The People’s Republic of China and the United States are not only two powerful states in a globalized world but also products of two ancient civilizations. How these two civilizations, born on opposite ends of the huge Eurasian landmass, brought their respective states to their present stages of modernization is a story of human endeavor and endurance stretching back millennia. Until fairly recently, the narrative threads mostly ran in parallel and untangled. But now these two states have reached an unexpected stage of interdependence and confrontation, such that the paths the two civilizations took to reach this new stage must become a subject of increasing importance for practical as well as intellectual reasons. These historical trajectories cast light on the problems that Chinese and U.S. leaders face as their countries’ futures merge.“Civilization” and “state” are words in modern Western social science that are accepted and used globally. “Civilization” refers generally to the full array of a nation’s cultural institutions, and “state” to its more delimited political and administrative institutions. The Chinese language has no exact conceptual equivalents; the closest for “civilization” in classical Chinese is “wenjiao” (literate moral teachings) and for “state” is “tianchao” (Court [of the Son] of Heaven). In this essay I use the word civilization as shorthand for the Chinese wenjiao and state for tianchao (when describing the West, the two Chinese words today would be wenming and guojia respectively). Despite the distinct conceptual origins of the Western and Chinese classical concepts, they have been converging for the past century and a half. There remain deep differences between the two that still need time for resolution, but China is moving toward a common modernity while seeking to offer its own contributions to it.When the United States became an independent country, it was the bearer of a large part of Britain’s cultural heritage. Its people also saw Britain as the dominant maritime power in a progressive Euro-Mediterranean civilization that was on the verge of two revolutions. Britain was leading the Industrial Revolution, which brought science and entrepreneurship into a fruitful partnership. It was also one of the leaders of the political revolution, that of Enlightenment-based liberalism, which was transforming Western Europe. That political revolution moved in two directions. In one, it introduced new ideals of individual freedom and legal equality; in the other, it established a system of nation-states based on post-Reformation secular principles. It may seem ironic now, but these new industrially powered nation-states fostered both ethno-linguistic pride and competitive imperial ambitions despite the noble ideals of Enlightenment secularism. The combination provided new impetus for expansionist wars that made Britain into the world’s first global maritime superpower.Both these revolutions would eventually transform the rest of the world, whether it was willing or not. But the new American nation began by turning away from the entanglements of Europe. The Founders valued their independence and concentrated on the vast lands on their own continent, relatively free from the burdens of ancient religious and dynastic conflicts. They were proud to have established a country in which church and state were separate, and in which Christian communities were free to worship as they chose. They were aware that the Old World had other empires, among them the Islam-dominated empires and states that controlled the eastern half of the Mediterranean and still exerted pressure on parts of Europe. That Muslim conglomeration of states, however, could no longer block Europeans from the riches of India and China. The commercial revolution ongoing since the 1500s had by now crossed three oceans, further changing the terms of economic power. Situated in the New World, the former colonies, united in a new Federal state, were now free to find their own way to profit from that global opening and to harness the new forces of the scientific and economic revolution to build a different kind of nation. Formerly British peoples who crossed the Atlantic to get away from their past could now chart their future in this large, raw continent with fresh political will and the newest technical and financial tools.In contrast, the Qing Empire in China was a powerful empire of the Old World on the Eurasian continent. Its rulers had marched south from Manchuria to conquer a vast bureaucratic state established by the Chinese rulers of the Ming dynasty. That state was founded on Confucian principles of governance and prided itself on embodying an ancient and morally superior civilization. The Manchus then incorporated this state into a continental Eurasian empire that expanded westward into Mongol and Turkic lands. By the time the United States became an independent country, Qing China under the Emperor Qianlong was at the peak of its power, controlling the largest Asian empire since the death of Khubilai Khan in 1294.It was also a time of imperial hubris for the Qing dynasty. The elites did not realize that their land empire was losing out to the new maritime forces battling for control of its coastal waters. When Lord Macartney sought to open direct trade with China in 1793, Qianlong dismissed the British as if they were members of a recalcitrant non-tributary state. He did not live to regret his haughty response, but his successors found themselves facing an enemy that quickly defeated them at sea in 1840. In addition, the British sold them large quantities of opium, most of it grown in India, a product that destroyed their people’s moral will as well as the country’s agrarian economy. When these intrusions were combined with dissensions within their borders, the Qing leaders found themselves unable to stop the empire’s rapid decline and final destruction.When the Americans followed the British into East Asia, they wasted no time in making their way to China’s shores for their share of the opium trade. Qing officials saw them as a minor branch of the European powers and thought that their New World state was unthreatening. Unlike those of Britain and France and later of Japan, U.S. activities in China were not accompanied by threats of gunships and arrogant protests. The Chinese thus saw the low-key missionary culture that the Americans brought to China as young offshoots of a powerful civilization. While not always welcome, the successful missions were often recognized as having contributed much to modern education and public health.This was an asymmetric beginning. Qing mandarins were conscious that Western empires saw China’s ancient civilization as decadent and declining fast. Educated Americans presented their values in China as those of a truly modern civilization, but many Confucian scholars saw them as the crude yet mainly benign products of an aggressive civilization. With each estimating the other to be of little threat, the two countries managed to avoid direct conflict, and, in retrospect, the relationship may be described as having got off to a good start. And despite the many twists and turns of war and diplomacy in East Asia since then, the two nations remained friendly until the middle of the 20th century.American and Chinese civilizations have some things in common. One is that both have tried to shake off the past mistakes of their “stem,” or ancient original, civilizations. Separately and under wholly different conditions, both have discovered what it means to seek a common modernity. But the two do not agree on whether that common modernity should share a single set of universal values (United States) or whether it could allow for the coexistence of different political and cultural priorities (China). As China and the United States face each other today, this difference matters. If the United States seeks to extend its primacy and protect its position as the global superpower, at least tacitly affirming universal norms, is there room still for China to seek greater security within what it sees as its historical sphere of influence? In other words, can the two civilizations, in their incarnation as states, arrange their relations on the basis of mutual respect for what each most deeply believes? If they can, they might find a way to cooperate in supporting a world order that both can value and defend. If they cannot, what would be the wider outcome?Of course, the agents of decisions in both cases are states and state leaderships, not civilizations. And states have different natures and, by dint of their natures, follow different priorities than might civilizations. We will return to this complication soon, but for now let us tilt in the opposite direction and use current Chinese and U.S. leaders as stand-ins for further analysis.Barack Obama and Xi Jinping represent distinct values and institutions that were given shape by centuries of history. In Obama’s case, his country has long held fast to the American Dream, one based on a New World civilization that has been using its own nation-state to project that dream back to the Old World, to its stem civilization. Xi Jinping has encouraged the pursuit of a China Dream in order to rebuild a powerful state that can revive a distinctive heritage. Both have, on different occasions and in distinctive language, done their utmost to articulate what they believe their respective countries stand for.In one aspect, the early life of the two men is comparable. Both lived through turbulent times during their youth and emerged remarkably unscarred by the experience. But their adult political lives have been markedly different. For example, the contrast between the mixed, migrant origins of Barack Obama and Xi Jinping’s “princeling” origins could not be greater. Barack Obama grew up moving between worlds spread far across the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. Only in America could that background have led him to the White House. But it was his ability to embrace the country’s rich mix of values that made his success possible. When he chose to focus his legal skills to improve the lives of the people of one major city, Chicago, he was also learning the best way he could to serve his country.Xi Jinping, on the other hand, was sent out from the privileged courtyards of Beijing to share the peasant life of his ancestors in the deep interior of northwestern China, the country’s ancient heartland. After he finished his university studies, he had the choice of working in the world of state-supported enterprises, in jobs that would almost certainly have led him to wealth and comfort, or to serve the socialist revolution that his father had fought for. He chose the latter. He resumed his connections within the ruling Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army. He then brought his experiences in China’s continental interior to the coasts of China, serving for the next twenty years in the open maritime entrepreneurial provinces of Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai. When he was picked to become his Party’s future leader in 2008 at the age of 55, he had spent half his life facing inward and the other half looking out. No doubt this helped him to imagine the potential interplay of the “economic belt” of an overland Silk Road and the maritime routes of the Indian Ocean. Seeing the two roads meeting on the shores of the Mediterranean is his way of recognizing the continued relevance of Old World certainties to his country’s future.Both Barack Obama and Xi Jinping had to take up heavy burdens left behind by their predecessors. In the United States, the new President faced a combination of futile wars in the Middle East and a financial system that needed reform and restructuring. In China, the damage done by the past decades was no less challenging. Corruption had become pervasive during China’s thirty years of rapid economic development, undermining the credibility of the Communist Party. Both leaders responded vigorously to these problems and won broad support within their nations by calling for a return to the value systems that had made their respective civilizations great.For Obama, the lofty ideals of the American Revolution can be traced back to Greco-Roman and Semitic Mediterranean roots, ideals that were secularized during the Renaissance and Enlightenment centuries in Western Europe. These ideals were reinforced by the best legal training available in the United States and further strengthened by his renewed Christian faith. Xi Jinping, on the other hand, began with a more recent revolutionary and patriotic heritage exemplified by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. He too joined his predecessors in calling for the renewal of an ancient civilization cultivated on Chinese soil. That heritage had stressed the goals of unity, harmony, and social cohesion, attained through the exercise of central control.There are other differences. U.S. Presidents have learned to address the world through an international order of nation-states, the United Nations, which their country fought to establish and lodge permanently in its largest city, New York. They regard the preservation of their country’s global leadership position as their duty. PRC leaders are, on the whole, more defensive, concerned primarily with bringing stability and prosperity to China’s 1.3 billion people. Their effectiveness and credibility hinge on how well they meet their people’s expectations of social and economic betterment. At the same time, they aspire to restore Chinese civilization’s past greatness, and are keen to make the world understand what they are doing.Of no less significance is the fact that the United States reached the peak of global power at the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, just when the Chinese economy was about to become the second largest in the world. Neither country was prepared for such a dramatic change. Since then, political leaders everywhere and their advisers have been scrambling to find historical analogies to inform the new strategies that the world now needs. For example, U.S. strategists have turned to Thucydides, Machiavelli, and other thinkers of the Euro-Mediterranean world for guidance. They have also drawn on the language of Great Power leaders like Metternich, Churchill, and De Gaulle. The Chinese have been equally concerned with mining the past for ideas, from Sun Zi, Confucius, and the strategists of the Warring States to the statesmen of the Han, Tang, and Qing dynasties, to assist their recalibration of the paths they now must take. In addition to learning all that the advanced world has taught during the past century, the Chinese have been rereading their classical writings, looking for distinctive answers to new questions.The differences between the two Presidents bring to mind some earlier leaders and the decisions they made in response to powerful changes their respective countries had to face. Two sets of leaders exemplify the value systems that drove each nation to action, and we may usefully compare them to highlight the civilizational factors behind what they thought their states were trying to do.The first set of leaders is from the middle of the 19th century, when two great powers of the Old World, Britain and France, forced the doors of China open and insisted on their extraterritorial rights in the Treaty Ports. At the same time, the elites of Qing China found themselves threatened with destruction from within by a series of rebellions that took decades to crush. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the Gold Rush brought a flood of people to settle California, and the United States was about to conquer a rich continent between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. However, this expansion westward also coincided with a growing divide within the country between two parallel economies, the slave-owning Southern states and the industrializing Northern states that opposed slavery. Unbeknown to the Forty-niners of California, the country was about to face its greatest test, the Civil War that cost some 600,000 lives. Similarly, nothing in China prepared its mandarin classes for the rebellion of a group of Hakka believers in Jesus Christ in 1851. It started in the southwestern province of Guangxi and spread across the empire toward Beijing, lasting for more than 14 years and costing an estimated 20 million lives.There is no comparison between the Confederate rebels in the American South and those who established the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom in Nanjing, though their commitment to their respective causes might seem similar in ferocity. Instead, let us consider the death of Hong Xiuquan, the Taiping Heavenly King, aged 50 in 1864, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, aged 55, in April 1865, and look at what happened afterward in the two countries.There are many interpretations of Hong Xiuquan, most of them wildly contradictory. At one extreme, he was a madman who dreamed he was the brother of Jesus Christ. Inspired by his encounters with missionaries and a few Christian tracts, he led his Hakka faithful to a decade of glory, defeating the forces of at least ten provinces on the way to capturing the southern imperial capital. There, his Heavenly Kingdom rejected the Confucian ideals of governance and everything associated with them. In the name of God, his armies killed everyone who had links with the Qing dynasty, notably the gentry and literati families whose Confucian loyalties led them to support the Manchu Banner garrisons that had dominated China for 200 years. After his defeat, the Qing mandarins vilified Hong Xiuquan and had all record of the Taipings destroyed.At the other extreme, Hong Xiuquan was the heroic precursor of the Communist Revolution and China’s first popular response to the challenge of the alternative civilization that had come from the Christian West. Sun Yat-sen, China’s first modern political leader, admired him. A generation later, Mao Zedong gave Hong Xiuquan pride of place as the first Chinese leader radical enough to initiate something akin to class struggle. In between these two interpretations are efforts to place the Taipings on the spectrum of traditional rebels, mostly of peasant origins, who were inspired by esoteric sects of Buddhism and Daoism and local popular beliefs. Perhaps the most telling judgment came from Protestant missionaries who visited them in Nanjing and concluded that Hong Xiuquan was no Christian and that the West should support the Qing government in its effort to crush them. The Western capitalists and financiers of the Treaty Ports responded quickly, offering their help to restore law and order.The fall of the Taipings was followed by several other rebellions. Although the Qing dynasty crushed them all, the strain of doing so weakened it further, and this weakness attracted further interventions by the Great Powers. Some, like the British Raj in India and the representatives of Czarist Russia in Central Asia, made overtures to the Muslims in the western border provinces of Xinjiang and Yunnan. The imperial court was alarmed and proclaimed the need for fundamental reforms. These reforms became known as the Tongzhi Restoration, when the boy emperor Tongzhi came under the tutelage of his mother, the Empress Dowager Cixi, the woman who dominated the Qing government for the next forty years.The Qing court agreed that China needed to make greater efforts to learn from the West. Initially, it concentrated on heavy industry, new methods of military training, and the manufacture of modern armaments. However, at the heart of the reforms were reaffirmations of traditional Confucian values, and these became the essence of the Restoration. The leaders had concluded that the empire was weak because it had slackened its standards; what it needed most were dedicated officials well trained by the best Confucian scholars. The rest was merely a question of mastering the latest technologies and updating military hardware. This included, for the first time in four centuries, an attempt to build a modern navy with French and British help.It is doubtful that the Manchu aristocrats knew what it meant to change their continental mindset to one that understood naval power. It was not enough to have larger and better-armed warships and more men to sail them. New kinds of education were needed to meet the demands of modern strategic thinking. Throughout the whole Restoration years, the only indication that officials thought there was something lacking in Chinese methods of education was the decision in 1872 to send 120 very young students to schools in the United States. The program came to an end after a few years, when the Chinese discovered how Americanized these students had become.This Chinese version of restoration was nothing like the Meiji Restoration in Japan that overturned the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868. The latter involved a wholesale imitation of the West, while Empress Dowager Cixi and her courtiers dedicated themselves instead to recovering their ancient confidence. In other words, the victory against the Taipings and several other sets of rebels led Cixi and her most senior Manchu aristocrats and Confucian mandarins to choose the conservative course and bring back the values they felt had been neglected. Their reactionary program was later recognized to have been inadequate, and the main reason why the Chinese navy was so easily destroyed by the Japanese in 1894. That defeat then led to xenophobic frustration, which found expression in the Boxer uprisings that brought even greater humiliations to the empire. The defeat by Japan also thoroughly discredited the idea that Western learning was merely a body of new technologies that could be used to protect and reaffirm core Chinese values. After that approach failed, generations of Chinese concluded that nothing less than total Westernization could save China.In comparison, Abraham Lincoln’s death coincided with an expansive new beginning for the United States. Lincoln’s achievements centered on the preservation of the Union. By keeping the country whole, he reaffirmed the promise of the American Revolution as a war for freedom and the nation as a city on the hill, the manifest destiny of a virtuous struggle.He had invoked the grand vision that kept the 13 states together after independence, as three successive generations of leaders fought off challenges from their former British masters as well those from within. With its border advancing westward, the country was poised to develop vast new territories and acquire resources unimaginable in the past. Secession by the Confederate States was unacceptable. Union victory ensured that the United States could become a single continental Western power in the New World, the first of its kind, something that Christian Europe had dreamed of since the last centuries of the Roman Empire but had found impossible to build. The American people could open up the entire continent for the exceptional nation that the United States had become.The 13 colonies had fought desperately to survive against British power at the time when Britain was the most powerful maritime power in the world. They had to pool their respective state resources and form a federated union, inspired by the most progressive ideals that European civilization had to offer. Significantly, they avoided what the Latin American states were to do shortly afterward, which was to build separate nation-states that replicated the state system in Europe. That was possible in the Spanish colonies because the imperial master was relatively weak. For the 13 colonies, however, their best decision was to stay united against Britain and take advantage of the ongoing Anglo-French rivalry.Eighty years after independence, as the frontiers moved west and gold was discovered in California, and the British and French were busy elsewhere, an age of opportunity dawned for the young United States. But it was also when the Southern states felt strong and self-sufficient enough to attempt to secede. The political debates of the 1850s made it clear that the disagreements over slavery and the future of the country’s economic development were fundamental. New leaders arose to express righteous confidence and pride on both sides. But both also reaffirmed the ideals that made the original rebellion in 1776 a clarion call for exceptionalism. Fortunately for the United States, Lincoln’s Yankees won and the union was saved.The second set of leaders comes from the early 20th century, when the United States and China moved again in opposite directions. The United States was advancing toward overwhelming power while China struggled with divisions and became nearly helpless. Two extraordinary men, Woodrow Wilson in Washington and Sun Yat-sen in Nanjing, reached the highest positions in their respective countries within months of each other. They both wanted to shape new visions of their respective countries’ futures and places in the world. But their lives moved in very different directions, vividly illustrating the extent of the U.S.-China civilizational divide.On January 1,1912, to the astonishment of those who followed China affairs closely, an outsider and rebel with a price on his head was proclaimed Provisional President of the new Republic of China. Sun Yat-sen was a southern Cantonese Christian who had been educated in English schools in Hawaii and Hong Kong, a respected medical graduate turned revolutionary who embraced nationalism as well the ideals of freedom and equality. He was also someone who had spent most of his life outside his own country learning from the West.A few months later, with considerable luck and against expectations, the academic-cum-politician Woodrow Wilson rose from being a disputed candidate of the minority Democratic Party to become the first Southerner to be elected President since the Civil War. He was also one of the best-educated leaders the United States ever had and one who had great admiration for the classical origins of its ideals. As he sought to redefine the United States as the leader of the New World, he must have wondered what could possibly have led the confident and mighty Europeans to stagger blindly toward one of the most destructive wars the world had ever known.The two men’s paths diverged after 1912. Sun Yat-sen was soon pushed out and returned to his home province of Guangdong. There he battled for his party’s survival and rebirth, changing political course several times before his early death in 1925. He found his republican ideals and hopes for democracy totally subverted. To restructure his Nationalist Party, he had to insist on dictatorial powers for his leadership. He set aside his national pride to seek foreign funds for his cause, turning away from a reluctant West to Japan and the Soviet Union. In the end, inspired by Lenin’s party-military apparatus, he accepted Soviet support for a revolutionary army and allowed Communist Party members into his Kuomintang (Nationalist Party). He did not live long enough to see his army defeat the warlord regime in Beijing and give China a new start in Nanjing. But he came close to linking China to the internationalist order, at the time roiled by the ideological civil war in the West between Marxist communism and capitalist imperialism. After his death, this struggle led to the civil war between the two parts of the Nationalist-Communist alliance that he himself had allowed to develop.Sun Yat-sen was the practical politician ready for any syncretic mix that could unite his people and restore China’s full independence. He had no difficulty adjusting his Christian faith to fit Chinese traditions. He was comfortable with the Buddho-Daoist practices behind the secret societies that he recruited to his cause. He approached capitalist and progressive Japanese for help. He revived a range of Confucian concepts and attracted the literati and their progeny to his nationalist cause. And, not least, he was open to communist rhetoric and employed Soviet advisers to train his soldiers.In short, Sun Yat-sen represented a pluralist response to the impact of Western modernity. His unfinished set of lectures, entitled The Three Principles of the People, crystalized his ideas into a manifesto for change. It was a mix of old and new political ideas that he thought could become achievable goals for the new Chinese nation, and was adopted by the KMT to serve as the basis for a nationalist revolution. When the CCP won in 1949, the works of Lenin and Stalin and then Mao Zedong replaced all his writings. But The Three Principles remains a symbol of the early efforts to find an answer to China’s division and decline. Sun Yat-sen expected China to be open and resilient, willing to learn from others but dedicated to restoring its great traditions.Woodrow Wilson’s New World heritage was drawn from another civilization, with its ancient origins in multiple cultures along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. His father was a devout and learned Christian minister and he himself was steeped in the Greek and Roman classics. His political education was Enlightenment American and he connected the country’s Constitution to its roots in British political traditions and European history. A widely admired scholar, he ended his academic career as president of Princeton University.When he entered the political arena, the United States had joined the world of powerful empires, having absorbed the Hawaiian Kingdom and taken the Philippines from the Spanish. When his immediate predecessors extended the U.S. frontier further westward across the Pacific, it seemed the most natural thing for the country to do. Heeding the call to “Go West, young man!”, they found themselves drawn them into global maritime challenges as the Far West collided with the Far East of the older empires.Wilson became President on the eve of World War I. The U.S. decision to enter the war in 1917 brought the promise of the New World to bear on the stupidities of the Old. When the war ended, President Wilson saw it as his duty to help build a new order that would put an end to such wars. The League of Nations was meant to achieve salvation for Europe, rescuing it from future madness. Wilson spoke with missionary zeal and his message to the world set the tone for subsequent U.S. leaders.Sun Yat-sen and Woodrow Wilson died within a few months of each other. Neither succeeded in his ambitions. China in 1925 was at its weakest point in modern history, neither a unified state nor a credible civilization. The Japan that Sun Yat-sen had asked for help had copied the Europeans to become another national empire poised to invade China. Wilson’s hopes to convert the Old World nations came to nothing. The U.S. Congress failed to support his New World ideals, and two decades later another disastrous war enveloped the world.This summary account of the two pairs of leaders brings us back to our ideas about state and civilization. On the one hand, we see the trajectory of one civilization that was strengthened by the powerful state it created in the New World. Lincoln had fought off the secessionists and consolidated U.S. continental power, enabling Wilson to educate his European partners on how to create a universal order. On the other, we observe how another civilization almost died for lack of a strong and prosperous state. Hong Xiuquan and Cixi struggled helplessly to move China’s wangchao state from its anchorage in deep traditions toward a foreign modernity. Sun Yat-sen, however, understood that China needed a new kind of state if it wanted to save its civilization. But he was not to know the tragedies and traumas the Chinese peoples would go through before they could build it.In 1945, a new start was possible for both countries. The United States won the war across both the Atlantic and the Pacific. It had demonstrated that a country with its own safe continent could at the same time be master of two oceans. Now, it was poised to become a global power that could ensure lasting peace. For China, its part in that victory showed that its civilization had touched bottom and still survived. The Nationalist regime that led the fighting, however, did not survive and, after a short civil war, was replaced by another regime claiming an internationalist outlook. Can a modern civilization be built from what remained? Many Chinese hoped that modernity would flourish after the hard lessons of a century of war and revolution. They even thought the new China could build its own distinct civilization that still embraced vital parts of its heritage.At the end of the 18th century, an independent United States rejected what the Old World stood for—monarchy, mercantilism, imperialism, hierarchy, and inequality. Early in the 20th century, the country gained enough power to redefine the maritime world order it had inherited from the British Empire. Then it defeated the continental ideologies of Eurasia, represented at the time by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. By the end of the Cold War, the maritime global order seemed to confirm that the modern Euro-Mediterranean civilization embodied universal values. As the leader of this order, the United States was both superpower and savior. In comparison, the Old World in Eurasia was tired if not exhausted. The world order that the Mediterranean civilization had promised finally found its source and energy, but only in American hands.The United States led the World War victors in setting up the United Nations, which would project the ideals of freedom, justice, and individual rights and inject them into all the institutions of the new international order. This New World civilization also relied on the nation-state system that the Europeans had invented in the 17th century. U.S. leaders knew they had to teach these Old World nations to adopt universal values, and, when necessary, they established alliances with those that sought their help. But that Old World state framework is still able to draw the United States back into its British and European past, to the idea that only a powerful state can control what the world does. Can the United States get away from the nationalism it has invoked in order to make its civilization as universal as possible?Xi Jinping’s China faces the opposite problem. It admires the modern achievements of the Euro-Mediterranean civilization and seeks to emulate them. It wants to learn all it can so that a modern Chinese state can revive and enrich its own distinctive heritage. Its people have shown that they are capable of mastering everything they want to and only stop short when they are uncertain whether particular ideas and institutions would benefit the country. Nevertheless, they aspire to build a strong state that will revive and modernize the best of its ancient civilization.That civilization remains rooted in the Old World, in a continent that is still unsafe if not as unstable as it has been in the past. China, Japan, India, and the ASEAN states all look for help to safeguard the maritime supply lines essential to their continued economic development. In China’s case, eyeing both continental and maritime advancement fits well with its history. Chinese leaders know that the power balance between land and sea has been the secret of their civilization’s longevity. The difference is that they now believe that a modern civilization has to be embodied in a nation-state. That is the lesson they learned from the past century of weakness, and they believe the only way that China’s future can be secured is by following that Old World model.In the debate over the clash of civilizations launched by Samuel Huntington, I stand with those who believe that civilizations learn from one another and do not fight. It is states that fight in the name of the civilization each believes should prevail. The Sinic and the Euro-Mediterranean civilizations had not really met before modern times. When they did, it was in the framework of nation-states, and it was the nation-states that emerged to overshadow the vitality of their respective civilizations. The strongest among them thereafter expected to establish a global order congenial to their goals and values. It is not obvious, however, that the world should be dominated by any one civilization using the nation-state as its instrument. It would be unfortunate if the most powerful nation-state representing the peak of one civilization needs to act as a super nation-state to achieve that end.I cannot imagine what Abraham Lincoln and Empress Dowager Cixi would have talked about had they met 150 years ago. Fifty years later, Woodrow Wilson and Sun Yat-sen could have conversed in English if they had met, even though their ideals pulled them in opposite directions. Fortunately, when Barack Obama and Xi Jinping met, conditions were more propitious for dialogue. They still spoke for two civilizations, with Obama seeking to use a modern civilization to build a community of nation-states and Xi adapting the nation-state model to modernize China’s distinctive cultural heritage. Obama’s United States strives to remain in the ascendancy and to curb the national urge to use its power to impose world order. Xi Jinping, on the other hand, is counting on a unified multi-ethnic nation to renew its faith in an Old World civilization. The world still hopes that the fear of mutually assured destruction and the rise in global interdependence will temper their respective approaches and permit a lasting peace. However, that may depend on whether these powerful leaders can learn to distinguish between what their states should and should not do, and to recognize how much their two civilizations could share under the peace they both want.
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Published on: March 1, 2016
China and the USA Tale of Two Civilizations
Can China and the United States develop a world order that both will value and defend?