Imperative for the U.S. to Look at its Own Shortcomings Rather Than Blaming and Shaming Others
Whether or not we fail to cooperate on trade and security, global warming or COVID-19, the clearest lessons we ought to draw at this moment is that “we have met the enemy and he is us.” It’s not China.
“We have met the enemy and he is ours.” This is how U.S. Commander Oliver Hazard Perry famously reported defeating and capturing British Royal Navy vessels in the Battle of Lake Erie, fought along the coast of Ohio, in one of the most important engagements in the War of 1812.
Celebrated U.S. cartoonist Walt Kelly, creator of the comic strip Pogo, would later parody this quote twice, first in 1953, in his attacks on the anti-Communist hysterics of McCarthyism: “There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blasts on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us. Forward!”
The second parody came in an anti-pollution poster Kelly created for Earth Day in 1970: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
All three expressions today are pertinent to challenges related to growing U.S.-China tensions and global challenges stemming from climate change, the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, economic downturns and what some believe to be the difficult birth of a new world order.
We have seen a lot of half-baked speculation over the last several months. The worst have involved racist and ethnocentric attacks. This is nothing new. Spain was blamed for the so-called “Spanish flu” in 1918, which killed an estimated 17-50 million, but was so named (and so blamed) because the U.S., France, Germany and the UK censored news about domestic deaths to maintain wartime morale. Today, a rash of anti-Chinese accusations have revived the “yellow peril” bias that was already in play before the outbreak: It’s from eating bat soup (false); it’s a bioweapons lab mishap (false); it’s a Communist conspiracy and cover-up (false); and even, it’s spread by Chinese 5G towers (false).
Much of this is fueled by ignorance and hate, fellow travelers of those who, for the most part, don’t actually travel. But we have also seen an outbreak of talking head nonsense from those who ought to know better but rarely miss an opportunity to provide ahistorical parallels. When COVID-19 first hit Wuhan in the central province of Hubei, many said it was China’s “Chernobyl.” Fortunately, HBO had run a globally popular miniseries on Chernobyl in 2019, so it was a ready reference point. There were only two problems with the comparison. The first is that Chernobyl by most sober historical accounts was not a primary reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nor was it Ronald Reagan’s mythological Cold War victory.
The second, of course, is that China is not the Soviet Union, today is not then, and China’s relatively effective handling of the outbreak has been such a source of embarrassment for some Western nations, including the U.S. that it has become imperative to cast doubt on every aspect of Chinese success. After all, blaming and shaming others feels a lot better than taking a hard look at one’s own shortcomings.
Nevertheless, it has also become popular to argue that we are witnessing the birth of a new world order. Instead of China’s “Chernobyl,” some editorialists have suggested this is the U.S.’ “Suez,” in reference to the end of British superpower status during its bungling of the Suez Crisis in 1957. In fact, this comparison is about as silly as China’s “Chernobyl.” The U.S. is not the UK, China is not the Soviet Union, and the world today is not the same as yesteryear; but with ahistoricism, everything conveniently appears the same.
This type of backward thinking appears dominant above all in Washington, which has reimagined China as the worst version of itself. This is what guides the U.S. obsession with decoupling and by some accounts, the most ridiculous of monikers, “Cold War 2.0.” Despite several global crises requiring close international cooperation, despite a trenchant “funny money” economy and skyrocketing unemployment rates following a gross mishandling of the outbreak, officials in President Donald Trump’s administration have floated the idea of paying U.S. companies to leave China.
The U.S. accuses China of spying on everyone despite actual evidence that Washington spies on everyone. Trump accuses China of stealing U.S. innovations but does everything it can to thwart Chinese technology because, well, increasingly it is not only more advanced, but also more affordable. And U.S. workers are told to blame China for losing their jobs and to support a U.S.-instigated trade war while U.S. companies have made trillions exploiting several generations of Chinese labor and despite the fact that many of those jobs have left China seeking lower labor costs elsewhere.
Still, in pandering recourses to nostalgic idiocy that recall both Joseph McCarthy and Ronald Reagan, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo rarely misses an opportunity to proclaim a Chinese conspiracy for world domination. In fact, so much of the Trump era has been little more than a cheap imitation of Reagan-era spite—the only problem being that the word “cheap” belies the costs: unsustainable and ever-increasing budget deficits, dog-whistle tactics that further polarize and fragment every sphere, debased international organizations, unchecked global warming, gross mishandling of the outbreak at home and abdication of leadership abroad… the list goes on and lengthens every day.
Another example is that after decades of U.S. universities using federal funds to attract foreign scholars to work on science and technology-related developments, which simultaneously fueled U.S. development while crippling others with brain drains, Chinese universities employing the Ministry of Education’s Thousands Talents Program to attract foreign experts are targeted by the U.S. Department of Justice as a conspiracy aimed at stealing U.S. secrets and subverting the liberal world order.
Meanwhile, Confucius Institutes that have served foreign countries and universities more generously than their fee-oriented cousins, the British Council and Alliance Française, providing free language education and testing services (on which many U.S. universities profited by selling those services to tuition-paying students), have been targeted as Chinese beachheads endangering U.S. academic freedoms. And yet, where is the evidence? In the meantime, the rise of the business model in U.S. universities, the disciplining of academic labor, the exploitation of students as consumers paying astronomical sums for diminishing returns… these practices continue unabated.
He is us
In 1852, following Napoleon III’s ahistorical promise to recreate the “glories” of Napoleonic France, Karl Marx wrote, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” But Marx should have added, for the sake of clarity, that farce can appear again and again, and remains capably tragic. In this respect, the farcical moment par excellence of today’s world, i.e., decoupling and Cold War 2.0, seems a harbinger of greater tragedies to come, particularly as many already find themselves picking through the ruins of their former lives.
So why start with the War of 1812, the causes and consequences of which still provoke academic debate? It might seem quaint to recall a moment when the Americans were fighting the British, who were in turn fighting Napoleon I, each pursuing their own new world orders. The Americans then were less concerned with Napoleon than establishing their own position vis-à-vis British hegemony; and the British not only instigated a self-damaging trade war against the U.S. but attacked and harassed Americans abroad, and so on. All of this promises some insight into the present.
Whether or not we fail to cooperate on trade and security, global warming or COVID-19, the clearest lessons we ought to draw at this moment is that “we have met the enemy and he is us.” It’s not China. It’s not the Communist Party of China. It’s not Huawei. It’s time to quit latter-day McCarthyism and post-truth propaganda and embrace cold hard facts. If COVID-19 can’t teach us that, what can?
The author is professor of politics and director of the International Graduate Program in Politics at East China Normal University in Shanghai.