The debate aroused in the US about Niall Ferguson's cover story for Newsweek (Hit the Road, Barack: Why We Need a New President) is revealing about the American debate on the rise of China. The graph Ferguson includes in his piece, tellingly titled 'America losing ground', is reproduced here:
Andrew Sullivan argues that Ferguson is threatened by China's rise simply because it will eventually become bigger than the US, and that this in itself is unacceptable. According to Sullivan, Ferguson has 'smuggled in here...a classic neocon argument for world hegemony...not because we are truly threatened by any force equivalent to the old Soviet Union, Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan, but because ruling the world is what empire is all about'.
Ferguson doesn't actually go this far in his article, though he criticises Obama's 'risible' pivot to the Asia Pacific, and elsewhere bemoans the fact that Obama abandoned the counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan in favour of a more circumscribed counter-terrorist approach. 'America under this president is a superpower in retreat', Ferguson says. Overall, its reasonable to conclude that Ferguson wants America to push back against China's rise.
The reactions to this graph and Ferguson's piece point out, firstly, that although China might become richer than the US overall it has four times as many people, and they remain much poorer. Second, China's rise is a good thing; economics is not zero-sum and a big Chinese market is in our interests. Third, James Fallows points out that encouraging China's growth has actually been settled US policy for some decades.
What strikes me about the Ferguson piece and the reactions is that they largely talk past each other. Ferguson criticises Obama for failing to think through the implications of China's rise as it relates to American power. Yet none of the critiques address that concern. Only David Frum's piece engages with Ferguson on that level.
Ferguson's critics can't ignore the fact that, however economically beneficial China's growth is, and even if China remains much poorer than America per head of population, its overall growth does present an unprecedented challenge to America's place in the world. The Soviet Union was never this economically strong compared to America. Neither was Nazi Germany or imperial Japan. Right-wing American predictions about China's global ambitions are wildly overstated, but China will want to take its place in the councils of the world in a way that reflects its economic standing. By dint of its size alone, China's rise will reshape the international political system and the global balance of power. How could it not?
Ferguson's answers to the rise of China are probably the wrong ones, but his graph does identify a problem for America: China's rise does materially affect America's place in the world. Ferguson's American critics should acknowledge this so that they can set about offering an alternative vision of how to cope with China's rise.