Who Lost Fiji?
The recurring misuse of U.S. military power abroad and the disintegration of a common moral framework at home have reversed the irreversible.
The headline in the New York Times is enough to give any patriotic American pause: “Why China Is Miles Ahead in a Pacific Race for Influence.” The article that follows is even more disturbing. “To many observers,” it reads, “the South Pacific today reveals what American decline looks like.”
The basis for this ominous judgment? A reporter’s visit to Suva, capital of Fiji, where senior Chinese diplomats are busily negotiating deals to enhance Beijing’s clout there and elsewhere in this “vital strategic arena.” The United States is clearly lagging “far behind, mistaking speeches for impact and interest for influence,” according to the Times, while the Chinese are “promising development, scholarships and training.” Whatever Washington might be doing to “step up its game,” it looks to be too little, too late.
In Suva itself, the evidence is striking. There China has recently opened a “hulking new embassy,” and is constructing a high-rise apartment tower, while “workers in neon vests bearing the name of a Chinese state-owned enterprise” repair local roads. “Beijing is fully entrenched, its power irrepressible,” the Times reports. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the region, apart from “signs for Coca-Cola” and deteriorating airfields built by U.S. forces during World War II, “the United States is missing in action.”
Now Fiji is a nation of fewer than a million citizens, putting it roughly on a par with Columbus, Ohio in terms of overall population. A former British colony, it achieved full independence only in 1987. Its economy heavily dependent upon tourism, Fiji’s principal export is spring water. Even here in Walpole, Massachusetts, where I live, Fiji Water appears to be quite popular. Yet describing the source of that water as strategically significant qualifies as a bit of a stretch.
The Times article does not specify how or why Fiji qualifies as “vital” to the United States or to anyone else. Permit me to go out on a limb: U.S. interests in Fiji are actually quite modest. What happens there rightly matters to Fijians, but to Americans? Not so much.
Yet the article’s panicky tenor and the matter-of-fact references to American decline invite reflection. Developments in tiny Fiji have the Times in a tizzy. Understanding why that is the case requires putting events there in their proper context, which has more to do with psychology than substance.
Ever since World War II, Americans have been accustomed to the United States enjoying a position of unquestioned global dominance. You name the category: aggregate wealth, military might, technological innovation, higher education, popular culture—in each we ranked number one.
Playing Robin to the American Batman, the fast fading Brits more or less willingly accommodated themselves to this reality. Presented with few alternatives, so too did Germany and Japan. For their part, the French groused and sputtered at the unfairness of it all, but with negligible effect. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviets did manage to pull the occasional surprise—Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin come to mind—but they never mounted a serious challenge.
When the Cold War ended, it rendered a seemingly irreversible verdict: American primacy was destined to extend to the end of time. The future was ours. It is difficult to exaggerate the prevalence and depth of this expectation, especially within the ranks of the elite.
Soon enough, however, the recurring misuse of U.S. military power abroad and the disintegration of a common moral framework at home reversed the irreversible. Focused, disciplined, and hungry, the People’s Republic of China seized the opportunity and today ranks first among the beneficiaries of American folly.
That all of this happened so quickly offers a partial explanation for why Americans still cannot fully comprehend how perpetual primacy has somehow slipped from the nation’s grasp. Granted, some political outsiders, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump prominent among them, tried to alert Americans to the fact that something fundamental was amiss. But voices insisting that American primacy is either secure or can easily be restored drowned out their critique.
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Even today, in establishment circles—in the upper reaches of the Biden administration, for example—questioning American global primacy remains heresy. Hence, the dismay expressed by a Times reporter baffled by evidence that Fiji has somehow escaped from America’s orbit. Isn’t Fiji, along with the rest of the strategically vital South Pacific, meant to be “ours”?
This unwillingness to acknowledge how the international order has changed, part nostalgia, part self-induced blindness, will not serve the nation well. We now live in a multipolar world. The so-called “rise” of China is one fact among many testifying to that truth. The sooner the United States accommodates itself to that truth the better. To persist in illusions of reasserting U.S. global primacy will only accelerate American decline by deflecting attention from the imperative of repairing the social order here at home.
So let the Chinese repair the roads in Suva. We have more than enough work to do right here where Americans live.