In Nairobi National Park, a succession of concrete piers rises over the heads of rhinos and giraffes, part of a $13.8 billion rail project that will link Kenya’s capital with the Indian Ocean. It’s a project with the ambition and scale of global leadership, and the site safety posters are in the language of its engineers and builders: Chinese.
Four hundred miles further north, in one of Kenya’s city-sized refugee camps, there’s another sign of what global leadership used to look like: sacks of split peas, stamped USAID; a handful of young, quiet Americans working on idealistic development projects. I saw both this month, but one already looks like a relic of the past. The baton of global leadership is being passed from the U.S. to China.
In Africa, the evidence is everywhere. China will put nearly $90 billion into the continent this year, the United States nothing close. China is betting big on economic partnerships and dependencies along its new Silk Road, christened “One Belt, One Road.” The U.S., meanwhile, spends many of its dollars on expensive wars, to the detriment of soft-power projects like USAID, or domestic welfare programs like Medicaid.
America’s global influence is certain to decline relatively in the years ahead; it is the inevitable consequence of the return of the Middle Kingdom. As that happens, the U.S. should be more deliberate about the policy choices it makes. It’s a lesson I’ve seen my own country—which was once an empire, too—learn the hard way. On the way down from global hegemony, Britain came around too slowly to investing in domestic welfare. The U.S. should apply those lessons sooner.