Chinese Balloons and US Alchemic Leadership



“The political fracas is already underway in Washington. Republicans claim the Biden administration showed weakness in allowing the balloon to enter the US. Airspace. Officials counter that the previous administration, under President Donald Trump, didn’t react to several similar missions over US states and territories. Yet those previous incursions didn’t go on for so long, or reach so far into the continental United States.”[1]

So writes David Ignatius describing Washington’s emotional tsunami triggered by the Chinese balloon caught hovering over America on the eve of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s programmed visit to Beijing.

The visit was canceled, the balloon was shot down, China blamed America for destroying its property, and America accused China of supplying Russia with critical material for its war efforts. The damage is still unclear as both sides try to avoid getting things out of hand. There is a lot of ominous saber rattling. On February 8, Beijing underlined that Taiwan shot a missile able to reach central and western China; the US underscored that according to a Chinese professor Beijing must be ready for any kind of scenario with the US, even a protracted war.

The US is obsessed with a surprise attack. It was caught off guard twice: at Pearl Harbor in 1941 and on 9/11 in 2001. It does not want to be ambushed again. The Chinese balloon is stirring all the worst American feelings and fears.

After 9/11, can the Chinese take the US by surprise again? Maybe so. The Chinese were the ones who, in War Beyond Limits by Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, predicted an unconventional surprise attack by Al Qaeda on the US. So, they may be the cleverest at deceiving Americans, playing with their heads. After all, ancient master strategist Sunzi maintained that the crucial element in a war was gui 詭: deception, trickery (etymologically “endangering with words”).

In military affairs, it is the Way of trickery. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder and crush him. If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected. These military devices, leading to victory, must not be divulged beforehand.

These are short-term anxieties feeding on long-term concerns about China’s ambition to challenge America’s role in the world. Some in China fear that accepting American “domination” will forfeit and destroy all Chinese culture and civilization. This “resistance” represents their effort against the United States in the tradition of national recovery.

There may also be unconscious elements. The current top men in Beijing were raised during the xenophobic, anti-American Cultural Revolution, unlike the previous leadership that grew up when Americans were allies in the anti-Japanese war.

Here communication and intentions from any side get short-circuited, and nobody trusts and believes anymore in whatever the other side is saying.[2]

Then, to find a path of dialogue and understanding, perhaps it is worth taking a few steps back, and try to unravel a few elements that steered us here.

A history of ideologies

In 1987 at the height of the reforms in China, Chinese TV aired a controversial and immensely successful documentary called River Elegy (He Shang), which was banned after the 1989 student protest. The documentary decried Chinese civilization’s decadence.

The authors hinted that China’s civilization was almost on the verge of extinction, just like ancient civilizations of the past, such as the Sumerians and the Egyptians. The authors also asserted that of the ancient civilizations, only a few survived, but barely, such as the Chinese and the Indians.

The argument had its roots in earlier Nationalist claims from the beginning of the 20th century, voiced by Sun Yat-sen. Both the Nationalists and the Communists hail Sun as the father of the country. Sun boasted that Chinese civilization was 5,000 years old and had nothing to be ashamed of compared to the Western civilization, which started from the Greeks.

In those colonial times, between the 19th and 20th centuries, cultural antiquity was a solid element to muster domestic public opinion and face aggressive Western policies. Even Western Communist parties, which were against capitalist exploitation at home and abroad, were advancing this “civilization drive” as an argument to oppose imperialist exploitation.

The argument, true or false, had its deep ideological reasons—opposing Western imperialistic dominance and kindling new nationalist movements against imperial goals.

The argument was used by both the left and right.

On the left, the communist parties, established with the help of the newly founded Soviet Union, stressed the national element against Western imperialism. But on the right, Japanese, German, and Italian imperial powers used the same argument, disputing that although they were latecomers to the imperial game, they had the same rights, or even more rights than the old English and French imperial powers, to expand their foothold in their own region and develop.

Moreover, the “imperial arguments”—the “God-given right for an empire”—in fact were used by both the old imperial powers, Britain and France, and the new ones, like Germany, Japan, and Italy. Also, it was used to try to fan popular sentiments under oppression.

The argument, rooted in the idea of nation and pride in a nation, was actually also a Western concept that started a hundred years earlier, in the 19th century, in the wake of the French imperial expansion in Europe and the world, led by Napoleon and opposed by new and old powers like England and Austria.

In other words, both arguments for the empire and against the empire were the brainchildren of Western culture. The idea of binding nations and civilizations was also Western, as the West justified itself in its imperial endeavor by ranking civilizations in terms of success. Because Western civilization was more “successful,” it claimed it had the “natural right” to invade and crush weaker civilizations.

The same argument was then reversed: civilizations could prove themselves to be worthy simply through their ability to oppose the oppression coming from the West.

In this situation, America was an imperial power, but somehow, it hid its imperial outreach.[3] Yes, it fought Spain for control of Florida, Cuba, and the Philippines and gained the upper hand in all these territories. However, they did not become colonies for many complicated reasons and were mainly not incorporated within the union.

Long echoes of this theory of a hierarchy of civilizations can also be found in Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. It was written at the end of the Cold War when the United States and its culture was somehow ruling the world uncontested and yet found limits to its expansion in different “civilizations,” which proved to be less capable of adopting American norms.

These different and still integrated theories are used to justify and oppose; at the same time, the imperial outreach originated basically as a moral defense for the imperial endeavors of Western countries. Racism, the idea that races were “naturally” different, just as men were different from animals who are different from plants, rationalized what people in Western countries felt was otherwise unjustifiable oppression, exploitation, and killing of innocent people.

The imperial outreach was deemed inexcusable, deep in their Western souls, because while they conquered and violated the world, they also believed in Christian values that all men are equal. Therefore, to avoid contradicting this deeper and older tenet, they had to construe arguments according to which not all humans were human in the same way.

The racism argument, of course, backfired because if I’m racist against you, you can be racist against me; if I am nationalist against you, you can be nationalist against me; if I am imperialist against you, you can be imperialist against me. Roles can be reversed, and the only standard is material (military, technological, or economic) “success.”

A history of facts

Ultimately, the aggressive and discriminatory ideology waned and didn’t overcome the deepest drive that the Western world was bringing: a Christian ideal of equality and justice.

Apart from the development of these ideologies, there is a fact. The present American position in the world comes after and on the back of centuries of tradition that have dominated the world so far. The history, in a way, starts with the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire.

The Turks then established a stronghold on trade with the Indies—that is, with the modern Indian subcontinent and what is now Southeast Asia and China.

Trade there was part of the economy of the mighty merchant city-states of the Italian peninsula, which had created their wealth and power thanks to their central position in the Mediterranean as a crossroads between Asia, Europe, and Africa.

However, as the Turks established their monopoly on the Eastern Mediterranean, the European powers had to try to go around the Turks and establish new trade routes. The Portuguese tried to reach Asia by sailing around Africa, and Columbus tried to go straight ahead, thinking that the Earth was round and, therefore, he could get to the Indies from the West.

It led to the discovery of America first and then, with Magellan’s journey around the globe, to touching Asia through the West. The French and the Portuguese established trading posts and slowly occupied and colonized the new continent. They exploited the continent’s riches, bringing in an agricultural revolution with new plants, food, gold, and silver. They also traded directly with India, Indonesia, and China through their recent posts in Manila, Goa, and Macao.

It was the first time in the planet’s history that one country traded directly with everybody else. Before that, the world was divided into different spheres, each connected but without anybody directly talking to anybody else.

The Italian peninsula was trading with India through the Arab and Persian world and China through the Mongols and the people of Siberia. Each subcontinent had its dynamics and was politically separated from the other spheres.

The Indian subcontinent was a world in itself, linked with the Persians and the people from the steppes, but also connected with Southeast Asia.

China was more separated but not totally disconnected, like the American Incas or the Mayans. It was linked because it was part of Asia and had dealings with the Indian world. Buddhism spread to China through the Tibetan plateau. Western trade and gold came to China through the Silk Road. But it was also partly separated because commerce and communication were complex. The Himalayan plateau in China’s southwest was a considerable barrier. The deserts of the northwest were also significant obstacles. The ocean before China in the east had only Japan as a political entity; in the south, there were again jungles and mountains.

It was not separated like the civilizations of America, which were annihilated and destroyed by the Western invasion. The country’s structure was resilient and sophisticated to withstand the attack, unlike sub-Saharan Africa, where empires were wrecked again by Western colonialism.

Nevertheless, the expansion of Western countries carried on relentlessly. It spread with its material and immaterial power values, ideas, and concepts that shaped the world as it is today.

After the Spanish and Portuguese expansion, the Dutch and the French replaced and pushed aside the Spanish power. After that, the English became the strongest power, fighting with France in the 18th and late 19th centuries and the 20th century. America replaced the British without too much of a fight.

In sum, each global imperial power that ruled the world, and not only a sliver of it after the 16th century, was built on the shoulders of the preexisting power, each expanding their clout and reaching farther.

Nothing similar happened in the world before because when a single power ruled over an area, it rarely crossed over to a different sphere, and never before did anybody have global reach, like the European states from the 15th century onwards.

The ideas making history

Their global expansion was not a simple process of annihilating “enemy powers.” Some of the essential elemental ideas that grew with their power were the concepts of personal liberty, freedom, and equality. These were not simply abstract moral values, but in the 17th and 18th centuries, they proved to be also existential elements for the growth of the imperial economies, dominated by a new, unmatched form of the social, political, and economic organization that grew to be called capitalism.

Capitalism grew efficiently because of a series of features. Capitalism created unprecedented wealth and unprecedented well-being. In the past two centuries, technology made giant leaps. The global population grew tenfold, unlike ever in human history. Life expectancy, which was just about 30 years for a million years, tripled and rose within a century to 80–90 years.

People lived longer and in far greater numbers than at any other time in history. Now we have things that never existed in human history. And it’s all thanks to the modernization process that started together with the process of Western expansionism. Marx first saw the link between the slave trade, cotton cultivation, and weaving, which fed the industrial and capitalist revolutions. The Western expansion also began with unprecedented political uprisings like the 1648 British revolution, the 1776 American revolution, and the 1789 French revolution.

These revolutions pushed a massive wealth distribution and social change that helped the growth and also put on the agenda another vital theme of equality of people worldwide. Since the beginning of these revolutions, there have been two trends, one stressing more liberty and one stressing more equality.

The general idea is that there must be a balance between the two, but socialism, which grew substantially in the 19th century, stressed equality over liberty. This was a constant theme in 19th- and 20th-century history until the USSR fall, which proved that stressing equality by sacrificing liberty eventually led to economic collapse.

Liberty and the pursuit of an individual return must be a solid element to motivate human endeavor, even at the cost sometimes of equality. This may create social troubles, but it also moves wealth creation, a crucial component of the modernity drive.

The foundations that make the modern world possible are a strange mix. Let’s list now in simple ways some of them:

We have the power of trade that originated from the city-states of Italy. Trade was also based on the idea of a trading oligarchy, a group of people who made the republics of Genoa or Venice and managed to keep a collective interest and leadership in the city-states. These cities were grounded on the defense of the individual’s property rights.

“Property rights” is a concept that comes from the Greek city-state and the Roman republic, founded on the idea of individual farmers defending their own farmland and their own rights together, shoulder to shoulder, lined up in a phalanx or in a legion, where each is equal to the other. The military organization is vital as a group of people. Here the general is one member of the phalanx or the legion and can be replaced if he doesn’t work.

Then there was the idea of taxation and representation. People were to contribute to the state’s welfare because they were interested in protecting the commonality. In return for their contribution, they had a right to oversee how the money was spent, and therefore they had the right to be represented in a parliament. It was a house where people spoke together, hailing from the ancient Roman Senate, where people assembled to discuss issues of common interest.

The bureaucracy was a new element that came from China and helped shape capitalist states and societies. The new 17th- and 18th-century states needed a permanent structure independent of ancient wealth and the people who were running the states with the merchants but who didn’t leave the merchants alone.

Another element was the idea of revolution, possibly coming from China. And there was the idea of a laissez-faire market, which was a positive force for the state’s wealth and power creation and was a force in itself. This idea came from the Chinese Taoist Wu Wei.[4] From that came the gnoseological breakthrough of knowledge commonly owned by people in the market and not held only by a few enlightened ones.[5] From here also came the concept that producers who invested in their activity had to be rewarded for the time, capital, and risk they took in a fair way.

The existence or organization of controls and the spread of knowledge to all possible people made markets grow fair, moving away from the old Mercurial concept of traders as liars, robbers, and cheats.

In the process of these 500 years of expansion of the Western world onto the whole world, we also see an expansive push for a fair market, for equality, for protection of property rights, and by extension, of rights and the spread of knowledge. The market necessity for knowledge also came with more free debate on anything, including culture and politics. This has been increasing over each successive period of dominant states.

There has been material and technological development in different areas. Still, each empire also acquired the new trust of the other imperial powers in Europe and from other powers worldwide, thanks to the growing freedom of the debate. The Dutch, French, and English societies were freer and more equitable than the Spanish ones. The Americans built their system based on Dutch, French, and British ideals of freedom.

However, there was a constant backlash. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the old feudal aristocracy resented the new capitalist societies taking away their power. In the 20th century, communism fought against capitalism for equality but, in most cases, rebuilt feudal societies with new aristocracies that behaved like or worse than the old aristocracies.

The goal was the same: Suppress freedom to concentrate power in a group enlightened with the vaunted cause of helping the poor against the wealth-makers, who created new allegedly intolerable social differences along with the new wealth.

These closed elites promoted equity over freedom of expression, and enterprises failed because, ultimately, the economy failed.

The power of the United States now comes from all these legacies combined in a unique mix.

It is not a matter of race, civilization, or other moral or immoral justifications that the West or its enemies produced in the past hundreds of years.

It is the outcome of historical processes with an accumulation of many elements. In the end, what we have now in the United States is a complicated chemistry, alchemy, almost magic, yielding the most innovative technology that has revolutionized all life.

Some technologies have been transferred abroad, and other countries and other places have improved some technologies, but the revolutionizing technologies presently come from the United States or its allies.

An issue of chemistry

It is changing and will be changing the way of life, production, and, therefore, the wealth and power of countries. Part of this chemistry is the financial system’s ability to channel money from all over the world onto the best, most productive equipment that will advance the country and the world and create more wealth for the investors and everybody.

Part of this is also the cultural trust that creates opinions.

It is a highly complex chemistry that has the support of all the wealth in the world. Of course, this leading position in wealth management and technology also translates into military power, which is used for various reasons. There is continuity of the maximum power of the United States. Still, it is also about keeping the imperfect system centered on the United States that maintains a balance of power and interests among conflicting demands and requirements.

This system has two sides to its power, each reinforcing the other.

One is sheer force, thanks to the military might, the technology might, and the financial might—naked power; the other is an “intelligence (from Latin intelligere, understanding, comprehend) might,” a capability to foresee and forecast the future thanks to detection and accurate analysis. This “intelligence” element is the key element of American power because if you can predict the future, you can know how and where to invest and whether to move in one direction or another.

To have this intelligence power, you need free, independent debate. Suppose in the system you don’t have real free elements of the debate. In that case, everybody will provide intelligence, second-guessing the wishes of their leaders and trying not to antagonize the leaders because their career depends on the goodwill of their bosses.

Therefore, freedom is a vital element in devising strategies for the future, and it is a huge handicap and hurdle in authoritarian societies. Authoritarian societies can have an advantage when they go in one direction, and the direction is undoubtedly correct. However, if the direction is wrong, it will crash everything. America and free society managed freedom by separating personal leadership from the system’s leadership. It doesn’t let a personal leadership, a given man, say a given president, replace the system’s leadership, the institute of the American democracy.

It stressed a distinction between a leading person and the system. The two must find a balance, but one man’s power cannot replace or dent the system’s power. The distinction is known from ancient times, but with modern democracies, it found a new, more delicate, and effective balance. Then the American leadership doesn’t depend on one man, a good or bad president, but on the leadership of its system. Leaders are important in America, but possibly as a group, as a class of people, each supposed to be leading in its own environment; leaders, as the sole man in command, are conversely despised and rejected as damaging to the system.

Replacing leading roles

In this situation, American power will try to reform and defend the system if any entity, say China, Europe, Russia, India, or Brazil, wants to replace America. They have to do better than America in all aspects, especially in intelligence, before even thinking of challenging the United States in any given area.

It is possible that the competition between America and possible pretenders could escalate into a military confrontation. However, this is not necessarily the case. Competition between England and the United States did not lead to military conflict. Competition at one point between Japan and the United States did not lead to military confrontation. Economic competition between Europe and America again didn’t lead to military confrontation.

In all these cases, America prevailed because it proved that its economic and technological thrust, “collective leadership,” and intelligence system were “better” than the others.

“Better” is the ability to foresee and forecast first and foremost. Second, it is the ability to gain trust in this intelligence and gain investment and money from all over the world and then channel this money into projects for development in the United States or other parts of the world that will develop the highest returns. Of course, it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For instance, growth in China was fueled by American “intelligence” in the sense that it believed and made the world believe in the evolution of China. American technology was transferred and moved to China, as was American finance when foreign and Chinese companies got investments from Wall Street to fuel China’s growth.

Suppose these elements moved away from a country. In that case, the country, say China in this case, should have better intelligence, trust, financial resources, and technology to replace the ones no longer coming from the US.

Is this the case for China? At the moment, one could safely answer no in all these areas.

China does not have good intelligence about its future and the world’s future. It doesn’t have the trust to get all the funds and money it needs and doesn’t have innovative, revolutionary technology that could ultimately replace past technologies.

In many ways, neither China nor Russia nor other countries have apparently understood the real dynamics of power that uphold the strength of the military.

Without these elements, military power is inherently weak and doomed to fail in the long run.

It doesn’t mean that America does everything right, perfectly, and just. There is a constant tension between what is right and wrong. Some American people and companies try to cut corners and play unfairly within the United States and abroad. These issues can be addressed or evaded, and people move on.

It is a constant, endless struggle between different “intelligences” and different actions, investment directions, and technologies. So far, America has proven to be the most lively, competitive, and unchallenged country.

This strange chemistry, volatile but extraordinarily vital and practical, is peerless so far. One element that has so far been proven wrong by history is the fact that authoritarian regimes, for a short time, manage to move very fast on the path of development.

However, as General Liu Yazhou remarked in a 2005 essay,[6] China’s smooth development in the past 40 years occurred because it followed the standard of the United States. Beijing could look at that and avoid going down the wrong roads and wasting time.

America, the pack leader, doesn’t have anybody to follow and therefore has to find the way. It also means making loads of mistakes that waste time.

In this process, what we experience is not a matter of civilization, race, or the superiority of one man vis-à-vis another man. Still, it is about social chemistry, which includes culture, an ethical system, ways of behaving, a legal system, creativity, etc. This chemistry is tough to replicate and improve, but if one has to challenge the US, it needs to do that.

One very successful example is Israel, which has some of the same American chemistry in a tiny space: a very lively internal debate, a very lively intelligence debate, and a mix of people from very different backgrounds willing to cooperate and work together for the common good. It has produced an incredible miracle, which is also closely hooked to the United States. In fact, Israel is, to some extent, the 51st state of the union.

Rise and fall of leadership

But other countries so far have lagged behind American success.

Can China, India, Nigeria, South Africa, Ethiopia, Brazil, or Mexico replace America and replicate its success? Looking at history, one could say that each of these countries, in theory, could if they were able to perform as well as America or better.

It was the case as we saw with America vs. the UK, the UK vs. France, or the Dutch countries vs. Spain and Portugal. It was also the case with Spain and Portugal vis-à-vis the Italian maritime republics. All in all, there is a great value in freedom and equality combined in the “right” way.

There must be freedom to express one’s opinion and pursue one’s dreams, and there must be some equality of respect for people. People would be treated the same because society needs social turnover, social changes, and a fair starting point for everybody. Good education and healthcare are the first building blocks of a healthy community.

Free access to information means creating opportunities for better investments from people, all of which are conducive to the healthy growth of society.

This healthy growth does not mean “stability.” It means being highly unstable and in constant social conflict and troubles. But in these troubles, there are apparently new opportunities and a lot of wasted time and energy.

What do countries want? If any country wants to be a follower of the United States, it can, saving the trouble of the social and political turmoil suffered by the US.

If it wants to challenge it, it can challenge it militarily, trying to have a better military performance, but military performance is linked with the economy and technology. The military won’t work if the economy and technology don’t work either.

The USSR’s challenge of the 20th century failed because its economy and technology couldn’t sustain US competition. Can China do better now? It is an open question, unresolved, of course, but there are some issues.

One is its currency, which is not fully convertible. If it is not, then how can people trust this currency? The dollar is fully convertible. Its exchange rate may be inflated or not, and its real value may be just paper thin, but for any practical purpose, it is the standard bearer of any exchange.

The US dollar also means any other convertible currency starting with the euro, the British pound, the Chinese yuan, and any other means—gold, oil, or any commodity or industrial product—is linked to the US financial credit system.

It is not just the dollar alone. It is a system.

If China wants to replace the dollar, it has to gain this global trust and be fully convertible. Suppose China’s RMB is not fully convertible. In that case, it may want to force every other country not to be fully convertible, but that will hamper and block free trade and therefore the primary source of Chinese surplus and development in the past 40 years—international commerce. That is very hard.

If, conversely, China wants free trade, it has to have a convertible currency eventually. Therefore, it needs a fully open internal market and a political system to sustain the ups and downs of inflows and outflows of money. The political system will be shaken by financial turmoil if it doesn’t.

To have as international currency something solely in the hands of China’s central bank will make other countries more dependent on China than they are presently reliant on the US dollar. The greenback is in the hands of the FED and Wall Street but is conditioned by the international market and many other factors; one man’s wishes do not control it. In other words, the RMB wholly owned by China responds only to its top leader, but the dollar at least has many stakeholders in America and internationally.

Then, in the end, what does China want?

Cultural Hegemony

The American chemistry of its many elements put together so far gives America an unparalleled role in the world. It has a kind of “cultural hegemony” over any other country, as Gramsci would say. This cultural hegemony is not a simple formula or a given set of values that can be transferred easily from America to other countries. This kind of transfer is very complicated and has often proven unsuccessful. However, the strife in some sort of liberal American system is constant, expanding, and worldwide. And it is proving to a large degree effective.

This cultural hegemony, in a few words, is made of critical thinking; willingness to engage in an open and reasonable debate; and equal opportunities for anybody, American or non-American, in the pursuit of the greater good for all the people of the world, not just the Americans above the others.

In this, there are trials and errors constantly. Still, there is also respect for authenticity and honesty in pursuing this value, and there is little tolerance for lies and cheating in general.

A person like Pope Francis, incredibly authentic in whatever he says, commands respect because of who he is, not simply because he is the head of the Catholic Church. Pope Francis commands respect in America because he’s free, speaks his mind, and is genuine. These personal qualities are deemed necessary in America, and one could argue in the world. And this is the kind of leadership that can lead the world beyond and beside the single person, as Emilio Iodice put it time and again in his writings.[7] This kind of leadership is rarely seen in an authoritarian regime.

Authoritarian governments try to bolster personal authority with many other elements—authority that is not to be discussed and orders that must be obeyed without hesitation. It leads to the suffocation of free debate and objections.

All these elements de facto weaken the leadership of the authoritarian regime and undermine the government and the state because everything hinges on one or a few people who may now work, but tomorrow they may not work. And in any case, it depends not on personal charisma or the authority of the arguments but on external elements of authority. Of course, in free societies, there are elements also bolstering the authority of the head of state, but with more limits.

China now appears to challenge America to the place of great power and competes with America in all areas, from technology to highways and infrastructure.

Is it bad or good for America? America is a strange country that likes and thrives on competition. Without competition, it has little or no sense of purpose and can make huge mistakes, as in Iraq or Afghanistan. Then competition is good for the United States. It gives it a sense of purpose and a new drive to develop.

The plan to rebuild infrastructure, create a new generation of American industries, and develop new green energies is all driven by the sense of competition with China. The American response to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative is to build new infrastructure networks across the globe on a scale unprecedented in the American continent in Africa and Asia.

America will build its own infrastructure, and countries will have to choose between being with America or against America.

This new set of infrastructure could reshape not only the physical world but also the financial system and all society because all these networks of roads will lead in one way or another to Washington, just like the proverbial Roman roads—or to Beijing.

Is Beijing sure it can win this challenge? If not, maybe it should deeply rethink much of its strategy. It may do it. With Covid, overnight, it changed tack and left the controversial and unsustainable zero-Covid policy behind without much explanation. Covid was life-threatening; in theory, it could do the same with other approaches. The problem now is, as the US doesn’t trust China, what can China do to regain American trust so that if and when changes come, people in Washington will believe them?

Domination or leadership?

The point is not that the US seeks to dominate the world. It does, and anyone who wants to challenge it should try to be better than America, not less than America.

America is No. 1 because it’s America. Not just because of the military, dollar, Hollywood, or Silicon Valley. It is because of all of that and more. It is a complex chemistry. Do you want to replace America? Be more American than America. Can’t do it? Then follow.

China should give up the pipe dream of replacing America, following each element: the military, dollar, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley; it’s nonsense. These are the results of a complex social-political-cultural alchemy. If it wants to be like America, it should focus on the chemical formula making America such, not on its chemistry results.

America is what it is because it’s America. Then Americans should trust themselves because they

are Americans and constantly tormented by self-doubt. They should trust their self-doubt and go

ahead, as they do now. From the outside, looking at the self-doubt and not seeing that people do go on, although in doubt, misses the real point.

Why the balloon over America shortly before Blinken’s scheduled visit? Were President Xi Jinping’s opponents trying to undermine the visit?

It could also be a sign of bureaucratic inertia. There was a long-scheduled program of sending the

balloon up (it is not the first one, reportedly), and nobody raised any doubt about the balloon now.

It could be a possibility. If so, it would prove that obedient bureaucrats, chosen for their diligence, not their free spirits, are good in standard times but not in exceptional times. In extraordinary times, when many unexpected events are happening, they can’t tell what is happening and thus precipitate disasters.

After all, a similar thing happened during the outbreak of Covid.

It would point to the fact that the problem is not Xi or his opponents but the system—the more efficient (without personal initiative), the less it works.

It reminds me of a story in Hanfei Zi. The king fell asleep in his chair, and it was cold. He had two guards looking over him: A, in charge of his coat, and B, in charge of his weapons. B put a coat on the king as he was asleep. When the king woke up, he saw he had the coat on and asked who did it.

Hearing it was B, the king punished A and B for not performing their duties.

The story’s moral is supposed to be: You do strictly what you are told; you are a cog in a big

machine that you don’t understand and are not supposed to understand. Don’t step up because everything could be at risk.

But what if B hadn’t stepped up, and the king had caught pneumonia and died? B saved the king and the state.

B’s mistake was to think too much.

The legalistic tradition tells us that nobody but the king should overthink. So perhaps balloons go up in the air regardless of reality. But one can’t know everything; one needs other peoples’ ideas. Without them, the king would get pneumonia, and the state would fall apart.

But we don’t know if the Chinese are thinking along these lines.

As for the US, the new challenge started with the war in Ukraine, and now the growing tension with China may impose new goals. The world will be different after Ukraine and whatever settlement is reached with China. Well before the end of World War II, America, and its allies started thinking about the shape of things after the conflict. We might now be in the same situation. America may want to clear a few issues with its allies, old like the European countries, or new like India. Each has their concerns in their ties with Washington.

More importantly, after WWII, America set up a series of institutions to keep peace and stability in international politics, trade, and economy. It is too early to set up new institutes replacing the UN or the IMF, which might be outdated, but it may not be too early to start thinking about them.

These outlines could help provide the general goals that America and its allies want to reach at the end of the conflict, and maybe these goals could also help find a peaceful, constructive solution with China.


[2]  See

[3] See Daniel Immerwahr How to Hide an Empire, 2019

[4] See Ken McKormick and most importantly  Christian Gerlach Wu-Wei In Europe – A Study Of Eurasian Economic Thought

[5] See Lorenzo Infantino Power: Political Dimension of Human Action, 2020

[6] See my translation of his 2005 interview in

[7] Profiles in Leadership: From Caesar to Modern Times, 2013.

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4 Commenti

  1. F. Tuijn 8 marzo 2023
  2. Osvaldo Cortesi 13 febbraio 2023
  3. James Du 10 febbraio 2023
  4. James Du 10 febbraio 2023

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