Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

China and the United States Are in a Race to Lose Power

| Aug. 17, 2020

A new cold war is starting, and neither side seems interested in winning.

Back in the bad old days of the Cold War, I recall hearing a well-known academic (and former diplomat) remark that the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in "a relentless competition to see which one could lose influence fastest." Assuming my memory is accurate, he then added, "Fortunately, the Soviets are winning."

I'm wary of facile analogies to that earlier period of great-power rivalry, but that observation seems to be an apt description of the current state of Chinese and American foreign policy. Beijing and Washington can each point to a few successes over the past year or two, but for the most part both seem to be perfecting the art of the own goal. Citizens of both countries have reason to be grateful; given how poorly their leaders have performed, it's a small miracle the other side hasn't taken better advantage.

Let's start with the United States. I'm old enough to remember when it enjoyed a position of primacy unseen since the Roman Empire. Sadly, assorted sins of omission and commission under both Democrats and Republicans wasted the so-called unipolar moment and facilitated the rise of a new set of challengers. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton made the first missteps but escaped most of the blame, because the consequences of his blunders (NATO enlargement, dual containment, a bungled Middle East peace process, and overzealous pursuit of globalization) did not come home to roost until after he had left office. President George W. Bush got to deal with some of the repercussions (such as the 9/11 attacks), and he compounded the error by launching global anti-terrorism campaigns, invading Iraq, and letting a dangerous financial bubble burst in 2008. President Barack Obama failed to reverse the slide despite his successful rescue of the economy and his personal popularity in much of the world, and the consequences of these accumulating failures helped open the door to President Donald Trump’s reign of error.

As president, Trump has mostly demonstrated how to squander goodwill and respect and get little or nothing in return....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen.“China and the United States Are in a Race to Lose Power.” Foreign Policy, August 17, 2020.

The Author

Stephen Walt