Beijing is stepping in to fill the leadership void left by a United States distracted and hobbled by its deep, structural divisions.
BOGOTÁ — Crises accelerate trends. For almost 20 years we have been hearing about China's "awakening" and its imminent challenge to United States hegemony. But it's now, in the months since the coronavirus pandemic began, that we're really seeing the hegemonic transition happen — in real time and before our eyes. If the 20th century was the American century, it seems the 21st will be Chinese.
The U.S. is in flames because the coronavirus, instead of bringing out the country's leadership capacities and strength, has deepened its rifts and isolated it from the world. Facing humanity's gravest crisis in a generation — after climate change — the U.S. has neither led nor built bridges. Instead it has abandoned multilateral bodies created to fight epidemics like this one, and focused rather on its own, deep-seated divisions, which have everything to do with the lost leadership roll.
The murder of George Floyd is the latest in a long series of deaths at the hands of the police. They're the sinister tip of the iceberg of abuses against the non-white population and African Americans in particular. U.S. laws are designed to favor the police, and it is very difficult for policemen to be convicted of homicide.
The wave of protests against the killing will probably boost coronavirus contagion and push an already heaving health system toward collapse. It is a system, furthermore, that could not be reformed due to antagonisms between the Republicans and Democrats. The country may soon experience the most convulsive electoral year of its recent history.
But even if Donald Trump loses, the divisions will persist. That's because Trump himself is not the problem. The issue, rather, is the people who support him. Increasing inequalities, failed promises of prosperity and the manufacturing drain to foreign countries have fueled an anger that is real. It will not go away after four years, and is motivating the electoral decisions of at least half the white, Republican-voting population.
This population is anti-immigration, racist or quasi-racist, opposed to multilateral institutions and foreign alliances, and anything else that smells of globalization. It is anchored in the idea of a dominant United States in international affairs, which needs not respect multilateral institutions nor submit to any treaty whose terms it did not set.
That is a United States that no longer exists, if it ever did. And yet, the Republican Party must answer to this voting public, whether or not it agrees with such notions. Otherwise voters will seek out eccentric figures like Trump, and the phenomenon will recur with another such figure. The Republicans must move further to the right because their voters have, and this positioning is precisely what is ending the country's international leadership.
We need one of the world's great powers to be focused on attacking some of humanity's principal problems.
China, meanwhile, has the stability of a one-party state. It has the advantage of being able to pursue state policies over a decade. It also has far more leeway diplomatically. Almost all governments in the world have good relations with China, and its president can sit and talk on good terms with the presidents of Colombia, Venezuela, Sudan, Syria, Iran, Russia, Mexico and others. It is difficult to think of a world power that enjoyed such a range before.
Is this good or bad?
The United States in its present state of crisis is definitely not good. We need one of the world's great powers to be focused on attacking some of humanity's principal problems, not sinking into its fractures. But for the United States, whose fractures are structural, that's unlikely to happen in the short or medium term.
China, for its part, seems bent on fortifying a multilateral world and its institutions. At least one of the two superpowers, in other words, is exercising some form of leadership and extending bridges. Let us hope this is the case and that it will fight the many, valid reasons why people are wary of Chinese leadership in the world. Especially because, like it or not, that leadership will be there.