In the last week, two prominent U.S. politicians have made speeches calling against excessive nationalism, ethnocentrism, and isolationism. First, Senator John McCain received the Liberty Medal and derided “half-baked, spurious nationalism,” a topic that I hold close to heart, having written it about myself in controversial essays. He goes on to address the price and importance of U.S. leadership throughout the world, and the benefits Americans have reaped because of it. "That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did."
Less than two days later, former president, George W. Bush, delivered an unexpected speech advocating for the very same American leadership. “[F]ree trade helped make America into a global economic power; American security and prosperity were directly tied to the success of freedom in the world. And they knew that the success depended, in large part, on U.S. Leadership.” This unexpected speech did not call out a politician, or even political movement, but struck very poignant blows against the latest Make America Great Again mentality of a waning, but vocal, populist movement that helped elect Donald Trump in 2016.
Both speeches, but particularly Bush’s, reminded us of the “return of isolationist sentiments” and called for protecting U.S. interests and security without increasing these sentiments. Bush, however, took it a step further by outlining three specific areas to improve upon: Cyber Security, Projection of Leadership, and Strengthening Democratic Citizenship. He reminded us that “American security is directly threatened by distant places” especially as “Russia and China aggressively challenge the norms and rules of the global order.”
Thousands of articles have begun to litter the blogosphere about what these speeches signal to a struggling Trump Administration; precious few take a look at their timing in the international sphere. Sandwiched in-between the two speeches by John McCain and George W. Bush, was the Chinese Communist Party speech by President Xi Jinping. Similarly not naming any ongoing ‘headaches’ Xi gave a speech mirroring that of the two U.S. politicians’. Stating that “No country can retreat to their own island, we live in a shared world and face a shared destiny,” he outlined a path forward (to 2050) where China is a world-leading economy, society, and climate reversal power. Like George W. Bush, he outlined cyber security as an issue of high importance to China, and the importance of a strong national defense.
Recognizing the importance of international trade, President Xi also highlighted his country’s reliance on globalization, referencing the recent “One Belt, One Road” initiative that had raised tensions with the neighboring India, and promised to increase the access foreign companies would have in reaching Chinese markets. The recent economic boom (since 1990) that China’s been riding (a brief period in 2008 not withstanding, when a $600 billion bailout was needed to weather the U.S. caused global financial crisis) has undoubtedly helped propel China into a near-peer status with the U.S. and her western allies. President Xi no doubt understands the importance of future globalization in propelling Chinese interests as well as George W. Bush understood its importance in America’s ascension. As U.S. leaders caution its populace not to retreat into itself, Chinese leadership championed the importance of expanding regional influence. Describing China as “strong” or a “great power” twenty-six times throughout the three hour speech, President Xi made a global impact the prominent priority for the country.
The strength displayed in this speech was meant for more than cultural and economic exports, but also leadership through military strength. Regarding Taiwan and Hong Kong, Xi redoubled nationalist sentiment, calling “blood thicker than water” and threatening anyone who would take “any part of Chinese territory from China.” Referencing disputed and buffer territories, careful omission spoke volumes of potential foreign policy conflicts in the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula. Two areas that President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have been increasing calls for Chinese leadership and assumption of international norms. Similarly, while no direct mention of recent anxiety in cyberspace was mentioned, recent academic research showed the U.S. and China increasingly at odds in their simultaneous efforts to assert their brand of international leadership.
The U.S. speeches reminded Americans of the importance, cost, and benefits of American leadership abroad, but made no calls to seize it - it's already ours, but we threaten our own standing through spurious nationalism, isolationism, and ethnocentrism. Nowhere was this more prevalent than in climate change leadership. As the U.S. abandons global leadership for climate change, an issue affecting millions throughout the world today, President Xi’s China will take “a driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change.” While the U.S. is not impervious to climate change, the issues are more immediate in most of the world - U.S. abandonment of climate change leadership is short sighted - assumption of that ideological burden by China is monumental. Neither speech by McCain or Bush signaled the slightest support for climate change reversal as an economic, health, or national security issue.
This growing ideological conflict between two of the four world powers (U.S., China, Russia, and the European Union) was captured nearly perfectly in five hours of speeches across three days and two continents. While the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia has always revolved around disastrous nuclear and military weapons, insecurity in U.S. leadership and boldness in Chinese proclamations, lays the foundation for a shift in world leadership from that of a U.S. primacy to U.S./Chinese plutocracy. While the 19th and 20th centuries were dominated by empires and zero-sum conflicts, the future is increasingly likely to find a world where countries vie for position through less dramatic means. Positive-Sum conflicts focusing on cyber armies stealing intellectual property and cryptographic currencies (arguably a loss for the intellectual property holder, but maybe not society as a whole), and trade sanctions against transnational corporations empowering rogue regimes are quickly replacing most modern warfare.
While leaders like Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump focus their public appearances on the obvious markers of power (militaries and their weapons) these leaders are relics of a generation on its way out. The isolationism and militant nature of these types of leaders is not something seen elsewhere in the world; a fact captured poignantly by these speeches made by a Prisoner of War, a former President who presided over countless acts of war throughout the world, and the commander of the largest military on the planet. None of these men spent more than an insignificant portion of their time talking about militant defense; the vast majority of their time was on soft power and leadership.