America today faces a potentially existential challenge to its national security as two great power adversaries, Russia and China, contest its post-Cold War dominion. The reason? For 30 years it has been led by corporate, media, and policy elites who failed to acknowledge the enduring verities of great power politics. Instead of carefully reassessing our strategy when the Soviet Union imploded, after 1990 our intelligentsia embraced without hesitation the ideological bromides—principally cooked up in our think tanks and universities—about the “end of history,” our “unipolar moment,” and the inevitable triumph of the so-called liberal international order across the globe. Never before has a drive towards empire been based on such a glaring inability to calculate power relationships and to learn from history.
How did we get here? Simply put, our political class failed to appreciate why the United States triumphed over the Soviet Union. We won not because of the power of liberal ideals—though they were important additional enablers of American foreign and security policy against the Soviets—but because in 1947, when the Cold War competition was fully joined, our country possessed a massive industrial base, the global reserve currency, the largest gold reserves, half of global GDP, a navy larger than all the world’s navies combined, an expanding population and rapidly growing middle class, and a monopoly on atomic weapons.
True, over the course of the Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union (the latter for a period aligned with communist China), the balance began to shift somewhat. The economies of war-ravaged Europe and Asia recovered, and the relative power position of the United States would never approximate where the country was in 1947. Nonetheless, there was little question that in terms of the power indices of the era, America had an unmatched edge in every aspect of technology, research and development, manufacturing, and overall wealth when compared to its adversary. Few in the captive nations of Eastern Europe doubted that American free-market capitalism, and what the West represented more generally, was superior when it came to both wealth and freedom. What kept them mouthing communist slogans was the reality of being occupied by the Red Army and dragooned into the Warsaw Pact against the very America (and West) they admired. But we won largely because America’s hard power was undergirded by our unmatched industrial base and R&D institutions.
Yet we failed to grasp that the Soviet Union did not implode because the liberal democratic ideal overpowered the tenets of communism. Few argued at the time that we had won because our adversary could not match our industrial base and innovative research universities and labs—especially as we moved into the digital age—and that henceforth it should be the government’s sacred duty to preserve and protect advantages that took generations to build. The implosion of the Soviet empire was greeted by Washington’s intelligentsia as an ideological triumph par excellence. In a bizarre replay of the Bolshevist fiction about the universality of Marxist dogma, our elites post-1990 seemed certain that a new globalist age had dawned in which America’s sui generis history and political tradition would first claim a universal quality and ultimately dissolve in the new global order. At think tank conferences, political science conventions, and increasingly in government and Congress, our elites succumbed to the temptation to view 1990 not as marking the end of a long twilight struggle in which the nation’s industrial base and military alliances had ultimately carried the day, but rather as the culmination of an inexorable drive toward the fulfillment of a grand universalist promise. Francis Fukuyama’s thesis was transformed into the equivalent of now-discarded communist teleological reasoning, only this time built on liberal clichés, not Marxian canon.
As our utopian intelligentsia on the East Coast was coming into its own in think tanks, government buildings, and corporate offices, it had an ally in the emergent West Coast digital aristocracy. Our corporate CEOs, bankers, and money managers were eager for a globalist expansion, one in which software and money would go hand in hand, while the process of shipping America’s critical supply chains overseas gathered speed each year with few in government and business batting an eye. In this brave new world, digital campuses, transnational banks, and corporations would spawn a new globalist corporate aristocracy—an American but de facto transnational ruling elite whose prosperity (it was believed) would be indefinitely supported by Chinese labor. Borders would not only become permeable but in fact disappear. Our universities would go on to train hundreds of thousands of Chinese graduate students a year, while many of our brahmins ensconced themselves on foreign corporate boards and accumulated wealth at a rate that echoed the one achieved by the robber barons of the 19th century.
Historically, efforts to capture elites have preceded state capture. The Chinese communist leadership seems to have learned all too well the British imperial dictum that “we do not run Egypt, we run the Egyptians who run Egypt.” The massive inflow of Chinese money into the United States, and increasingly into Europe, has translated into a relentless string of influence operations not only through Confucius Institutes, but across our think tanks, corporations, and the media. Chinese money would also go on to support commissioned research at our premier research universities, with contracts stipulating that U.S. researchers turn the results over to their Chinese counterparts and refrain from criticizing Chinese policies (over the past six years 115 of our colleges and universities received $1 billion in monetary gifts and commissioned research from China). Corporations—still American in name—lobbied vigorously to maintain the status quo long after it had become clear that the United States was at risk of being transformed into a tributary state to China. This makes the past 30 years of globalization an historically unprecedented time. We handed over to communist China the jewels of American technology and industry, while relentlessly educating Chinese scientists and engineers (last year of the approximately one million foreign students at U.S. colleges and universities, 370,000 were Chinese, mainly in STEM graduate programs). Yet few in our think thanks or corporate boardrooms batted an eye. Instead, they decried our punitive tax code and insisted that onerous regulations had left American corporations no alternative but to ship their factories and supply chains to China.
Great powers often lose their global standing when they suffer defeat in a major system-transforming war, but it is rare that great triumph carries with it the seeds of a state’s undoing. In hindsight, this has been the fate of the United States following its unequivocal victory in the Cold War. Just as America was emerging as arguably the greatest imperial power in human history, a confluence of blind ideological certitude and an all-but-unconstrained sense of elite pouvoir to do as it pleased began a process that, three decades later, not only has hobbled American dominion worldwide but is also destroying national cohesion at home.
While one could possibly argue in the case of Russia that a country at least partly European in terms of its heritage and culture might, however briefly, entertain the notion of following America’s lead and adopting a version of Western liberal democracy, the idea that communist China, with its distinct civilization and culture going back millennia, might in short order morph into something akin to a liberal democratic state and become a “responsible stakeholder in the global system” was borderline lunacy. The fact that such a notion gained traction reveals the extent to which the destruction of Area Studies as a pathway to tenure at our universities in favor of statistics and quantitative methods produced analysts poorly versed in even the barest fundamentals of country expertise.
The processes we are witnessing today, both in our cities and across the world, are not an accidental coming together of factors. Rather, they are a manifestation of deep structural changes within America, and in the global power distribution, resulting from decades of willful economic, foreign, and security policies that rested on a spectacular misdiagnosis of the end of the Cold War and its consequences. It is time to ask those who have perpetuated this strategic blunder to recognize it and, at least with a semblance of humility, return traditional American pragmatism and a patriotic commitment to the nation to our domestic and foreign policies.