One of our onboard lectures was devoted to an overview of changes brought to the life of the South Pacific through successive waves of exploration and settlement, with an emphasis on the impact of Europeans and Americans. That raised some questions about the ebb and flow of civilizations and empires in general. Toward the end, one man rose to ask his question in the form of an extended comment. It concerned what would happen to America in the years to come.
The Chinese, he opined, had taken all of our technology and were now using it to gain global supremacy over us. How could we stay Number One? What would happen to us if we were not Number One? Why don’t we wake up and see this as threat to our very way of life? Why don’t we do something about it, and do it now?
He reminded me, in part, of conversations I heard from my elders when I was a young adult. Prior to WWII, the Japanese, they said, had stolen all of our technology. They said the Japanese were not capable of invention, only of copying. The fact that we had to reverse engineer a captured Zero to find out why it was so superior to anything we had going at the time was either unknown or disbelieved. But I digress.
What would happen if we found ourselves no longer the only superpower in the world, nor the world’s largest economy, nor the dominant voice in world economic decision making? I think it might be a very good thing for us. “We’re Number One” is a chant best left to sporting events, and as we all know, this year’s number one crown is an ephemeral thing of no lasting value. It’s good only for a moment of happy, childlike celebration, then it must be set aside.
Losing the title would give us the opportunity to focus more on what it means to be American, to seriously examine the critical threads that make up the fabric of our society: education, health care, equitable justice, taxes fair to all, economic opportunity and the like. Serious questions about what is needed for national defense would become more important than mindless funding of the military. A more pragmatic engagement with the rest of the world would make possible agreements balancing free trade with fair trade. Without the pressure of being Number One, we could get on with the hard work of being better people in a better society.
There is one other advantage to losing the crown to China. They would be the ones everyone loves to hate. Think of what a relief that would be.