Buying out American researchers. Constructing a new naval base in West Africa to establish a foothold in the Atlantic. Aiding the development of Saudi Arabian munitions. These are just a few of the primary means by which China is advancing its national interests in the world. Yet one must ask, What drives Xi Jinping in his herculean effort for global prestige? Purely economic analysis does not suffice, as plenty of reports showcase crackdowns on markets crucial to Beijing. Beginning with the protests in Hong Kong, it became apparent to surrounding nations that the Chinese Communist Party was less concerned with fiscal prosperity than it was with ideological homogeneity, the Uighur “reeducation” camps being the most extreme concretization of their increasingly totalitarian initiatives.
In the spirit of a trite phrase, pictures speak more loudly than punditry. So when President Xi sported a “Mao suit” to celebrate the centennial of the CCP’s birth, it did not take a policy wonk to get the message. Xi’s China is self-consciously committed to its revolutionary roots, clearly at the expense of its Western neighbors’ comfort. This dogged defense of China’s heritage, however, offers a corrective to America’s modern insecurity about its place in an increasingly globalized political ecosystem.
Rightly calibrating the mission of the West against potential chauvinistic tyranny is not foreign to American ideation. Contemplating the complexities of the United States’ unique position in modern history with the World Wars in perspective, Reinhold Niebuhr in his seminal text The Irony of American History remarked:
There is a deep layer of Messianic consciousness in the mind of America. We never dreamed that we would have as much political power as we possess today; nor for that matter did we anticipate that the most powerful nation on earth would suffer such an ironic refutation of its dreams of mastering history.
While the Allied powers were often confident of the absolute vindication of their cause, Niebuhr sought to sober up their idealism with a necessary dose of Augustinian realism about their innate self-interestedness.
Nevertheless, such sobriety is to be balanced with what Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America about the country being “quite exceptional.” Though Niebuhr recognized the potential abuses of American prestige, de Tocqueville jointly acknowledged the fortuitousness of its political tradition when estimated in light of the American cultural and intellectual situation. While he did not deny its deficiencies, de Tocqueville still grasped what Americans were truly capable of accomplishing as a democratic people. Coupling de Tocqueville’s diagnosis with that of Niebuhr then, a more balanced awareness of American exceptionalism comes into view, avoiding undue nationalistic fervor but also maintaining an essential degree of patriotism. Combining both de Tocqueville and Niebuhr in his research, John Wilsey argues in his work American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion for what he designates as an “open exceptionalism” in regard to America, contending that “America is different because it is a nation in which dissent is not only allowed; it is a virtue… Open exceptionalism opens the door for citizens to acknowledge, to address and to rectify real American flaws because, in so doing, citizens express true love for country.” What Wilsey distills here is the distinct freedom of America to allow for the arbitration and fulfillment of its ideals amongst its citizens that does not enervate their sense of patriotism. In fact, true American patriotism according to Wilsey consists of decrying political hubris when it arises, since the United States finds its foundation first and foremost as an entity dedicated to the protection of the natural rights of all human beings before any estimation of “national interests.” Circumventing any Machiavellian impulses attempting to infest American domestic and foreign policy requires the people of the United States to presuppose their democratic inheritance and the advancement thereof before broaching any potential benefits of utilizing its hard or soft power. No patriotism is blind when it operates with an awareness of how the object of its affection can, at best, faithfully rather than perfectly undertake its commissioning as a country.
These proposals being accounted for, one is better equipped to understand how the United States possesses the capacity for staying China’s advance amongst the superpowers. Beijing’s coming of age was incremental but by no means unforeseen, and President Xi’s determination to continue “leaping forward” with his vision for his nation’s representation at home and abroad must be acknowledged for the very real threat it is to the Western sphere. Thus, China can only be substantively challenged by a United States that is fully aware of what the Founders sought to offer the world through enshrining their fervent hope for shared and mutually defended liberty and equality for all. Sanctions and embargoes are only remotely effective against nations predominantly set on geoeconomic expansion, and despite the frequent deployment of them by recent presidential administrations (or intimations of doing so against likeminded regimes in the present), they pose no ultimate threat to President Xi’s aspirations for the future of Beijing.
While Biden’s recent signing of a bipartisan bill that undermines the importation of goods produced by the forced labor of Uighurs is certainly a step toward a more openly exceptionalist approach, it remains to be seen the extent to which he and his cabinet will capitalize upon the American political imaginary concerning its foremost principles according to the inheritance offered by its Founders. Democracy dies more in passivity than it does in darkness, and America must get past its myopia concerning its civic tradition if it hopes to have any meaningful sense of identity and purpose. For when a nation binds itself to a document such as the Declaration of Independence that is capable of transcending dogmatism and instead allows for any generation to clearly interpret and seize upon its applications through the light and law of freedom, that country’s ability to endure and bless its neighbors against any cabal opposed to it and its endeavors can be guaranteed. Thus, even entities with whom our economic interests coalesce are not excused from reckoning with what we once believed to be objectively true of all peoples everywhere regarding their shared dignity. Liberty’s fruits should know no border, and they’re worth believing in, even when it might cause a bit of friction with the tyrannies of the age.
It did a bit of that the first time around anyway.