America vs. China? In This New Cold War, the Choice Is No Longer Obvious

The end of America's hegemony isn't the end of the world

Ofri Ilany
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A woman wearing a face mask rides a bicycle past a large video screen showing Chinese President Xi Jinping speaking in Beijing, June 30, 2020.
A woman wearing a face mask rides a bicycle past a large video screen showing Chinese President Xi Jinping speaking in Beijing, June 30, 2020. Credit: Mark Schiefelbein,AP
Ofri Ilany

In Polish Galicia in the early 20th century, Jewish families split up and members made their way to different parts of the world. Often one part of the family emigrated to America, a second part remained in Poland and a third settled in Palestine. The result is that many Ashkenazi families have a branch in the United States – or, as the phenomenon came to be known in Israel, an “uncle in America.”

My grandfather’s family, which originated in Chortkiv (in contemporary Ukraine), also had a branch that hoped to emigrate to America and perhaps pave the way for the rest of the family. They set out by ship for the New World. But as fate would have it, they were attacked by pirates in mid-ocean. Rumor has it that they were captured and taken to the Arabian Peninsula, where all trace of them was lost. So my grandfather used to say that instead of uncles in America, I might have uncles in Saudi Arabia.

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This historical tragedy left me without relatives in America. I’m not complaining, because my family’s fate could have been far worse. Still, the story had a certain effect on the shaping of my personality.

True, as a child I too watched the television series “The Wonder Years” and “Full House.” As with every modern-day person, America is part of my life. But precisely because of that, it has always infuriated me that I was fated to lived in a world dominated by American culture. I was also always puzzled by people’s desire to fall into step with the latest caprices of that empire, in whose shadow I lived without ever having been asked if that’s what I wanted.

Every little sneeze of public opinion in America is felt like an earthquake around the world – and nowhere more so than in Israel. When movements and ideas from the United States are replicated all over the world, it mainly demonstrates global self-annulment in the face of that country. And this is true even in the case of progressive movements and ideas.

For instance, the achievements chalked up by the Black Lives Matter protest movement, which has jolted the United States in the past few weeks, stir emotions here, too, and generate calls to disseminate the message to every corner of the planet. But in fact, this phenomenon also suggests that the lives of Americans are to be considered worthier than the lives of any other group in the world.

Chinese and American flags.
Chinese and American flags.Credit: Andy Wong/אי־פי

The same holds true for the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling on discrimination against employees because of their sexual inclination, a judgment that produced cries of joy among various LGBT communities around the globe – communities that are not even subject to the American judicial system. In general, the international LGBT movement is subordinate to the inordinately extreme domination of the United States: All the terminology, the various identities and sub-identities are American concepts. Every identity-related caprice that originates in Manhattan’s Soho or in the San Francisco Bay Area morphs into some universal edict that is meant to be enforced everywhere.

Some will say, justly: What are you gonna do? America is the leading political and cultural power in the world. Indeed, there isn’t much to be done. But it can be hoped that this power will fade. In recent weeks, against the backdrop of the chaos rampant in the United States, and in the light of America’s growing isolation in the international arena, we are again hearing claims that we are witnessing the decline of the United States as a superpower.

How hegemony ends: The unraveling of American power,” the authoritative journal Foreign Affairs pronounced in one article; “The end of the American century,” declared The Nation; “The decline of the American world,” The Atlantic prophesied. Tom McTague, a writer for The Atlantic, noted the pity with which many people across the globe now view the United States, which had become, at least in part, dysfunctional. “We are accustomed to listening to those who loathe America, admire America, and fear America… But feeling pity for America? That one is new,” he wrote.

It’s best to be cautious about these forecasts. After the 2008 economic crisis, too, dire predictions were made about the rapid deterioration of the United States – but it turned out that the prophets of doom were too quick to write off its economy and the resilience of its people overall. In fact, the argument that the American empire is sinking and other forces are rising has been voiced time and again since the 1980s. For as long as I can remember, I have been hearing that the United States is done for, but in practice its influence has never been stronger.

In any event, if America’s hegemony is indeed on the wane, there’s no reason to regret it. A recasting of the international balance of forces is the main hope for substantial change in the way the world is being managed – far more than the victory of a particular candidate in the U.S. presidential election.

In the new cold war that is developing between China and America, there is no reason to come to attention obediently by the side of the latter nation. For years the media have been trying to scare us with terrifying scenarios of a global takeover by the frightening Chinese empire. Indeed, there are good reasons to be apprehensive about the domination of the Chinese political model – a centralist dictatorship that aims to maintain a tight grip on the lives of the country’s citizens. But that model could change, as political trends in China have in the past.

Berlin to Delhi

The unipolar global alignment is falling apart before our eyes. The alliance between the two sides of the Atlantic Ocean looks weaker than ever. But it’s possible to imagine other international alignments, ones that go beyond simply replacing one superpower with another superpower. One possibility is the G-Zero scenario – that of a world in which no state or group of states is strong enough to dictate global order. Another possibility is the disintegration of the geopolitical unit known as “the West,” and Europe’s integration into a new, Euro-Asian world order. After all, Berlin is closer to Delhi than it is to New York, and the same goes for Tel Aviv.

Those who believe in history and in the human spirit should also believe that humanity will learn how to get along without the American global cop. It is America that brought the world to its present state: unrestrained capitalism, environmental destruction, political deterioration and cultural dilution. Its continued hegemony means stagnation and gradual decline. In fact, there are few changes more interesting to conjure up the appearance of a post-American world. Asian trends are already conquering the world – from China’s Singles Day to television series about Thai gays. Every such development shows that we will not have to kowtow to Hollywood and Amazon for all time.

The notion that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism has already become a cliché. But before imagining either of those, it’s worth trying to imagine the world after America.

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