Kishore Mahbubani delights in provocation. Read no further than the title of his books — “Can Asians Think?”, “Has the West Lost it?” or “Has China Won?” — for blood pressures to rise and sputtering to commence. Yet there is no mistaking the former Singaporean diplomat’s smarts. He is thoughtful, well informed and well traveled; even if you disagree with him — and there is lots to dispute — reading his work is well worth the time.
Mahbubani begins his newest book “Has China Won?” with a hypothetical “Memo to Xi Jinping on preparing for the Great Struggle with America.” In it, he identifies five “strategic advantages” that the United States enjoys in any superpower competition with China. They are: a sense of individual empowerment, access to the world’s best and brightest through liberal immigration policies, strong institutions and the rule of law, the best universities (which attract the best talent), and being part of the rich tradition of Western civilization. Note that he doesn’t list the formidable U.S. military, or any of the country’s other material advantages. Mahbubani most values the intangibles.
Some call this “soft power” — the ability of the U.S. to lead by the persuasive power of the values it espouses. It elicits the image of the U.S. as a “Shining City on the Hill,” an example for other nations — and a notion honored increasingly often in the breach.
The gap between those ideals and the grim reality of life in the U.S. has been made plain by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that have convulsed the U.S. and sparked similar demonstrations around the world. Millions of Americans have taken to the streets to rally against systemic racism that manifests all too frequently in violence against people of color. A simple demand for equality has been overshadowed by the growing division in the U.S. — or, if polls are to be believed, a split between the Trump administration and a growing majority of citizens — over the propriety and legitimacy of the response to those protests.
The juxtaposition of national government sentiment and that of U.S. civil society is likely to be the defining element of this moment in history. It’s also what makes this so important for the rest of the world.
The BLM protests have inspired similar demonstrations in cities throughout the world. There have been marches, candlelight vigils and vandalism, the tearing down and removal of statues that commemorate figures tied to slavery and racism. The death of George Floyd, which set off these protests, has become a symbol of racism, oppression and violence against minorities. Even in Japan, several thousand people have raised their voices to support BLM and oppose racism. That call resonates: During a walk in rural Yamanashi Prefecture a few weeks ago, I came across a political poster that highlighted the BLM movement.
Why? Some of the protests target the U.S. itself. Those demonstrators are anti-American and they are venting deeply felt anger, disdain and resentment toward U.S. power and its influence over their lives. They harbor longstanding antipathy toward the U.S. and even moderates have been dismayed by the administration of President Donald Trump.
Opinion polls around the world show declining levels of confidence in and support for the U.S. since Trump took office. A Gallup survey of opinion in 135 countries that was released last week showed that the median approval rating for U.S. leadership was just 33 percent in 2019, 1 percentage point lower than the previous low recorded under former President George W. Bush in 2008. (Gallup noted that this most recent result was a slight improvement over the 30 percent approval rating of Trump’s first year in office.)
In Japan, data from the Pew Research Center shows a deterioration of views of the U.S. In 2016, 72 percent of respondents had a favorable view of the U.S., while 23 percent did not; last year, the numbers had dropped to 68 percent favorable views and 30 percent unfavorable. More marked was the drop in the assessment of the U.S. president. In 2016, 78 percent had confidence in the president while 17 percent did not. Last year, confidence had plunged, with only 36 percent expressing support for Trump and more than three times as many people (61percent) saying that they had no confidence in him.
This distinction between the government and the country is key to understanding foreign reaction to the BLM protests. Protestors may be angry about U.S. hypocrisy but many if not most demonstrators are expressing support for the ideals that animate the BLM movement and its supporters.
Wolfgang Ischinger, former German ambassador to Washington, articulated that sympathy when he told The Washington Post, “People all over the world understand that their own fights for human rights, for equality and fairness, will become so much more difficult to win if we are going to lose America as the place where ‘I have a dream’ is a real and universal political program.” A Mexican activist, Barbara Arredondo, expressed the same view in a New York Times survey of global opinion: U.S. protestors, she said, “are role models for social transformation."
Of course, the U.S. isn’t the only country to inspire such moments. The self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit vender in 2010 set North Africa and the Middle East ablaze, yielding the Arab Spring.
But U.S. power assumes special significance in a world of sharpening competition between the U.S. and China. Robert Daly, a former U.S. diplomat and director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, explained in a recent article how supporters of Black Lives Matter “identify with the hopes of the American people. They have been inspired by a human spectacle of the kind only the U.S. can provide.” This, says Daly, is “recharging the reservoir of American soft power even as American leaders make the world wonder whether the U.S. will keep faith with — or even understands — its own values.”
The world may be increasingly disillusioned with the U.S. government, and its appeal may now compete with that in Beijing, but it is increasingly clear that the real source of U.S. influence and inspiration is its civil society. That is a sharp contrast with China, where spontaneous demonstrations are illegal. Marches make Beijing nervous.
Moreover, as Daly explains, China can’t catch up. The BLM movement is based on universal principles: freedom of expression, equal treatment under law, rule of law, and protection from tyranny and arbitrary use of power. But, Daly argues, China focuses on the Chinese story: “It is concerned primarily with the Chinese — not the human — condition. It is a morality tale about the nation’s long struggles and ultimate victory that is intended to command global respect."
He points to the 2013 Chinese Communist Party document, Communique on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere, which calls “universal values” a “false ideological trend” and bans it from discussion. For the CCP, “ ‘core socialist values’ derived from China’s unique historical experience” are what matter and only Chinese, and members of the CCP, can comment upon them. That exclusiveness denies China the inspirational quality that U.S. civil society radiates.
And provides a strategic advantage that even Mahbubani concedes is almost impossible to match.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of "Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions."