by Anthony Painter
On their way to discuss “shared norms in the new reality” in Davos this week, many of the world’s leading politicians, businesspeople and media figures will pick up a copy of Dambisa Moyo’s How the West was lost. Those coming from “the West” will turn the pages nervously. Those from emerging nations will smile contentedly. The future is China’s. The US will not only lose its number one spot but will decline precipitously and end up as a bloated socialist state. How the tables have turned.
We have been here before. In the 1960s, it was the USSR that was going to overtake the US. Sputnik focused minds. NASA landed a man on the moon and all was fine again. By the 1980s it was Japan, when a spate of books detailing Japan’s onward march to global domination filled those same bookshelves that now hold Moyo’s book. Now, it is China. Surely, this time it’s different?
Actually, this time it probably is different. China will end up as the largest global economy. It’s huge, its population is four times that of the US and it’s growing fast. The surprise will be if China does not replace the US as number one in the next couple of decades. Japan has already slipped into third place as a result of China’s rise.
So talk of America, and it is primarily America on which this book is focused, remaining in pole position is reckless in the extreme. Barack Obama was at it in his state of the Union address this week. It focuses minds and drives an impulse to respond, but talk of “winning the future” is not particularly honest politics. So it is little wonder that America’s latest literary celebrity is “Tiger Mom”, Amy Chua. She thinks that driving your kids to practise the piano, to the point that they sink their teeth into the instrument, is definitive of parental success.
New York Times columnist, David Brooks, makes the point that Ms Chua, who is from the Mid-West and doesn’t speak Mandarin, is diverting her kids from the truly difficult task: learning how to socially interact.
And this is my fundamental issue with this family of “number one” books. It focuses the mind in the wrong way. What is the point of being number one, if you are a nation of highly stressed piano playing robots? Let them have it if that is the deal.
Fortunately, that is not the deal. This is a “game” where there are prizes for second place. There are prizes for fifth place, even for 30th place. What is important is that you make the right economic and social moves, so that you have both a strong economy and a good society. And, Moyo has an incredible amount to suggest in this regard: promoting saving rather than consumption; better financial regulation; major investment in science; research and development; technology; infrastructure and striving for better educational performance. All of that is eminently sensible and this book makes the case for those interventions effectively (though one would expect Moyo and Chua to agree a little too much when it comes to education). And she’s right that the governments of the West have made enormous errors that have failed to keep the economic machine primed.
Which then begs the question: why the hard power obsession? Of course, there are spin-off benefits from a hard power race: conquering space has led to all sorts of technological leaps. But is it really worth the downside? Would America have traded landing on the moon for avoiding the Vietnam War? It would be barbarism if they wouldn’t. Hard power races take you to unimaginable places. By no means all are positive. Maybe the US does need another “Manhattan project” to combat energy challenges, as Ms Moyo suggests. But because that is what it may take to succeed, not because that is the way to beat China.
There is little doubt that How the West was lost follows the logic of its own intellectual case. It argues, in serious terms, that the US might best reboot its entire economic approach by defaulting on its debts to China. This analysis casts China as the power holder in this relationship. This is often how this narrative works: the creditor is all powerful; the debtor is at their mercy.
Actually, it is completely different to that. China and the US are in a symbiotic relationship. The US is unable to use its economic might to force China, for example, to revalue its currency or further open its markets. But the other side of this equation is never expressed: a large creditor hardly has an interest in US economic decline. So they are locked in a mutual dependency. A hard power assessment cannot accommodate that. So flirting with default would be economically disastrous for both nations. Hard power is asserted, everyone loses but some, China, lose relatively more than others, the US, so that makes some kind of warped sense.
What this means is that How the West was lost is actually two books in one. The first is written by an economist buzzing with ideas. She has a conceptual richness, worldliness and an ability to write with passion, clarity and gusto. The second is written by a sceptical and Hobbesian political theorist who sees the world in zero sum, absolutist terms. The first is fresh and invigorating; the second neurotic and perverse. In that sense, How the West is lost, though written by a non-American, is a perfect match for the psychological state of contemporary America. The rest of us can learn its more practical lessons, and hope that the US stays away from the outer reaches of the Huntigtonion mindset.
Anthony Painter is the author of Barack Obama: the Movement for Change.