Why do all the great powers lament lost glory? How Trump will make China great again.

by John MacBeath Watkins

The recent publication of Howard French's book, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power, has caused me to contemplate the fact that all the great powers of our age are longing for lost glory.

The United States has the least reason for longing for the past. We are currently the world's top dog, economically and militarily, and despite Donald Judas Trump's efforts to undermine it, politically.

Yet he ran on the claim that America has lost its greatness. He denigrated the web of alliances that have given us more soft power than any other nation, and has been hard at work alienating and confusing allies so that they question our commitment to them, which means there is less reciprocal commitment to us.

China combines longing with optimism and ambition, hoping to reclaim the power their nation lost in the 19th century, encouraged by their economic ascendancy.

And Russia combines bitterness about lost glory with bravado, and an aggressive foreign policy that attempts to substitute hard power and deception for the soft power the nation hasn't displayed in any great quantity since the Napoleonic Wars.

File:1 AD to 2003 AD Historical Trends in global distribution of GDP China India Western Europe USA Middle East.png
GDP as a percent of world GDP (graph by M. Tracy Hunter.)
Consider the graph to the right. China's GDP as a percent of world GDP peaked around 1820, at a time when India and the Middle East were in decline and America was not yet much of a factor. Russia doesn't show on the list because, while it showed military strength and diplomatic finesse  during Napoleon's invasion, and considerable military power during World War II and the Cold War, it currently has an economy about the size of Italy's, and growing more slowly.

In some ways, Russian bitterness about lost glory is understandable. They were feared and respected as the Soviet Union after WW II. However, they managed this by spending too great a part of their GDP on their military, and it was not sustainable. Their foreign adventures and military might came at such a cost that they finally found they could not feed their people. It was when they needed loans to buy grain that the illusion of strength ended, put to rest largely by the collapse of oil prices when the Saudis opened the spigots (those who credit Ronald Reagan should follow the link earlier in this sentence.)

Russian paranoia about the West is somewhat understandable. Mikhail Gorbachev thought he had a commitment that NATO would not expand into eastern Europe. However, given the history of eastern Europe, those countries quite naturally wanted some insurance that they would not be invaded again. The best protection for Russia would have been to become more European, joining their former opponents economically, politically, and militarily. But this was incompatible with the nature of Vladimir Putin's power. He is a dictator in all but name, his power buttressed by the oligarchs who managed to buy up everything valuable when the Soviet economy collapsed, and by his extra-legal ability to deprive any oligarchs of their wealth if they oppose him.

Putin was also less interested in developing his country economically than in restoring its international stature and enhancing his own power.

China is now making claims to fishing and oil drilling rights in most of the South China Sea, based on claims that go back to an ambiguous history. In occupying islands in the area, they have killed several dozen Vietnamese and expelled Filipinos. They also lay claim to Taiwan, Outer Mongolia (know to its citizens as Mongolia) and in the past have laid claims to "outer Manchuria," including Vladivostok. The dispute with Russia has been resolved by treaty, but as China ascends and Russia declines, will that treaty hold in the future?

It seems that Trump and Putin, and several generations of Chinese leaders, have fused resentment and nationalism to bolster their own fortunes. It's a volatile mix, and it's hard to believe it will never explode.

Perhaps all could learn from the example of the United Kingdom, which managed to lose its empire while its citizens continued to be increasingly wealthy and healthy. What price are these leaders willing to make their citizens pay for any glory they may gain?

There is another possibility. Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, went before an audience at the World Economic Forum at Davos and emphasized China's commitment to openness and cooperation. He said China would help build a “shared future for mankind and work hand in hand to fulfill our responsibilities.”

If Donald Judas Trump wants to withdraw America from its sources of soft power, China is willing to pick up the mantle of leadership. Trump could Make China Great Again.