“O would some power the gift to give us to see ourselves as others see us,” wrote the poet Robert Burns.
As Hu Jintao wings his way home, America’s hectoring still ringing in his ears, he must be thinking that maybe we Americans should stop lecturing them and take a closer look at ourselves.
Revalue your currency, we demand of the Chinese, stop running these trade surpluses at our expense, start practicing free trade, and abandon these mercantilist and protectionist policies.
But why should they? Why should China abandon a trade policy that is working marvelously well for them, and adopt a trade policy that is failing dismally for us? Does that make sense?
Why should any nation emulate the U.S. trade policy of the Bush-Clinton-Bush era that has stripped us of a third of our manufacturing jobs and made us dependent on China and the world for the needs of our national life and the borrowed money to pay for them?
Why would China, seeking to make herself an independent and self-sufficient nation, adopt a policy that cost us our independence?
And what are the Chinese doing in their ascendancy to first power on earth that we did not do in ours?
Are our Milton Friedmanite free-traders unaware of how it was that, in the last third of the 19th century, we left the British in the dust? Are they unaware we had the highest tariffs on earth to price British products out of our market and goad rapacious Yankees into building new factories to produce the same goods we were then importing from Great Britain?
Lest we forget, the Americans who turned this country into the industrial marvel of mankind were known as “Robber Barons.”
As they put America first in our rise, the Chinese are putting China first.
Our grand strategists demand to know why the Chinese are making these brash claims to all the islands in the South China and East China seas. Why are they telling us to keep our aircraft carriers out of the Yellow Sea and out of the Taiwan Strait? Who do they think they are?
Well, maybe they think they’re 19th-century Americans.
Did not James Monroe and John Quincy Adams brashly tell the great powers of Europe to stay out of our hemisphere?
What are the Chinese about, other than imposing a Monroe Doctrine of their own? As historian Walter McDougall writes, Otto von Bismarck was as affronted by us as we are by the Chinese, declaring that the Monroe Doctrine represented “a species of arrogance peculiarly American and inexcusable.”
Hu Jintao got an earful from us on his human rights records. Stop the repression of Uighurs and Tibetans. Stop jailing political dissidents. Allow more freedom of the Internet and the press.
But on his way home, Hu must be thinking to himself: Who are these Americans to lecture us?
Is this not the same tribe that enslaved black people for 250 years and segregated them for a century? Is this not the same tribe that drove the Indians off their lands, then stuck them all in Bantustans called reservations? Are these not the only people in history to have dropped atomic bombs on defenseless cities?
How would we have reacted if Hu, instead of pretending he couldn’t hear the translation of that question about human rights, retorted, “We Chinese are also concerned about what we read of human rights at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, of renditions, torture and something called ‘water-boarding.’”
This is not written in defense of the Chinese communists who are a purposeful and ruthless lot, but to suggest that we Americans no longer look like the self-confident nation of Dwight Eisenhower and JFK that was unintimidated by the brutal and bullying Soviet Union of Nikita Khrushchev.
We were in a great struggle then — and acted like we could win it.
But as America sinks economically and retreats strategically, while China grows at 10 percent and bristles with confidence, we appear to be a nation of whiners. They are eating our lunch, and we sound like losers in a locker room.
We demand that the Chinese be more open and tolerant of opposition and dissent. But when they look at the gridlock of American democracy, the pettiness of our politics and the failure of our policies, while they are on the move at home and all over the world, why should they want to be more like us?
Has our American capitalism in this century performed as well as their autocratic capitalism? Is our political performance an argument for the superiority of our ballyhooed democracy over their one-party state?
We can’t win or end our wars, balance our budgets or control our borders. Great states like California and Illinois appear about to go belly-up. The U.S. government is running a third straight deficit of near 10 percent of our entire economy. We used our stimulus money to save government jobs. They used theirs for bullet trains.
Time to see ourselves as others see us.