Defining America's Next Great Role

For the past century or so the United States has been setting benchmarks for the world as the clear leader in every objective measure of success. When other nations wanted to see how well they rated in worker productivity, per capita income and living standards, they compared themselves to us.

Even as a handful of small nations like Qatar, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Brunei surpassed us in per capita GDP on the basis of mostly spurious wealth, no other major nation could marshal anything like the moral force of some three hundred million Americans living the kind of comfortable, secure and free lives most of the world aspires to. That gives us some real moral authority over the world the way a well-built man with a professional degree, stylish clothes and a nice car enjoys sway over his neighbors.

That moral authority is a useful tool for enforcing some semblance of order and decency in world affairs, even when we must resort to some indecent force at times. No nation or even group of nations see advantage in trying to gainsay the world’s lone superpower. Especially in global affairs might is the closest thing to right.

That blessed chapter of our history is drawing to a close. In a few years we will be eclipsed by China in headline numbers like GDP, industrial output, the number of autos on the road and even total consumer spending power. In real terms, that day is as good as here already because it is being so loudly trumpeted due to the awesome swiftness of China’s rise, especially relative to the recent near stasis of the U.S. and other major economies.

Some see China’s rise as our cue to surrender status as the world’s role model and moral guide.

To the contrary, China’s growing influence as the world’s economic growth engine is our cue to step up and take a more active role in world affairs. I don’t mean that we should make ourselves the world’s self-appointed China critic as some Americans would like us to do. That would merely add to the sum total of the world’s corrosive rivalries and tensions. I mean that it’s more important than ever for us to share with China and the world the lessons we’ve learned about the dangers that arise when a nation arrives at economic ascendency. We can light the way to the right path beyond that milestone.

We are the only great world power that has maintained continuity of our constitutional government during the past turbulent century. Stalinist Russia, imperial China, imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union — all have been swept into history’s dustbin. Only the United States remains to help China shed vestiges of its Maoist past and choose the path that will lead it toward the kind of stable prosperity we have enjoyed and turn away from the expansionist path chosen by other swiftly rising powers in the past.

We’re the world’s ancient mariner, with an important story to share.

At the moment China’s future remains clouded by the largely veiled power struggle taking place between the liberal factions embodied in Wen Jiabao’s sporadic pronouncements of the need to move toward an open democracy and the conservative faction revealed by periodic backlashes in the form of crackdowns on dissidents and websites that enable free speech.

If the world’s only great nation to emerge into the sunlight of a stable, mature democracy should turn inward to become a mean-spirited, closed society seeking only to protect its shrinking piece of the global pie, China’s conservative elements would see little opposition to its taking the path of hubris. On the other hand, if we rededicate ourselves to our role as a staunch friend to all who seek to share our proven values, we can help ensure that a superpower China will become a force for the advancement of the quality of human life.