In February 1941, Henry R. Luce, editor and publisher of Time and Life magazines, wrote a striking editorial in Life magazine. It began by lamenting what he saw as Americans’ pessimism: “As we look out at the rest of the world we are confused; we don’t know what to do,” Luce wrote. “As we look toward the future — our own future and the future of other nations — we are filled with foreboding.”
Luce went on to exhort President Franklin D. Roosevelt and all Americans to get past this pessimism, to outgrow their isolationist impulses and to enter World War II and rescue Nazi-besieged Europe. Luce argued that the United States should “accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence.” Ten months later, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States did enter the war. Less than four years after that, America led the allied nations to victory and cemented a world order dominated by the United States.
The prescient headline of Luce’s editorial was “The American century.”
There is no reason to believe the 21st century can’t be a better American century. But the pessimism that President Trump feels when he looks out at the rest of the world — evident in his constant assertions that America is perpetually victimized by other nations — may someday be seen as the key to ushering in the Chinese century. His decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accords, his hostility toward NATO and his loathing of trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership make it possible to envision a world in which Beijing replaces Washington as the world’s hub of power.
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Certainly this is the hope of Chinese President Xi Jinping as well. It’s why Beijing has assiduously wooed the rest of the world with foreign aid, diplomacy, trade incentives, cultural and educational programs, and more. In his 2007 book, “Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World,” Council on Foreign Relations scholar Joshua Kurlantzick envisioned a future in which China became the only nation outside the Soviet Union to rival the United States in international influence.
This charm offensive continued at the China-European Union summit meeting in Brussels. Beijing’s emissaries emphasized their commitment to the Paris accord and their belief in the value of multilateral agreements — and the confidence that other nations could have that China would behave in predictable ways. This last argument is made very calculatedly. In the Trump era, it is difficult to have such confidence in America.
The most powerful and vital nation in the world doesn’t want to lead — creating an opening that China has long been preparing to fill.
This editorial originally was published by the San Diego Union-Tribune.