“A colossus with feet of clay” is how many, allegedly including Winston Churchill, used to describe the Soviet Union, one of the superpowers of the last century. That description attested to the country’s bombastic rhetoric coupled with its perceived military might juxtaposed against the inherent lethal flaws of the Soviet political and economic system.
A country’s ability to survive a serious crisis depends not only on the creation and implementation of effective strategies by the elite but more importantly on the willingness of its citizenry to sacrifice and stand together. The people must identify with the state – to believe the country’s future is their future – to the point that they are willing to die for it. A country whose population lacks this sense of common purpose and identification is a country in jeopardy, no matter how large or powerful it is.
As the New Cold War between the US and China heats up, most articles and papers analyzing the situation are concerned with the relative military might of the two sides. Every destroyer, every drone is counted to determine if China has the ability to defeat the US in a hypothetical military engagement. This is an important question, but there are two other questions of much greater significance considering the current balance of power: 1) Can China deliver a devastating yet non-debilitating strike; and 2) How will the people of the great democracy react?
Now that it has eliminated Hong Kong’s tenuous independence, Beijing has set its sights on Taiwan, as President Xi Jinping has made clear on more than one occasion. While China does not possess the capability to defeat the US in a full-blown conventional conflict, it does have enough firepower to temporarily neutralize the regular American presence in the region and conquer Taiwan. Strategically, this is exactly what China needs to do to achieve multiple short- and long-term objectives.
Let’s look at a hypothetical scenario. China surprises the US with a preemptive strike and manages to sink or disable most of the battleship groups located in the South Pacific. It wreaks havoc on the area’s communication networks. It then lands forces on Taiwan, overwhelms its defenses, and declares the island part of Greater China.
At that point, Beijing unilaterally declares the conflict over, offers unconditional peace negotiations, and even offers the US financial compensation for the human or material losses incurred. And in the process, it declares that any attempt to retake Taiwan will be considered an attack on sovereign Chinese territory, and it reserves the right to a nuclear response.
This scenario reads like a repeat of Pearl Harbor, but there is a critical difference: the degree of American resolve. The events described above would generate massive anti-war demonstrations in cities across the US. They would bring the economies of those cities to a virtual standstill and lead to violence reminiscent of the BLM demonstrations of the summer of 2020. The war effort would be declared another attempt by the white supremacy to impose its racist will on a rising developing nation. The unions would join the call and refuse to unload any military-related cargo at Pacific ports. The US would be engulfed in chaos. The president would ask for war powers and either be denied them or receive them with a razor-thin majority. Lacking the legitimacy to involve the country in an all-out war, he or she would be forced by “public opinion,” the entire mainstream press, and Wall Street to accept the terms offered by China.
That may read as a grotesque fantasy. Sadly it is not, when one looks at data collected over the past few years regarding the attitudes of Americans, and specifically young Americans, toward their own country. We see a large proportion of citizens aggressively hostile to the existence of their country in its current form and another large group ambivalent on the subject. The former is bent on destroying the US by any means necessary, as it considers the country an evil enterprise whose demise is long overdue. The latter will stand by in silence.
Taiwan is more than just a democratic island. Its loss in such a hapless way would bring an end to Pax Americana, the American order in the South Pacific, Asia, and likely in the rest of the world. A superpower unable to defend its allies or itself loses all credibility. A dramatic economic crisis would likely occur, with the yuan replacing the dollar as the currency of international trade.
Comparing the current confrontation between the US and China to the Cold War is only partially correct. China does have many political similarities to the Soviet Union, but while the Soviet Union was a socialist experiment in a perpetual economic coma, China’s economy is the second-strongest in the world.
Yet the main difference between now and then is the US itself. It is no longer the country that responded to the Pearl Harbor disaster with sufficient resolve and national unity to win the war, or that was able to sustain itself both morally and economically throughout the prolonged ideological conflict with the Soviet Union. Americans of today are confused and disoriented. Once their country’s feet of clay begin to crumble, the colossus will never rise again.
Republished with permission from the original, BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 2,103.