Why global hegemony was the worst thing to happen to America

Do we need another 672 million people in this country? That’s the argument advanced in Matt Yglesias’s new book One Billion Americans. By accepting a great many more immigrants, and increasing the birthrate with pro-family policy, we might roughly triple our population.

The billion-person mark is basically a loose framing device for a discussion of several of the Vox writer’s favored policies: upzoning cities to allow more housing construction, more public transit, congestion pricing, Matt Bruenig’s Family Fun Pack, and so on.

One might quibble here or there with Yglesias’ agenda, but the individual elements are defensible on their own terms. (Immigration reform and family policy are particularly welcome.) However, they also don’t require a billion people to be worthwhile. No, the actual justification for that particular population mark is mainly nationalist. China is coming back into its own after two centuries of recovering from colonialist meddling, and “against China, we are the little dog: There are more than one billion of them to about 330 million of us,” he writes in an excerpt. “America should aspire to be the greatest nation on Earth.”

I disagree. America’s status as global hegemon has been devastating for both ourselves and the world. It is high time the U.S. accustomed itself to normal country status — a great power to be sure, but no longer drastically more powerful than any other. The rise of China as the first peer nation we have had in decades just possibly might remind America of the value of diplomacy, international institutions, and minding our own business.

Now, as I have written before, Yglesias is correct to note that China is a menacing country. It’s a ruthless dictatorship in the midst of a horrifying ethnic cleansing campaign against its Uighur minority that may well count as genocide. It is slowly crushing a peaceful pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. It runs an incredibly pervasive surveillance system. It is constantly bullying its smaller neighbors, particularly Taiwan. Its “Belt and Road” and other initiatives are clearly aimed at establishing a kind of economic empire by roping dozens of poorer nations into a relationship of dependency on Beijing (in a way familiar to students of the British Empire).

However, America remaining physically the most powerful single country is not the most important factor in whether China will be able to dominate the globe in future, or continue to roast the biosphere with greenhouse gases. (It currently emits twice what the U.S. does.) China is a nuclear-armed power, so physical might has only limited influence on it anyway. What matters is the political character of China’s closest competitors — namely the U.S., the E.U., and India — plus the functioning of the global economy, and the broader diplomatic context.

Absent some kind of disaster, just the historically close bloc of Western Europe and the U.S. could provide an effective counterweight to China for the rest of the century at least. Unfortunately, America has spent the last two decades tearing at the postwar alliance of Western democratic states by going on an international killing spree. China’s authoritarianism is indeed terrible, but its behavior outside its borders has not been even close to as bad as the so-called War on Terror. Indeed, with the rise of Donald Trump and an increasingly extremist Republican Party, there is a real danger the U.S. will abandon ties with democratic Europe altogether and become just another authoritarian kleptocracy — like China, except orders of magnitude more incompetent.

I submit that winning the Cold War and emerging as by far the world’s most powerful country was one of the worst things that has ever happened to America. We spent the 1990s drunk on our own success and power, believing that neoliberal capitalism marked an “end of history” written on American lines. Then 9/11 happened, and the nation went berserk. As Derek Davison writes at Foreign Exchanges, it was a terrible tragedy, but as far as actual body count not even in the same time zone as, say, the siege of Leningrad, or indeed the several catastrophes America would go on to inflict on the Middle East in a frothing desire to inflict vengeance on somebody, never mind who. The Costs of War project at Brown University recently calculated that the various post-9/11 wars have created 37 million refugees. “The real trauma that America suffered on 9/11 was to its collective self-image, its belief in its own overwhelming power, and control of the rest of the world,” Davison writes.

When one country is so strong that it can do basically whatever it wants, its internal pathologies or neuroses become the world’s problems. It is not a coincidence that the most decent, best-governed countries in the world — places like Taiwan, New Zealand, or the Nordics — do not have the option of flying off the handle at a minor provocation and turning half a subcontinent into a smoking blood-drenched hellscape. It is also likely not a coincidence that as America has torched international treaties banning wars of aggression and torture, Chinese leaders have felt a freer hand to oppress neighbors or their own population. American hypocrisy is too glaring for any kind of values-based criticism to bite anymore, and we have sowed too much disunity with Europe to present any kind of united front against genuine horrors. “Stand with the U.S. against China?” Germany might say. “What, are they not torturing enough people?”

It would be a good idea for decent democratic nations to try to check the power of China as it continues to grow and assert itself, and encourage it to behave decently. But the only effective way to do that is through setting a good example, and through the soft power of a united democratic bloc. Internal reform to make U.S. welfare institutions, infrastructure, and climate policy less of an international laughingstock, and restoring ties to alienated European allies, would also be helpful. Rolling back the military-industrial complex would help even more.

Let us do that rather than trying to add another digit to the national population clock simply to remain the biggest dog in global politics.

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