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Seven lessons for America

After 9/11, it would be wrong to overestimate Chinese strength and US vulnerability.

By Yiwei Wang

A year after atomic bombs flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Albert Einstein said: "The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe." This was much quoted after September 11, 2001. Although it has been 10 years since that tragic day, the problem persists: the American people have not changed their mode of thinking and are neglecting the lessons of the tragic event. In my opinion, these are the seven obvious lessons that America should have learned.

Lesson one: History is not over.

The greatest warning from the September 11 catastrophe is: history does not end here and now. Today, it is undeniable that international relations are going through democratisation and showing diversified development patterns.

Lesson two: Get your history right.

America misinterpreted history after the Cold War. It thought that the downfall of communism was the triumph of American liberal democracy. This has led to the decline of America's strategy over the past decade. The result is that America lost the opportunity to be introspective about its means of production, lifestyle and mindset as it slid further into the swamp of Iraq, Afghanistan and most recently, Libya. After the internet bubble burst, America lost the strategic opportunity to rectify its economy and plunged headlong into the Wall Street financial crisis. There is a saying in China: "misfortune might be a blessing in disguise. Success at the expense of a rival's downfall usually ends in one's own destruction."

Lesson three: America is defending an unsustainable way of life.

After September 11, America should have taken the opportunity to reflect on its way of life instead of focusing on its rivals. President Bush's first national security strategy committed the US to safeguard its way of life and expand its global power. But it is exactly this unsustainable way of life that incited the 9/11 attacks.

The emerging economies, which are catching up with the developed countries, are saying "no" to the American way of life. As a result, developed countries like America and the European states have shifted their approach from offensive to defensive, using climate change to try to change the rules of the international game. The Copenhagen Climate Change Conference was a battle between developed countries that aimed to protect their way of life and developing countries that aimed to protect their way of production. Developed countries criticised developing countries for adopting unsustainable means of production, while developing countries criticised developed countries for their unsustainable way of life.

Lesson four: America needs to adapt.

First, it was the "end of history". Now, the US elite has come up with another extreme concept— the "rise of the rest". The so-called "post-America era" and "G-zero age" theories are America-centric and perpetuate the "us and them" dichotomy. For many years the world has been adapting to the United States, now is the time for mutual adaptation. America should adapt to the changing era, interact and build relationships with other nations. Nations that can adapt to changes will become the leading nations in the future.

Lesson five: America's decline has nothing to do with the rise of its rivals.

In the last decade, a popular misconception has been that China has become the greatest beneficiary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. In fact, the rise of China is the result of globalisation, internal reforms and efforts to open-up. It is the result of coping with internal and external challenges, and nothing to do with taking advantage of America's setbacks. As Deng Xiaoping said: "China will not survive if it does not reform and open up." The exact connection between the "rise of China" and "fall of America" is yet to be determined.

Lesson six: America should build a new national identity.

After September 11, an unprecedented surge of patriotism drew America into one foreign war after another. Today, America has begun withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan, showing once again that patriotism should be used in moderation. The greatest lesson from September 11 is that America should not exaggerate its own capabilities and the threats it faces. Many Chinese are concerned that America will turn its focus on China now that bin Laden is dead, and there is a belief that even without September 11, America would still have sought out enemies in order to shape its new identity. The rise of China poses the greatest challenge to America, especially to its national ethos of being the best. America's high-profile return to Asia last year exacerbated such concerns. Strategists warn against America repeating its mistake from the 20th century with China today. Then, America tried to contain its opponents—Germany, the Soviet Union and Japan—when their GDP reached 60 per cent of America's.

Lesson seven: God is not always on America's side.

Printed on the US dollar note is the following: "In God We Trust". It is taken for granted that God will bless America. The September 11 attacks clearly showed that, for the United States, the fairytale of absolute homeland security no longer exists. Trying to solve the question of "why they hate us" through soft power diplomacy rather than through changing policies, practices and ways of thinking is futile.

To summarise the seven lessons, the key message is that America faces the great challenge of uncertainty. Uncertainty for the first time has overtaken certainty and has become an important foreign policy challenge. China and America should join hands to tackle challenges in this era of uncertainty. To this end, we have to prevent a fast decline of the United States and an equally fast rise of China. China and America should accommodate each other and build a new relationship through interaction, to respond to the needs of two types of economy (emerging and developed), of two cultures (East and West) and two worlds (developing and developed). Most importantly, the two countries should face the challenge of uncertainty in the world together.

America is making strategic attempts to build a new Sino-US relationship and new international orders; however, as shown through G2 (China-US Group of Two), China is still lukewarm on the idea.

In reality, there is a serious asymmetry of mindset between China and the United States—America is concerned about the rise of China and China is concerned about its own stability; America is concerned about its decline and China is concerned about containment by America. The outcome of overestimating China's strength and underestimating America's strength may be a tragedy in the making.