Illustration by Guy Billout
For 150 years, The Atlantic has been trying to figure out the American idea. For a quarter of that time, I’ve been on the job myself. The process began in earnest the first time I set foot outside the country, in the summer of 1970, when I left for graduate school in England. The real work of debating and defining a country’s prospects, of course, happens inside its borders. But I’ve found it very useful to think about America from afar. I know it’s annoying and superior-sounding to say that you see a country most clearly from the outside. (Those poor homebound hicks! They don’t get the big picture the way we cosmopolites can.) But at least in one way, it’s certainly true. Inside America, we discuss what the country could and should become. Outside, we see what it is—which of its traits and habits really make it unusual, the effects of what it claims to stand for, what it actually does to the rest of the world.
I am living in China now mainly to learn about China, which is similar to the reasons my wife and I have previously lived or spent extensive stretches in Ghana, Malaysia, Japan, and other places. But inevitably, we are thinking and learning about what America is. And—surprise!—we are feeling good. I am more hopeful about America and its idea than I was even 18 months ago, before coming to China.
The details of this outlook are shaped by my previous cycles of judging America from overseas, so let me explain three of the stages that led to my current, largely optimistic view. In England, I discovered that I was an American; in Japan, how essential America’s ideas are to its strength; and now in China, that America’s ideas are still the key to its vitality, if we don’t abuse them or carelessly let them wither away.
In England in the early 1970s, I spent a lot of time grumbling with my American friends, and not just because we were spoiled. The United States was in a politically dark period then, and England’s irritation with Richard Nixon or Lieutenant William Calley was often projected upon itinerant Americans. England itself was literally dark—and clammy, and cold, and threadbare. In retrospect, it’s obvious that the country had not yet fully recovered from World War II. Cool Britannia had a different connotation than it would a generation later under Tony Blair. There was no real heating in the buildings or plumbing in the bathrooms (or novocaine in the National Health Service dental “studios”!)—points we learned to make only among ourselves, since it was a cliché among the natives that only Americans would notice.
No one could avoid noticing the near-collapse of the U.K.’s social compact. For more than a month in 1971 we got no mail, because of a postal strike, and in those days, that really mattered. The country’s “dustmen,” or garbage collectors, went on a prolonged strike, too. For weeks on end, electricity was available only for limited hours per day, on a “rota” basis. I still shiver as I remember trying to page through economics texts by the flicker from candles while clad in overcoat, scarf, and little knitted gloves with the fingertips cut off, in the 4 p.m. December twilight in a library at Oxford. I fear that the circumstances made me less respectful of the views of the English economic theorists I was reading. My wife-to-be had what we considered a wonderful job, handling rats in an experimental-psych laboratory. England’s tenderhearted animal-protection laws dictated that the rat buildings, unlike the people buildings, be fully heated, so I went to see her as often as I could.
After two years of this—and, yes, wonderful adventures, and close friends from many lands, and tremendous good fortune to have had such opportunities, and a wedding in an Oxford chapel to the same rat-handling expert I am married to today (it wasn’t just the heated labs), and so on—I was ready to come home, with a new understanding of what home meant.
Traits I had considered my own personal quirks, or perhaps regionalisms as a Californian, were revealed as being stereotypically American. In one way or another they involved mobility—really, class. The cheeseparing state of the British economy in those days was less disturbing, to me, than the static social concept behind it. At some point English society must have been tumultuous, open, and rapidly changing, right? That is the world Charles Dickens depicted, and the one that economic historians like David Landes said was both a source and a sign of Britain’s rapid industrialization in the mid-1800s.
It did not seem that way anymore. Like any tourist, I admired the aesthetic results of a society where people knew their place and where some, in effect, served as picturesque props. The butlers polishing brass knobs, the Cockney-accented “scout” who cleaned my college room and, no joke, kept calling me “Guv’nuh.” At center stage were the toffs in their campy Oxford college blazers, living a life out of Waugh.
As an American, I got huffy about the idea that so many people felt born to their place, high or low, and by the very concept of “place” at all. While some of my American friends were poshing up their vowels and adopting Briticisms like “Brilliant!” or “full stop,” my accent was becoming more and more ostentatiously American. The ideal I strove for was Jack Nicholson. Sure, America had its version of class markers and class barriers. But they were milder and more permeable, and Americans on the whole were embarrassed by their existence. Before coming to England, I had considered the Civil War America’s most necessary struggle. As time went on, my thoughts turned admiringly to Lexington, Concord, and the Liberty Bell. America was coarser than England, but it was more independent, open, freer of class shackles. Being sure that it remained open—that as much as possible, Americans always had a second chance—took on new importance to me as a cause.
Living and studying in England taught me that America meant openness. Living in Japan and traveling through Asia underscored that message, with a vengeance.
Superficially, Japan’s boom of the 1980s seems like China’s today. Yes, both happened in Asia, both led to mammoth trade imbalances, both arose from combined governmental and private-industrial efforts, and both unnerved the United States. But the differences are more numerous than the similarities, and more important. Japan was and is rich; for China, that is decades away. Japan’s debut as an international host with its Olympic Games was already 20 years in the past (Tokyo, 1964); China’s is still ahead. To me the most striking difference was cultural and moralistic: specifically, Japan’s cocksureness. Japan and many neighboring nations saw its rise as a challenge to the American idea, and they didn’t care who knew it. No one thinks that today’s China lacks cultural confidence. By now I should have programmed auto-text keys to use when transcribing interviews, so that I can plug in the rote passage about “our 5,000 years of history” or “the world’s longest continuous civilization” with one stroke. But I have encountered virtually no lecturing from Chinese friends, officials, students, passersby, or interviewees.
People inside China have a vivid sense of the whack-a-mole challenge they face at every level. For rural people, staying alive. For the urban-employed class, finding enough money to pay for an apartment (with prices soaring), get kids into school (also expensive, with fees required even at public schools), fend off health emergencies (ditto), plus somehow save enough for retirement (in the midst of a huge demographic shift, driven by the one-child policy, toward a society with many more dependents and many fewer active workers). For company officials, managing China’s current “brand image” disaster, plus the soaring costs of water, energy, and raw materials, plus the competition from thousands of other companies just like them. For regional officials, fending off complaints about pollution and corruption while still bringing in jobs. For the national government, managing all this and political and international crises too. Based on their record over the last 20 years, Chinese at all levels will probably find a way to stay just ahead of these disasters. But the situation doesn’t leave many people I’ve met sounding boastful.
Japan was not like this. By the time I arrived there in 1986, Ezra Vogel’s famed Japan as Number One had been on the market for several years. Vogel was arguing that many of Japan’s practices deserved to be examined as influential new world models. But because of the title, the book was easily misunderstood as suggesting that Japan had actually become the No. 1 power. That was certainly the preferred interpretation of many of the Japanese officials and intellectuals I interviewed. For them, Japan and its concepts had won, which explicitly meant that America and its ideas had lost.
This attitude showed up even when you weren’t looking for it. In Tokyo in 1989, I was summoned to meet Shintaro Ishihara, a bluff Pat Buchanan–like politician who was later elected governor of Tokyo. He was famous then for his book (written with Akio Morita) No! to Ieru Nippon, or The Japan That Can Say No!, which argued that Japan finally had the muscle to tell America to shut up. Behind it was the conceit that America had reached its crest—not just geostrategically, with its costly military commitments, nor just commercially, with the shoddy products it brought to market and its selfish refusal to save or conserve. Rather, America’s failure involved its very essence, its fitness as a culture to compete. His book contrasted the chaos, disorder, and preening individualism that characterized America with the unity, harmony, and unspoken communication that supposedly made the Japanese into one smoothly functioning productive team. (“Supposedly” because, as Karel van Wolferen and other foreign critics noted, the “naturally” cooperative nature of Japanese society generally resulted from a firm system of incentives and constraints.) As applied to those inherent traits, “America in decline” was not an accusation but an assumed fact.
At one level, the Japanese claim of superior fitness raised worthy analytic issues. Twice in its history, Japan has achieved something not even modern China can claim: full technological parity with the mighty nations of the West. (The first was in the decades after Commodore Perry’s arrival, when it modernized frantically to avoid the colonial humiliation that had befallen China; the second, of course, was after World War II.) But it was not Japan’s strategy of “developmental economics” that constituted its real challenge to the American idea—American strategists from Alexander Hamilton to Vannevar Bush would have felt perfectly at home with the idea of using state power to stimulate the growth of private industrial technologies. The racial and political elements of the Japanese model were something else again.
What did this mean for the American idea, or my understanding of it? From its start, America had been a rowdy place, the consequence of continually making room for new people, plans, and ideas. There was no sense in trying to be a second-rate Japan, though specific details in its economic and social approach (“patient capital,” improving K–12 education) deserved close study. America’s hope was to be more fully American—not more like them, our competitors, but More Like Us, as I called one book I wrote from Japan. That in turn meant more support for innovation, more embrace of immigration, more acceptance of the churn of dynamic disorder, more of the kind of public help—the GI Bill, public schools—that gave as many people as possible a fair chance. The American idea, as I saw it from Japan, was strength through radically opened opportunity. The good parts of the boom of the 1990s, the parts that preceded the bubble, were consistent with this approach: more room for immigrant talent, more public support for Americans seeking a second and third chance, balanced budgets to reduce the overhang of debt. The natural effect of globalization is to make all of these more difficult, as some people get richer (through an ever-larger market for their financial, corporate, professional, or entertainment skills) and others with less-specialized skills have to adapt more quickly to keep up. The inevitable rise of new barriers makes it all the more important to keep removing as many barriers as we can.