The Dragon and the American Dream

What will the rise of China mean for U.S. national identity?

Open your wallet and take out a one-dollar bill.

On one side you'll find an image of the Great Seal of the United States. There's a pyramid, with the eye of providence watching approvingly over our endeavors, the date 1776 (in Roman numerals), and the phrase Novus Ordo Seclorum. It means "A New Order of the Ages," signifying the beginning of the American era and a global revolution against tyrants.

You can put the bill away now, because a new order of the ages is emerging. It isn't an American era. It's a post-American era. For the first time since it entered the world stage, the United States is facing the emergence of a new great power rival. The rise of China challenges one of the most fundamental American beliefs: that history goes in one progressive direction.

The result could be a profound national identity crisis.

"The unparalleled, bewildering rate at which our power has grown and the proud consciousness that the future development of our boundless resources baffles imagination itself have taught us to deem feasible whatever we choose to will."  When professor Herman E. Von Holst looked out at the world in 1898, the opportunities for the United States seemed limitless. Westward expansion had reached the Pacific Ocean, and Americans had built the largest economy in the world. In 1898, the United States smashed the aging Spanish empire and took as its prize the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico (as well as ending Spanish rule in Cuba).

The Spanish-American War raised the curtain on the American century. When the drama began, the United States, Germany, Russia, Britain, France, and perhaps also Austria-Hungary and Japan, could all claim the hallowed status of being great powers. In the following decades, U.S. rivals exited the stage one by one, until America stood alone and unchallenged.

By 1939, on the eve of World War II, according to one measure, we were down to the final three, with the United States, the Soviet Union, and Germany towering over the other countries.

When the slaughter abated in 1945, Germany was devastated and divided, and only two great powers remained: the United States and the Soviet Union.

Then, after four decades of Cold War competition, the Soviet Union disintegrated, and the United States was the sole great power in the world.

It was like a season of Survivor, where America's rivals were voted off the island until the United States gained the prize of "Sole Survivor."

This remarkable winning streak reinforced the traditional American view of history as linear, or advancing in one direction only. The religiosity of American society has encouraged the belief that the United States has a special mission to perform. Shielded by the divine, the American project can only soar higher. Otto von Bismarck once said: "God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America."  Meanwhile, American ideals of liberty place the United States on the right side of history. The Declaration of Independence set out a promise of human rights and equality that many Americans assume is universally desired, and serves to unleash the potential of the human spirit. What more proof is required that history moves in a straight line than the eclipse of every U.S. rival?

Until now.

Americans are about to experience something new and profound. The United States will soon gain company as a great power. Just a few weeks ago, China surpassed Japan as the second largest economy in the world.  Certainly, on a per capita basis, China remains very poor. Overtaking Japan speaks as much to Japan's economic malaise as it does to China's spectacular growth. And of course, the wheels could suddenly come off the Chinese machine.

But if China's current growth continues, it will be a clear rival to the United States within a generation--and perhaps sooner. Using purchasing power parity rates, which take into account price differences, China could overtake the U.S. economy during the next decade.

This doesn't fit the American story. Just as disturbingly, China is not following the U.S. model of political, religious, and economic freedom--yet it succeeds all the same. And that's not all. If India and Brazil continue to rise, or if Europe and Japan enjoy an economic renaissance, there could be three or more great powers by 2050.

During the American century, rivals were bested left and right, as the ranks of the great powers slipped from half-a-dozen, to three, to two, to one. Now history has stopped, and gone into reverse gear, with the number of great powers increasing from one to two, to three or more. The elite club could get crowded again, just like in 1898.

The rise of China will fundamentally challenge America's identity. History may not move in just one direction, after all. Perhaps the ancient Greeks were right. History is cyclical. The wheel turns. Nations rise and fall. If God watches over proceedings, he doesn't always intervene. Fools, drunks, and the United States of America cannot rely on special providence. One day their luck runs out.

How will this new and jarring experience affect Americans? The rise of China could prompt reflection and wisdom. Americans may seek to reinvent the United States, and thrive in a new world that is more complex but also laden with opportunity. Or the United States may respond as some great powers did in the past when facing a rising challenger--by lashing out. Perhaps Americans will copy the British, and find that the silver lining of relative decline is a new appreciation of dry humor and the irony of life.