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.
When I came to China, I naturally wondered if this might be the great challenger to the American idea. Certainly it has the scale to challenge almost anything it chooses. Barring catastrophe, sooner or later China will have the world’s largest economy. That won’t mean as much as it sounds: Since China has four times as many people as America, it need only reach one-fourth of America’s per capita income to be No. 1 in total output. (The ratio now is something like one-seventh or one-sixth, depending on how you calculate and whose Chinese statistics you believe.) I’ve never heard a Chinese authority assert that China could draw even, in per capita terms, in the foreseeable future.
Is China warming up for the kind of challenge Americans fear? I know it can look that way. As I watch U.S. discussion from afar, I see the references to China’s growing “soft power” (such reports are rarely filed by people based here), to its rising military budget (still a small fraction of America’s), to the power it has gained through its hoard of U.S. dollars, to its confident assertions about the success of its upcoming Olympic Games, and to other signs of its potential chest-thumping. All I can report is how different the same issue seems here and how much less boastful talk I have encountered than I would have expected, and than I did in other parts of Asia during the previous Asian boom.
Yes, if you try hard enough, you can get some Chinese intellectuals or officials to say that their system might in some ways be proving itself “superior,” as would befit a society with a 5,000-year heritage, etc. (Where is that auto-text key?) I’ve talked several times with a senior party official in Beijing who says that China’s material success will eventually command respect for the political and cultural ideas that lie behind it. The first time I was summoned to see him, I was very nervous. I was told to come to Beijing for a meeting, and as I was whisked to the official’s quarters in a shiny black Audi A8 (the car of the commissars) that blasted other traffic out of the way with a deafening Klaxon, I thought: This does not bode well. But the official, who turned out to be a friend of a Chinese friend of mine, wanted to talk about religion’s role in public life: how it worked in America, how it might return to China. In many hours of subsequent talks, the very closest to a triumphal or scolding note I heard from him involved the practical problems of today’s U.S.-style democracy.
“In the long run, China must be democratic,” he told me on my latest visit. Everyone says that—without saying how many lifetimes away the “long run” might be. But even as China became democratic, this man said, it would need to be cautious about following every detail of a U.S. model. He talked about the Florida recount nightmare of the 2000 election and the crippling, constant need for American candidates to raise money. “I have observed that in Western democracy, those elected do not represent the general public,” he said, Chomsky-like. And even when they do, “between elections you get maybe two years of stability to do any real work, then the campaigning begins again! The constant campaigns are a cost society has to pay.” Even if you construed this as “anti-American”—as opposed to “accurate”—it is a far cry from what the likes of Shintaro Ishihara said when dancing on the corpse of the decadent U.S.
Yes, some Chinese intellectuals argue seriously that the country’s rise proves the new vitality of Confucian truths. So, they suggest, this century, or the next one, or some future one (“It could take 500 years,” my party-boss friend says) could be the era of world recognition of the great Asian traditions: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. And for a final yes, if you try really hard, you can look for other rumblings suggesting China’s great-power ambitions.
There is also the peculiar nature of today’s “Chinese idea.” I’ll explore this topic more fully another time, but the most urgent axis of debate appears to be whether China stands for any “idea” at all. Many academics wring their hands about “kids today” who only want to get jobs with the most prestigious international companies and buy the fanciest car; others say that’s just a trend, that religion (or Confucianism, or Marxism, or something) will come back. Still others say that for the foreseeable future, it would be perverse for China to be distracted by any but practical concerns, since it has so much work to do there, especially on its environment.
What no one seems to contend is that China should be readying a major vision to impose on the world. Over the months, I’ve asked students, professors, public officials, businesspeople versions of these questions: When China is strong, what will it want of the world? What will it expect of other countries? Practically by birthright, Americans can answer such a question about America’s expectations of the world. We want liberty; we want democracy; we have, as George W. Bush put it in his second inaugural address, the “great objective of ending tyranny.”
Whether by birthright or by current circumstances, few Chinese people have any answer to this question. Usually I am greeted with a puzzled or polite silence. If there is a response, it is something like “Recognition.” Or “Respect.”
I am not saying that a year’s exposure to China has made me complacent or triumphalist. Through scale alone, China will be a handful. As I argued in a recent article about China’s emergence as the world’s factory (“China Makes, the World Takes,” July/August Atlantic), Americans need to be actively thinking about how to protect their economic interests when dealing with China, how to help China limit its air and water pollution before it’s too late for everyone, and how to engage China constructively in other ways.
But I am saying that for now, Americans shouldn’t worry about an ideological challenge from China, or whether China’s economic rise will soon mean the preeminence of the “Chinese idea.” The people and leaders of China have too much else on their minds. What I’ve learned from China, so far, is that instead of girding to defend the American idea against some new foreign challenge, we should take the opportunity to shore it up, in three ways.
The first way is ensuring a particular kind of openness, which at all times has been the essence of America. The country needs to keep making room for its own people, while also continuing to make room for people from outside. It’s not easy to achieve both goals, since in the short run, they conflict. The Americans most likely to be muscled aside by hungry outside talent are those with the odds against them in other ways. That’s a reality. Rather than ignore the tension or use it as an excuse to close the borders, we have to find a way to reduce it. Otherwise, we cut off one of the two strengths (the other being military power) that no other country can possibly match.
A leading Chinese university, Jiao Tong of Shanghai, publishes an annual ranking of the best universities in the world, based on their research excellence. These are more sober assessments than the fanciful “Best College” charts in U.S. magazines, and they emphasize America’s complete dominance of the field. On the latest Jiao Tong list, America has eight of the top 10 positions (exceptions: Cambridge and Oxford in England), and 17 of the top 20. (The other exception: the University of Tokyo, at 20.) China has zero of the top 100, and Japan has six. When I asked a Jiao Tong professor about the ranking, he said it was unfairly skewed, because American universities can take talent from everywhere else. Yes. We have to keep it that way, and for more than just universities.
Second is being idealistic but not consistent—or not foolishly consistent, as one of this magazine’s founders put it 150 years ago. The United States can’t and shouldn’t be a status quo power. Consciously or not, most Americans believe that as the rest of the world modernizes, in crucial ways it will come to resemble us more and more. Let’s skip for a moment the reasons why that belief is silly and instead recognize that it is very strong. It is part of our founding principle. The Declaration of Independence spoke of “the course of human events,” not the complaints of the American colonists. The constant arrival of immigrants reminds us that people from around the world actually do want to become Americans. (A few hours before writing this, I heard from a young woman in the hinterland of Sichuan Province: “My dream, to go to America!”) Globalization has had a large Americanizing component—that’s part of the complaint against it. While any sensible person wants to learn as much from other cultures as possible, Americans are bound to think that we have something to tell others about individual potential, about the idea of equality, about respect for civil liberties. The rest of the world understands this, which is why our recent infringements on our own civil liberties are so damaging to our image worldwide.
But retaining that idea doesn’t mean believing two apparently consistent corollaries: that everyone else actually does want to be like us, and that it is within our power to force or entice them to. Believing this makes us believe that other countries—Japan a generation ago, China today—are just about to become America-like, and that if they resist, they can be forced to comply. (To say nothing of Iraq.) Speak for our values, yes, and clearly. Be deluded about them, no.
Finally, we should display the confidence, good humor, and thick-skinnedness befitting a country of our stature. When living in Japan, I heard accounts from many Japanese who had gone to the U.S. for business or study in the 1950s, after the Allied occupation ended. They looked at the factories and the farms and the vastness of America and asked themselves: What were we thinking? How could tiny Japan have imagined challenging the United States? After the Soviet Union fell and the hollowness of its system was exposed, many Americans asked: What were we thinking about “two superpower” competition with the U.S.S.R.? Its missiles were lethal and its ideology was brutal and dangerous. But a rival to America as an overall model? John F. Kennedy was only one of many to suggest as much, in his 1960 campaign references to the prestige gap as well as missile gap that had opened. Eventually, we all learned there was no comparison at all. I think if more Americans came to China right now and saw how hard so many of its people are struggling just to survive, they too might ask: What are we thinking, in considering China an overall threat? Yes, its factories are formidable, and its weight in the world is huge. But this is still a big, poor, developing nation trying to solve the emergency of the moment. Susan Shirk, of the University of California at San Diego, recently published a very insightful book that calls China a “fragile superpower.” “When I discuss it in America,” she told me, “people always ask, ‘What do you mean, fragile?’” When she discusses it here in China, “they always ask, ‘What do you mean, superpower?’”
Foreign examples are useful spurs to internal action. Sputnik served that purpose 50 years ago, and Japan’s industrial successes led to valuable changes in American corporate and fiscal practices nearly a generation ago. A look at China can help America address its main shortcomings—reckless fiscal and foreign policies, delay in moving away from dependence on oil—and perhaps also suggest ways the nations can work together on challenges, mainly environmental, that threaten them and others.
But let’s not panic. Let’s show the patient confidence—Lincoln, Marshall, Eisenhower—that is part of the American idea. Let’s not look for slights or imagined insults to react to. Among our worst enemies at the moment is our own hair-trigger mentality about foreign challenge, and the enemies that outlook generates. Our idea is strong. We should act as if we know that.
We want to hear what you think. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.