Famously, on the last day of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin pointed to an image of the sun painted on the back of George Washington's chair and said that he ﬁnally had “the happiness to know it is a rising and not a setting sun.” Ever since then, Americans have had the same happy thought: Our sun has always been rising.
And today, as we conceive things, that sun shines more brightly than ever. For in the governing narrative of our time, the United States is the world's only superpower, freedom is on the march, and the superiority of the American economic model has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.
What threatens us, we believe, comes from the backward regions of undemocratic or failed states and the terrorist organizations that operate from them. September 11 showed us they can do grave harm. But unlike Soviet communism, they do not represent a general ideological challenge, an alternative economic model, or a great-power rival. In our governing narrative, democracy has triumphed, and now we are consolidating the victory.
Suppose, however, that we have misread what is happening in the world and that a different narrative turns out to be correct. With the beneﬁt of hindsight years from now, this may be seen as the era when China emerged as a great power, the United States undermined its own economic strength, and American inﬂuence in Asia, Europe, and even Latin America began to recede.
With the highest growth rate of all major economies, China is on its way to becoming the largest. Its economic clout is immense, and its political inﬂuence is rising. Developing countries look to it as an alternative model of rapid economic growth, without such liberal complications as a free press, free elections, or an independent judiciary. No imaginative leap is necessary to predict that China will eventually turn its wealth into military might and become a superpower greater than the Soviet Union ever was.
And when its sun has risen fully, China may no longer be content to play a quiet role in the world. In mid-March, the National People's Congress in Beijing authorized the use of “nonpeaceful” means against Taiwan if the latter ever moves toward independence. No confrontation looms at the moment. But China may be only biding its time, waiting until its power is so overwhelming that it can demand Taiwan's submission, conﬁdent that the United States will have no choice but to go along.
China is so integrated into the world economy that we hope its leaders would hesitate to resort to force. But the ﬂip side of China's integration is that the United States and other countries have become so dependent on China that we may hesitate to confront it. With America's staggering trade and budget deﬁcits -- and with the Chinese purchases of U.S. Treasury bonds vital to the dollar's stability -- we have unnecessarily undermined our own position and put the dollar (and our economy) at risk. The long-term danger is that persistent taxophobia -- and Republican political opportunism -- could create a lethal ﬁscal crisis undermining our strength.
And that is not the only way in which America may undercut itself. During the past decade, as China's economy expanded, the expectation was that companies in the United States and other Western nations would outsource manufacturing and other routine aspects of production, while retaining at home the higher-level “brainwork.” Now, however, companies are increasingly contracting out design and innovation, hoping to cut research-and-development costs by drawing on engineers and other low-paid technical workers in China, India, and elsewhere.
These are the very functions that were supposed to be the future of the American economy. They are also the basis of our advantage in technologies with critical military applications. By outsourcing innovation, we risk raising up our rivals to a position equal to our own.
The rise of China is the big contradiction to the claims of democracy's triumph, but it is not the only one. Russia and Iran have both reverted to more authoritarian rule. Even among democratic countries, American inﬂuence is weaker than it was a decade ago. Bush's policies have inﬂamed anti-Americanism, the European Union has emerged as a counterweight to the United States, and many countries regard European-style social democracy as a more attractive model than America's free-market conservatism.
I'm not saying we're destined to decline. But we had better jog ourselves out of the eternal sunshine of our president's spotless mind and start dealing with our real economic and political problems. We cannot stop China's sun from rising, but we can keep our own from setting.
Paul Starr is co-editor of The American Prospect.