China is big, growing, cash-rich, ambitious, powerful, strategic, and patient. Russia is decaying slowly, but it has the advantages of its willingness to take decisive action and use force and of a population that tolerates privation. It also has a strong appeal to blood and soil values of nationalism and traditionalism. ISIS and other terrorists have the element of surprise in their arsenal, but nothing else. North Korea and Iran are regional nuisances whose ambitions exceed their abilities.
What sets America apart? America fosters innovation, dynamism, openness, transparency, strong institutions, self-renewal, the largest and best military in the world, and true alliances with others. America is big, strong, and sustainable.
That is one lens—a power lens—through which one can assess America’s challengers and America’s place in the world.
Another lens is the prism of values. ISIS and other terrorists have no values that relate to universal human aspirations. They are at odds with the people. The same is true of Vladimir Putin’s Russia—and the North Korean and Iranian regimes as well. They are interested only in extending the power and wealth of the regime itself, not about the advancement of their own people.
The Chinese government is different. Even though it abhors human rights, individualism, and democracy, the Chinese government nonetheless supports some values with which we can identify: lifting people out of poverty, wealth creation, education, technological advancement, environmental cleanup, health, regional stability, and even fighting corruption.
Yet due to its blind spot on human freedom, the Chinese Communist Party is not an inspiration to humanity, and it is seen as threatening by its neighbors.
What sets America apart in this way of looking at the world? Among global powers, the United States is the only one where universal human values are respected, people have the opportunity to project their values onto the government, and the government works with and supports others in the world who also uphold these universal values of freedom.
“America is built on the empowerment of its people. Other global competitors retain power at the expense of their people”
America is built on the empowerment of its people. Other global competitors retain power at the expense of their people. Through this prism, too, America is stronger and more sustainable than any competitors.
So what should America’s strategy be? Defeat ISIS and other terrorists, block Russia, and engage China.
The first two elements are clear. There is no bargaining with ISIS, and we can wait out Putin’s challenge to us and the rest of the world. But why engage China? Of all America’s challengers, only China has the potential to evolve, and only China can seriously challenge the United States without recourse to nuclear weapons.
ISIS and other terrorists will seek to destroy the United States, its allies, and any other representatives of humanity for as long as they exist.
Putinism rests on the sale of natural resource wealth and increasing repression, which is presented to the public as necessary in order to defend Russia against imagined threats, and to sustain a glorious Russian imperial hegemony over its neighbors. Such a narrative, however, has little to do with reality, is opposed by Russia’s neighbors, and will crumble as a justification for Putinism as soon as the first cracks emerge.
China, on the other hand, has changed dramatically over the past 50 years in fundamental ways. It remains capable of change. The Chinese people do not approve of many aspects of the Chinese system, but they support much of it as well. China seeks continued economic evolution and sustainability, not mere extraction and regime survival.
True, a newly powerful China may seek to redraw lines on the map, rewrite the rules of global trade, and redefine the relationship between the Internet, information, and freedom, among other things. America and its allies can and must push back against these forays, and the Chinese government has thus far shown a reluctance to pursue confrontation when it can pursue a strategy of patience instead.
But America retains one key strategic advantage: the ability to inspire. America’s commitment to realizing and advancing universal human values means that America benefits from the support of people all over the world—even among the populations of our global competitors.
More important than the United States and the West confronting China—militarily or otherwise—is the ability of the United States and its allies to advance a global agenda of freedom, prosperity, and security.
Using this strategic advantage requires some fundamental rethinking of American policy today.
First, we must have confidence in our own system and values. We will always have political differences of opinion among our people, but we must not demonize our opponents or tolerate a divided America. We need to make sure we are indeed the success story we have always been.
Second, we must talk about and promote freedom at all times. Talking about our own national interests, or being treated fairly in the world, may have some validity. But what inspires others is the shared belief in core values—and at the heart of all of these is freedom. And this is an inspiration not just to governments who share our values but also to people in repressive systems who need a lifeline of support when their own governments abuse them.
Third, we must proactively support and work together with allies who share our values. No country that shares America’s commitment to freedom is expendable.
Fourth, we must consistently identify and push back against our adversaries. They know who they are—and so does the rest of the world. We should know them, too, and build sustainable global pressure against them.
It is true that, when measured through the lens of military or economic power, America’s global dominance is declining. But when measured through the lens of mobilizing the hearts and minds of people all around the world, America’s power is as strong as ever, and it is not going down any time soon.