I Miss the Russians

Ahhh, the heady glorious days of the Cold War. Don’t you miss them too? I mean sure, there was that pesky anxiety about imminent nuclear annihilation, but the Cold War gave us a meaning to life as a nation that we are sorely lacking today. In my youth, every national undertaking had an undertone of “defeat the Russians”. It extended from the space race, to the Olympics, to the graduation of engineers and scientists who developed the technological basis of our modern economic juggernaut. The Russians provided our nation with focus and drive.

I doubt it was the original intent of anyone, but the result of all this competition was the economic success of the country as a whole, and a dramatic increase in the standard of living of individual Americans. It drove the construction of the age in which we now live. Ironically, it turned out to be the turning point of the Cold War. We didn’t defeat the USSR with military might, we bankrupted them.

But that’s all gone now. There is no Yin to our Yang, and we are less because of it. We’ve all but abandoned space exploration, the Olympics are a major yawn, and we have lost our technological, industrial, and economic leadership role. There’s no competition, and we have let ourselves atrophy. But that’s about to change.

China is poised to be the new Russia. Sort of. They are not playing the same game the Russians did. And while we can certainly play their game, we have yet to recognize that the game is even going on. We are culturally tuned to respond to military threats. That’s why it’s so easy for the government marketing department to muster the popular outrage to launch unfounded wars. And if China started saber rattling, I think we’d respond as a force to reckon with, both militarily and economically. But I don’t think China is going to pose that sort of a threat. I think they learned from us that economics is the key to success. They don’t intend to nuke us, they intend to bankrupt us. And apparently we intend to let them – even help them.

America sat quietly while our industry exported much of our manufacturing base to China. We were content to ignore their artificial economy because it made our goods cheaper, and it made our companies more money. Meanwhile China invested in its technological base of scientists and engineers. They now possess the ability to design most of what they manufacture. The US holds a commanding lead only in the marketing arena. And that’s not a real comforting thought. Further, the record setting trade deficits with China mean that the Chinese own a good chunk of America, and they have the power to significantly influence, if not destroy, our economy. Just imagine what would happen if China opted to liquidate its US assets, or if they suddenly let the yen float on the free market. Sure, right now that would be suicide for their economy as well, but remember, their economy is not a free market economy. They can dictate the stabilization of their own economy, we cannot. They only need to be self-sufficient enough to wield that economic power. And they will achieve that within a decade. Then we will be at their mercy. The power to destroy a thing is the power to control a thing.

Recently, we have awakened to a Chinese threat, but not the right one. They are upping their military spending and capability. In typical US fashion, that gets our attention. Clearly they need to increase their military capability, as they will need to use their military to protect their economic interests, much as we have used ours for that purpose since World War II. Moreover, this will provide a perfect distraction. The US will focus on the potential military threat, and ignore the more imminent economic storm. I doubt China will threaten us directly. However, they will use their military to keep our attention while the real war continues unabated.

Several pundits have pointed out that the US funds both sides of the Iraq war because of our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. But that’s nothing compared to the way we are funding the Chinese economy. We are currently only funding one side of that war, theirs.

It’s not too late, but time is running out. We need to decide as a nation if we are content to be the “new Europe”. That is, a once great culture content to coast through its twilight years. Donning the façade of power now and again, lamenting its deteriorating infrastructure and standard of living, but content to still be invited to the table out of respect. Or are we willing to reignite the competitive flame which drove us through the Cold War and take back our place as the quintessential 500 lb. gorilla. Interestingly, the Chinese Cold War doesn’t need to be so very cold. The competition could be reasonably friendly and not have the threat of mutual assured destruction hanging over it. A situation which could ultimately be a driver for the economic success of both countries. There’s room on this planet for more than one big gorilla.

But it all hinges on whether or not we, as a people, can recognize and respond to a threat that’s not as tangible as death. And that, I think, all depends on whether or not the government marketing department can package, spin, and sell it. I’m betting they can. After all, marketing is the core competency we have left.