For many decades the United States has sought macro wins on foreign policy -- big-ticket successes like invading Iraq, solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, bringing down Libyan dictator Mohammar Qaddafi, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, and other notable goals only to see gains reversed and goal posts moved. So maybe it is time to scope ambitions and seek smaller prizes.
Talk these days of the creative economy as soft power and a harbinger of world peace, ignores the huge struggles taking place between Google, Facebook no one hand and Baidu, We Chat, Tencent on the other, pitching the U.S. and China directly against each other in a cold digital war of online platforms, search engines and aggregation algorithms. It is very nice to assert the diversity of cultures in a globalized world. But this diversity is in reality dependent on some very hard issues of finance, intellectual property rights and communications infrastructures.
The much-vaunted "liberal order" policed by the U.S. was a product of World War II and the Cold War. Germany and Japan had to be kept down, the Communist powers had to be contained, and the old countries of Europe had to learn to live with one another under unifying pan-national institutions. All of this was made possible by American money and military might. As a result, the Free World, in Western Europe and East Asia, became a US dependency. This cannot go on forever. Indeed, the arrangements are already fraying. But then comes the old imperial paradox. The longer others remain dependent on the U.S., the less capable they will be of taking care of their own affairs, including their security. And, like an authoritarian parent, the U.S. itself, despite its admonitions to its allies to pull their weight, is often loath to let go of its increasingly unruly dependents.
Unlike the Cold War period -- in which the Soviet Union was isolated from the global economy -- commercial interests and trade secrets underpin the intrinsically entangled Sino-American economic relations. The higgledy-piggledy distinction between national security and corporate interests is hardly convincing to the Chinese, especially when the US revolving doors conveniently inhabit the space between government service and corporations during both Democratic and Republican administrations. Just like the Sino-American relations in commercial intercourse, economics triumphs over ideology in the partisan world of American politics. On China's side, its intertwined national and economic interests are enshrined in the peculiar institution of the State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs).