If the lack of an external enemy since the end of the Cold War has made America weak and feckless, as some argue, then can the rise of China give America a newfound vigor and sense of purpose? Probably not.
There are several differences between the former Soviet Union and contemporary China which help explain why the U.S.S.R. came across as so much more threatening. The Soviets had a string of leaders who were well-suited to play movie villains. Stalin murdered millions and radiated evil. Khrushchev was more moderate in terms of domestic policy, but in New York he banged his shoe on the table and shouted “We will bury you!” He also moved Soviet nuclear weapons into Cuba. Brezhnev came across as a crusty, malevolent stiff.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, in contrast, looks and acts not much different than many other world leaders. The standing joke in China, though often banned on Chinese social media, is to compare him to Winnie the Pooh because of his posture, his walk and what sometimes appears to be a kind of ambling geniality. As for earlier Chinese leaders, post-Mao, most didn’t have much of a profile in the U.S. at all.
When it came to the military, the Soviets maximized bluster through an aggressive posture. Not only did they hold long parades full of military equipment, they also supported Marxists, guerrillas and terrorists around the world. In the 1980s, for instance, the Soviet Union aided insurgent communist forces in El Salvador and Nicaragua, two civil wars in the Americas.
The Chinese, in contrast, extend their influence by trade or by building infrastructure in poorer countries, including in Africa. They prefer cozy and sometimes non-transparent financial relationships with the local autocrats, soft-pedaled so as not to generate suspicion or hostility.
The Chinese have militarized the South China Sea, constructing artificial islands and claiming others, then stationing troops there. But China does all this carefully, taking one small step after another. The Soviets sought to maximize publicity for their adventurist efforts; the Chinese seek to minimize it.
While the Soviets liked to claim their centrally planned economy was outperforming America’s capitalist one, most Americans never believed them. China, in contrast, has had many years of 10 percent growth since 1979 and even now is probably growing at around 7 percent a year. That concerns many Americans, and arguably has led to President Donald Trump’s trade war against China. But it’s not the same kind of fear that comes from the threat of military aggression. And while Chinese economic growth has led to the loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S., Chinese labor also helps to make iPhones and also many of the cheap goods found in Walmart.
Immigration probably matters too. During the peak of the Cold War in the 1960s and 1970s, most Americans didn’t have much contact with Russians, at least not U.S.S.R.-born citizens (Russian Jews migrated to the U.S., but they were not seen as representing the U.S.S.R.). The notion of a Russian was more scary than familiar. In contrast, Chinese and Chinese-Americans are extremely common in the U.S. and have assimilated into American life quite readily.
The underlying philosophies of Soviet Marxism and Leninism were international in nature - namely, that communism should be exported everywhere, though the particular strategies for doing so could differ. The revolution was supposed to spread to the West. China is explicitly nationalistic, and promotes the notion of being ethnic Chinese. Americans don’t fear that China wants to sinocize them in the same way that they worried about Soviet plans to export the revolution and mobilize the American proletariat against the prevailing order. The Chinese geopolitical dream is not revolution or conquest; it is simply a much weaker America. At any rate, China doesn’t have much of a history of trying to project military power beyond the confines of Asia.
You might think the Chinese strategies will prove more effective. But when it comes to galvanizing a sense of terrorized urgency in the typical American, the Soviets remain at the top of the leaderboard.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”