ends implausible? She enjoys the fact that she lacks now the prizes and possessions which are so expensive to maintain. No one can sensibly doubt that American primacy is much more agreeable to us than Chinese hegemony would be. But maintaining that primacy is a problem for America to solve, and one we can in truth usefully add as little to as we did in Iraq. Or Afghanistan. 

The message to America is: you first. Yours is the prize, you fight first and hardest to keep it. 

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