Camille Paglia, the liberal-conservative lesbian who adores men, observed recently that nations must never neglect their basic strengths and survival skills. As she put it, “The earth is littered with the ruins of empires that believed they were eternal.” Perhaps she was thinking of the United States; this is, after all, a time when the gap between our towering international presumption is being undermined by our crumbling domestic reality.
The same Paglia-esque thoughts of political mortality came into Hamilton’s mind when he read the news about the near collision, on December 5, of a US Navy ship and a Chinese Navy ship.
So suppose we did end up in a war with China–maybe not today, but in five or 10 years. Who would win? Let’s remember, this hypothetical war wouldn’t necessarily be anything like what we have seen before; it could be waged with little more than cyber-hacking, satellite-blinding,and a few long-range missiles–which could be enough to establish military dominance.
In the meantime, we can see plenty of signs that our ability to prevail is ebbing. In 2010, for example, the website ZDNet reported that 80 percent of the world’s communications have a Chinese “back door”–and that China is working on accessing the remaining 20 percent. In other words, America could pass a law preventing the US National Security Agency from snooping on us, but we would still not be able to stop the Chinese from snooping on us.
The conservative pundit David Goldman, also known as “Spengler,” argued recently that the most under-covered story of 2013 was China’s strategic rise:
China just made the first soft landing on the moon in four decades, the first in four decades. That drew a yawn from the American media: after all, we did it when the Boomers were in junior high school. It wasn’t exactly a Sputnik moment like 1957, when the Russian leap into space sent America’s military-industrial establishment into overdrive. But China’s technological capacity is reaching critical mass. In a few years we will see the old China of smokestacks and cheap labor fade into the past and a new high-tech China emerge, ready to compete with the West. There’s no single technological feat that defines this development: China doesn’t need to innovate, only emulate. But the combined effect of a whole array of technological improvements adds up to a daunting challenge to the West.
Yes, it’s a daunting challenge to the West overall, but China aims, in particular, to daunt the US, because we’re the ones who have given ourselves the mission of containing the Chinese. Thus the bullseye is on us; after all, Beijing is not afraid of Belgium. Here’s more of Goldman/Spengler’s gloomy analysis:
Americans don’t like the idea that a dictatorship might overtake a democracy. I don’t like it either, but a well-run dictatorship can trump a badly run democracy. The media has been so busy feeding our self-love that it has ignored the year’s biggest story.
Here are a few highlights:
· China’s shore-to-ship missiles can sink a U.S. aircraft carrier 200 miles or more from its shores (its missiles reach space and go straight down, and our countermeasures aren’t designed for that sort of threat)
· China will have the most industrial robots of any country by 2014
· Tianhe-2 is the world’s fastest supercomputer
· Beijing Genomics Institute has the world’s largest DNA sequencing capacity
· China had 505 million Internet users in 2011 and expects E-commerce to double between 2012 and 2015
· ‘Starting from almost no live surveillance capability 10 years ago, today the [People’s Liberation Army] has likely equaled the US’s ability to observe targets from space for some real-time operations.’ (World Security Institute)”
So we might take these data points and fast-forward them a decade or two. That is to say, we could multiply Chinese ambition and technology–including all they have stolen from the West–plus Moore’s Law, and quickly see that the Chinese are formidable. Indeed, if we extrapolate out present trends to a decade or so from now, we can presume that America will have made even more “progress”–in the fight against climate change, homophobia, and patriarchy.
If these are, indeed, our top national priorities, we might look ahead and see a new power-ratio, in which Chinese muscle dramatically eclipses that of America. Then once again, we might ask ourselves: Who will be stronger a few years hence? Who has the prestige to attract allies, or the might to force followers? And who wins if the two countries come to blows?
Some optimistic Americans, on the political right as well as the left, seem to believe that we can indulge in anything, and ignore everything, and still remain the world’s richest and most powerful country. The lessons of history, and the merest of common sense, could tell those optimists that they are wrong–although only if they are willing to listen.
Meanwhile, Americans who worry about the economic and strategic fate of the US would do well to peruse a 2012 book, Producing Prosperity: Why America Needs a Manufacturing Renaissance, published by the Harvard Business Review Press. The co-authors, Gary P. Pisano and Willy C. Shih–themselves both Harvard Business School profs–seek to put the recent recession, as well as the current “recovery,” in a larger context:
Lost in the froth of the debate over the causes and consequences of the Great Recession of 2008 to 2010 is the fact that the United States has been losing its competitive advantage in those sectors and technologies that it needs to drive growth in the twenty-first century.
The authors continue, seeking to puncture the doggedly Panglossian dogma of the elites:
For decades, Americans were comforted by the party line that although other countries were becoming more competitive, our ace in the hole was our ability to innovate and dominate the most advanced industrial sectors. Sure, emerging countries such as China and India might capture the allegedly low-value-added, low-wage sectors, but that was fine; in fact, that was healthy, we were told. American prosperity was assured by our dominance of the sectors requiring the most advanced technical know-how, such as semi-conductors, computers, complex equipment, and aircraft.
In other words, they continue:
The conventional wisdom was that our more flexible, entrepreneur-centric economic system would ensure that we would stay ahead of the pack and dominate the innovative sectors of tomorrow as well.
Yet instead of such “What, me worry?” idiocracy, Pisano and Shih deliver some stone-cold truth:
This characterization no longer represents reality. Other countries now hold the lead in products such as flat-panel displays, advanced batteries, machine tools, metal forming (castings, stampings, and cold forgings), precision bearings, optoelectronics, solar energy, and wind turbines, Furthermore, US dominance of biotechnology, aerospace, and, high-end medical devices, and other advanced sectors is under threat.
The authors grind down further, assigning the blame to both the private sector and the public sector:
A combination of company strategies, management thinking, and government policy has led to the gradual erosion of the country’s industrial commons.
And the reality that this “industrial commons” is eroding is extremely important; the commons represents the shared pool of skills, know-how, and capacity that all producers–including weapons-producers–are able to draw from. The authors conclude:
The stakes involved are enormous. This kind of de-industrialization process can play out over decades. If, in the end, the ‘manufacturing does not matter’ hypothesis proves wrong–and we think that’s exactly what’s going to happen–the United States…will have a big problem on its hands.
The authors don’t say it, but Hamilton will add: The “big problem” we will have is not just economic impoverishment, but also actual military defeat. The US has always produced plenty of brave war heroes. But what had made America strong for so long has been its additional capacity to produce heroic weapons and heroic quantities of war materiel. That’s how we were able to win World War Two so quickly: American deaths were a fraction of those suffered by the Axis powers. It’s better to win wars with aerial bombardment, as opposed to infantry charges.
Back to the Chinese: In their history, including their bloody battles against American forces during the Korean War, the Chinese have not hesitated to use staggeringly inefficient–but sometimes still effective–human wave attacks. Yet over time, they have learned better ways.
Indeed, the history of China can be seen as the belated realization that mass production is superior to mass armies–ironic realization, because for most of human history, the Chinese have been the world leaders in inventive technology; they dreamed up, for example, printing, gunpowder, and the compass. The weakness in classical Chinese culture was not intellectual, it was social; the aristocrats and bureaucrats who dominated never deigned to share their inventions with their own people, nor to enlist the population into the industry of mass production. These inventions remained playthings for the rich, not tools for the nation, and so once the Westerners showed up on China’s doorstep in the 16th century, that attitude proved to be a formula for decay, decline, and defeat.
Moreover, in 1949, the Confucians were replaced, sort of, by the Red revolutionaries. Although Mao Zedong claimed he was overturning the old order, he was, in fact, preserving much of it. The aristocratic bureaucracy of yore was simply replaced by a newcommunist bureaucracy. And as with his royal predecessors, Mao had a vision of a tiny elite lording it over the masses–first peasants, then workers.
Still, Mao was modern enough to build the high-tech weapon of choice: an A-bomb. China became a nuclear power in 1964. And since Mao’s death in 1976, the Chinese communists have gotten religion, one might say, on the issue of technological development. So finally, after 5000 years, the Chinese have decided, as a matter of national strategy, to combine both intelligence and industriousness. They will deploy their high IQs, and their work ethic, to out-invent and out-produce the world.
So America should take notice: A smart country, boasting four times our population, aims to become the planet’s leading superpower. If we don’t wish to be displaced, or even defeated, we will have to try harder–a lot harder.
So how could America stay strong? How to fend off the Chinese–and also the Russians, Iranians, and other potential foes? We have to begin with vision; we must declare, as a nation, that we want to be the #1 technological power in the world. The key word here is technology; we aren’t going to contain the Chinese with our financial trickery, from hedge funds and quantitative easings.
We must also recognize that replacing Barack Obama with a Republican who will simply carry on typical GOP policies is not going to change the calculus of global power. We need to make the hard tools of defense; we can’t think that simply ignoring the Chinese threat will make it go away. Yes, the federal government is scary to most Americans, but the prospect of losing a war to China should be even scarier.
In other words, we Americans have to do something really hard: We need to pare back the government’s income-transferring, basket-weaving, and overall b.s.-ing, even as we ramp up our defense-tech-industrial base. We don’t want a war with China; instead, we want to be strong enough to thwart a war–and certainly strong enough not to lose, if war comes.
Yet unlike the Chinese, we don’t need to develop a new national vision; we simply need to rediscover our old national vision. Today, we desperately need a revival of the hard-nosed pro-tech policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt when he launched the Manhattan Project in 1942, of John F. Kennedy when he launched the Apollo mission in 1961, and of Ronald Reagan when he launched the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983. Each of those exemplars of presidential leadership proved to be a paradigm-shifter for American strength.
So today, we need to change policies. We need more manufacturing here in the US, we need better tax treatment for productive capital, we need more R&D, and we need more STEM education–targeted, of course, at those who are serious about learning it, and have the demonstrated ability to benefit from it.
The Hamiltonian history of the US tells us that if we do all those things, we will not only be strong, but also rich.