Just How Ingrained is US-China Zero-Sum Thinking?

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Over the past week or so of blogging, as the press focuses on Hu’s visit to the U.S., I keep coming back to the framing of the U.S.-China relationship. I realize I’ve been tossing out the terms “horse race” and “zero-sum” a bit too often, but with almost every writeup of the upcoming D.C. trip, the approach of the media and politicians really comes across as a stark contrast to the new kinds of paradigms sought by the White House and, even more so, by the U.S. State Department.

A great example of this is Secretary Clinton’s speech about China last week. I originally blew off the speech, but I subsequently read a post by Elizabeth Lynch at China Law & Policy on the subject that piqued my interest so much that I actually took the time to review the transcript of the speech. Elizabeth focused on Clinton’s argument that since China has benefited from the security and stability in Asia brought about by U.S. involvement in the region over the past 30+ years, it should make an effort to act according to existing rules and not, to paraphrase Elizabeth, make up new rules when it’s convenient.

Reading the same text, and acknowledging the “tough” parts Elizabeth described, I found the relatively more pedantic cooperation language more important. Cooperation is not a new paradigm, and in fact it is very State Department-ish, but even so, it is not something taken seriously by either the media or the U.S. Congress. I get the sense that the media and the anti-China crowd on Capitol Hill just roll their eyes when they see stuff like this (from Clinton’s speech):

In the 21st century, it does not make sense to apply zero-sum 19th century theories of how major powers interact. We are moving through uncharted territory. We need new ways of understanding the shifting dynamics of the international landscape, a landscape marked by emerging centers of influence, but also by non-traditional, even non-state actors, and the unprecedented challenges and opportunities created by globalization. This is a fact that we believe is especially applicable to the U.S-China relationship. Our engagement – indeed, I would say our entanglement – can only be understood in the context of this new and more complicated landscape.

Is this revolutionary? Hardly. One could even say that is simply an expression of reality, and that with globalization, the zero-sum approach not only is nonsensical, but wholly inaccurate. But I keep coming back to all those news articles about which economy is larger, who is “winning” the renewable energy “war,” which country’s education is better.

Pick up a newspaper in either country, and that’s the kind of article you are going to read about the bilateral relationship. I am absolutely guilty of this too, by the way.

But if the U.S. and China are indeed “entangled” to the extent Clinton stated, then we’re all devoting a lot of attention and energy on issues of very little importance.

So why can’t we have more adult discussions of the bilateral relationship? Here’s another clue from Secretary Clinton’s speech:

This is not a relationship that fits neatly into the black and white categories like friend or rival.

Ah ha. Globalization has really screwed with our now quaint notions of bilateral competition. Complexity and nuance, the enemy of modern mass media.

I would therefore argue, and I am very interested to hear from dissent on this one, that our discourse on bilateral issues devolves into base competition rhetoric for the exact same reason why discussion of American government is always more about political strategy and public opinion polls than it is about underlying policy.

Am I way off track here?

One response on “Just How Ingrained is US-China Zero-Sum Thinking?

  1. Tim

    No, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that nuance and complexity are the enemy of mass media though.It becomes a chicken or the egg dilemma: is it that the mainstream media is conspiring to dumb-down American or are they simply responding to a combination of American tastes and shareholder’s desire for high ROI’s with infotainment that captures audiences?

    The main culprit here is just how easy it is to play to a person’s base desire to simplify the world around them. That is what Beck does with his chalkboard, CNN does with it’s crawl, and NYT does with attention grabbing headlines that are just slightly off base with the article.