Letter From Paris

Cool War With China?

Much of the world thinks we’ve already lost it.

By From the September 2013 issue

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IT WOULD BE hard to find a better symbol of the relative decline of American influence and the rise of Chinese sway than the attractive building on this piece of prime Paris real estate. Located on an elegant, tree-lined boulevard hard by the Seine, the seven-story glass-and-steel structure houses the Centre Culturel de Chine. With a friendly, accessible Chinese staff of 20, the first-class operation offers language lessons—currently some 800 Parisians are being taught Mandarin by 15 teachers in half-a-dozen multimedia classrooms—and other instruction in its Confucius Institute. It organizes art exhibits and screenings of Chinese films, and makes available an array of newspapers, periodicals, and thousands of books in its luminous, glass-walled library. Its slick quarterly magazine, Chine sur Seine, and website promote exchange programs and social activities.

Sorry if I can’t compare that with America’s outreach program in Paris. After serving as an important Left Bank contact point for Parisians starting in 1934, the embassy-sponsored American Cultural Center closed years ago. Many a Frenchman got his first taste of American literature, theater, cinema, and jazz in its quarters, not to mention an introduction to U.S. democracy. The privately financed American Center for Students and Artists, where a number of aspiring French painters, musicians, and actors got their start, carried on the mission for a while before closing in 1996.

When I called the American Embassy to ask about the defunct official center, the press officer said offhandedly in the tone of today’s Clintonized (“What difference does it make?”) State Department, “I guess it’s somewhere on our website.” It wasn’t, so I tried the embassy’s Resource Center, a disembodied cyberpresence and email drop that briefly confirmed the center’s closing “for budgetary reasons.” (Neither can “the world’s richest nation” any longer afford to house the American Consulate on Place de la Concorde in the legendary 18th-century hôtel particulier that once belonged to Talleyrand; it closed in 2007, its staff moved into cramped quarters at the embassy.) 

It has been replaced by a virtual, online, privately run American Center France that tries minimally to promote Franco-American friendship. Good luck to any potential French friends who might want to learn English, explore our history, or find a book by an American author. Our shabby showcase means you no longer have a ready source of information on how ordinary Americans live or how democracy and free markets work in our country. But there’s plenty of stuff available locally, with flesh-and-blood teachers in attractive surroundings, on how much more efficient authoritarian capitalism is in today’s world. Especially when overseen by an infallible communist party.

The same is true all over Europe. Berlin’s Amerika Haus, which attracted up to 2 million annual visitors during the Cold War, closed in 2006. London’s situation is the same. I know of no European country where we have an outreach/dialogue program remotely comparable with China’s. Where’s the U.S. Information Agency, “Telling America’s story to the world,” when we need it? Oh yes, it closed in 1999, subsumed by the tin-eared State Department. Forget “Lafayette, we are here!” Now it’s more like “Lafayette, we’re outta here!” As a result of this myopic penny-pinching, the U.S., the country that invented modern media along with marketing, advertising, and other forms of gentle persuasion, is forfeiting the competition with China for the world’s hearts and minds. (Full disclosure: I once did a stint as a senior editor at USIA.)

True, we were always going to have to work at it to outshine China in France, with its long tradition of Sinophilia. After all, it was Napoleon who famously declared, “When China awakes, the world will shake.” Charles de Gaulle made France the first Western nation to establish diplomatic relations with Red China, exchanging ambassadors in 1964, much to the annoyance of Washington. As justification he summed up an idealized view of the country, speciously skirting the inconvenient fact that it had replaced the Soviet Union as the most murderous communist dictatorship. “China is not a nation or a nation-state,” he argued, “but fundamentally is a civilization, a unique and very deep civilization.” Just two years later, Mao launched the chaotic, disastrous Cultural Revolution, destroying much of China’s traditional cultural heritage and decimating its educated class. France turned a blind eye.

De Gaulle followed up in 1965 by sending his minister of culture, André Malraux, to Beijing as his personal envoy for talks with Zhou Enlai and Mao. With his customary grandiloquence, Malraux declared it was the beginning of the Chinese era, while “300 years of European energy are fading.” (The anemic state of Europe today makes it hard to fault him on that last point.) Such remarks impressed the White House; Richard Nixon invited Malraux over in February 1972 to pick his brain just before his historic visit to China.

Today relations between the two countries are thriving. France has a big Alliance Française operation in Beijing and two other sites, claiming over 10,000 Chinese following language courses and a range of other activities. With regard to trade, the sovereign China Investment Corporation is cherry-picking opportunities in France, putting up billions to target strategic areas like French oil and gas exploration and satellite communications. Private Chinese businessmen often appear to mix business and pleasure. Among other things, they have snapped up part of Club Med, popular with Chinese vacationers, and several of France’s most venerable vineyards in Bordeaux and Burgundy, like Château Haut-Brisson, Château Gevrey-Chambertin, and the 12th-century Clos de Vougeot. China, not America, is now the biggest export market for French wines. (Reports say Chinese triad mafiosi have their own big French investments: the dozens of Chinese massage parlors that have sprung up all over Paris.)

Although France’s investment in China can’t compare with America’s in size, it has a virtual lock on the luxury goods market. With the country’s nouveaux millionaires aping Western lifestyle with a vengeance, they crave top-of-the line French luxury, from Vuitton to Dior, Cartier to Chanel, the brand most coveted by Chinese fashionistas. They have their own outlets in China, but it’s considered more chic to swoop in and buy directly in Paris boutiques. At least one million Chinese are expected in the city this year. French tourism officials estimate they will spend about 40 percent of their travel budgets shopping till they drop, versus 25 percent for Americans. Luxury shops have Mandarin speakers and deliver purchases directly to hotels. A top French radio station has a weekly program on business and other doings in China.

IF I DWELL on the Franco-Chinese love fest, it’s to show in microcosm—in this case, one of our oldest allies—the extent to which the oft-foretold decline of American global influence is actually here and now. Declinism has been fashionable for a couple of decades, becoming a cliché at think tanks and international conferences. Paul Kennedy’s 1987 book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, made us aware that America’s premier role was unlikely to last forever. Robert Kagan warned that we’d better take international competition and conflict seriously in The Return of History and the End of Dreams. Fareed Zakaria wondered in The Post-American World whether it was enough to be a politico-military superpower when “in every other dimension—industrial, financial, educational, social, cultural—the distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American dominance.”

A number of recent signs show the shift is taking place sooner rather than later. We’ve become resigned to the idea that China’s economy, now the world’s second-biggest, will overtake America’s eventually. But a new report by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says that “eventually” means 2016, only three years away, when adjusted for relative purchasing power. Militarily, too, China keeps passing milestones and extending its international reach. There were two firsts just this summer, when 400 People’s Liberation Army troops joined the peacekeeping mission in Mali, the first time China’s armed forces donned the UN’s blue helmets, and when the Chinese and Russian navies partnered in Joint Sea 2013, the largest military exercise China has ever held with a foreign nation.

The world is starting to notice. The Pew Center’s Global Attitudes Project concluded in July, “Regardless of which country is seen as the economic powerhouse today, many publics believe China will eventually replace the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower, if it has not already done so.” Majorities in 33 of the 39 countries surveyed agreed that America is waning, while those in only six, including the U.S. itself and Japan, disagreed. Significantly, China is seen as winning by citizens in some of America’s old friends, such as Canada, Britain, and Germany. At the same time, the study showed rising tension between the American and Chinese publics. Whereas two years ago over half of Americans had a positive view of China, that’s now down to 37 percent. Similarly, the 58 percent pro-America rating among Chinese has fallen to 40 percent. Noah Feldman, for one, believes we are on the brink of geopolitical conflict, though not necessarily a shooting one.

A Harvard professor of international law, Feldman contends in his timely new book, Cool War: The Future of Global Competition (Random House, $26), that the U.S., as reigning superpower, is being challenged by China much as ancient Rome was challenged by Carthage, or as Britain was by Germany before World War I. It’s a classic struggle for power, and the top dog never gives up its position without a fight. Are America and China, like the U.S. and the Soviet Union of Cold War days, “two gladiators doomed to an increasingly globalized combat until one side fades?” he asks. “Or are we entering a new period of diversified global economic cooperation in which the very idea of old-fashioned, imperial power politics has become obsolete?…This is the central global question of our as-yet-unnamed historical moment.”

He proposes to name the moment “cool war.” The difference from cold war—and his hope for avoiding military conflict—is that this time the two contenders need each other. “The current situation differs from global power struggles of the past,” he writes. “The world’s major power and its leading challenger are economically interdependent to an unprecedented degree.” There was virtually no trade between the U.S. and the USSR. But today America buys fully 25 percent of Chinese exports, and China holds some 8 percent of U.S. national debt. Thus, his reasoning goes, if mutually assured nuclear destruction kept the U.S. and the Soviet Union from resorting to all-out conflict, mutually assured economic destruction could keep today’s U.S.-China cool war from getting hot.

WELL, LET'S HOPE so. But I would be more convinced if Feldman didn’t cite the feckless, yet-unproven European Union as an example of flourishing international cooperation among former adversaries. And even the most optimistic observers, including Feldman himself, admit that wars often start for completely irrational reasons. Add to that Asian flashpoints that China has been probing and provoking—Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, all of which fall under U.S. defense commitments—and you have an unstable geostrategic situation that can blow up at any time. 

As Feldman notes, the U.S. could lose its sole superpower status without a shot being fired if China simply sends a carrier task force into the Taiwan Strait, and if the American president, whoever he is, decides the country is not ready to start war over Taiwan. A telling precedent exists. “The U.S. might be prepared to tolerate the abandonment of its historic ally out of necessity, the way Britain ceded control over Hong Kong,” he suggests. His solution: “Much better to engage China politically and economically and encourage it to share the burdens of superpower status.”

Better indeed, if possible. And while we’re at it, it would help to inform more people around the world—many of whom today get their impressions of life in the U.S. from ubiquitous TV serials like Desperate Housewives and movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre—about the real America. It’s easy to mock “public diplomacy,” “soft power,” and “hearts and minds.” But if we’re in a cool war with a smart, nimble opponent, they’d better be part of our arsenal. 

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About the Author

Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, was released this fall.