The 2-Minute Thought: America is Number One; China is the Center of the Universe

America is number one.  China is center of universe.  America is freedom.  China is order.  America is now.  China is eternity. 

These ideas come from Harvard professor Graham Allison’s new book, Destined For War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? 

The main point of the book isn’t to elucidate the differences between China and the U.S.  It is to explain why war between the U.S. and China is more likely than most people think -- even though neither country would want war or find it beneficial.  But Allison’s thesis is that when a rising power challenges a ruling power, structural stresses can lead to war even when it’s neither party’s intent.  That’s a situation that has arisen multiple times throughout history, and today, the U.S. is the ruling power, while China is the rising power. 

To push the thesis forward, the book does go into how very different the U.S. and China are in culture and orientation, since these differences can exacerbate rivalry.  In a table called “America and China, Clash of Cultures,” Allison reminds us that the way we see the world can be very different from the way others do:  

While Allison says both the U.S. and China have enormous superiority complexes – hence, the “number one” and “center of universe” descriptors – the similarities end there.

China treasures its 5,000 years of history – during most of which it saw itself as the world’s middle kingdom and preserver of order.  The younger U.S., in contrast, takes pride in having built itself from scratch while promoting individual liberty.

The U.S. believes in solving problems, facing each issue anew and then moving on to the next one.  China, in contrast, believes that it is only possible to “manage” certain problems, and that solutions also give rise to other problems that can evolve over years, decades, or even centuries.

Americans believe that the universal rights and freedoms they hold dear could benefit everyone around the world (hence, the “missionary” label in the table above).  But the ever-pragmatic Chinese do not worry about trying to convert others to their values. 

And while the U.S. often rationalizes its actions on the world stage in terms of “rules of law” or protections of freedoms, the Chinese have never felt the need to rationalize anything. “Chinese strategy,” Allison says, “is unabashedly realpolitik,” which allows China to be “ruthlessly flexible.” 

In looking at Allison’s table, it’s hard not be struck by the idea that we don’t understand China as well as we should.  What’s most remarkable is how long-term China’s perspective is.  Allison says, “Chinese seek victory not in a decisive battle but through incremental moves designed to gradually improve their position,” and that patient accumulation of advantage is something worth carefully observing.