A year before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, one James M. Lindsay, then senior fellow at the liberal Brookings Institution, now director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, lamented of the ongoing aftermath of the Cold War that “at the very moment that the United States has more influence than ever on international affairs, Americans have lost much of their interest in the world around them,” and argued that “the most important foreign policy challenge … is not encouraging democracy in Russia, coping with a rising China, or advancing a liberal economic order. Instead, it is persuading the American people to pay more than lip service to their internationalist beliefs.”
The destruction of the Twin Towers and the ravaging of the Pentagon took care of Americans’ supposed apathy toward the wider world, but the disturbing issue today is that an American public, which in many ways has had it with internationalism, isn’t properly focused on international threats—the same China and Russia that Lindsay downplayed—and included among the unfocused are our purportedly sophisticated, globetrotting corporate leaders. As Lindsay noted, citing polling data nearly a decade and a half after expressing his pre-9/11 concerns, “Even those who want the United States to ‘stay out’ of world affairs think that strong U.S. leadership is either ‘very desirable’ or ‘somewhat desirable.’”
Good luck to us trying to exert leadership in the world as we “stay out” of it. But recent circumstances present the United States with the rare opportunity to take both China and Russia a notch down in power and influence—yet major American CEOs, like President Joe Biden, are squandering the chance.
Last week, for example, Elon Musk of Tesla and Twitter, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan, and Laxman Narasimhan of Starbucks were among the business bigwigs in mainland China wheeling and dealing with top officials of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Their visits come in the immediate wake of top executives of Apple, megabank HSBC, fashion giant Kering, communications powerhouse Samsung, and Volkswagen also paying in-person homage to the rulers of the world’s second-largest economy.
Musk sounded uncharacteristically naive in remarking that “the interests of the United States and China are intertwined like conjoined twins.” Equally disappointing was Dimon’s declaration, as he met with Shanghai’s Communist Party chief, that JPMorgan would facilitate investment into the city and enable better understanding of the metropolis whose greater environs are home to over 39 million people. Dimon conceded that China-centered supply-chain disruptions meant that now “there will be less trade” between China and the United States, but that “this is not decoupling; this is de-risking.”
The risk to which he refers, of course, is the vulnerability that the COVID pandemic exposed for the United States and other industrialized countries that have allowed themselves to become dependent on cheap Chinese manufacturing and supply—and how perfectly able Beijing is to pull the plug and devastate their economies when the CCP chooses to do so. It should not have taken a global pandemic for the most powerful corporations in the world to recognize this. And it will take more than the grand opening of Apple stores in Mumbai and New Delhi and “growing and investing across” India, as Tim Cook touts, to counter the economic dimension of Beijing’s multi-pronged threat to the free world.
Outside firms doing business inside China enjoy no real protection from the CCP of their proprietary information or even their own employees, Chinese or otherwise, as the raids of technological consulting businesses in recent weeks demonstrate. And China has been experiencing a crash in demand that may portend serious economic issues for the mainland in the months ahead.
Why, then, would the corporate giants of the world’s lone superpower, which Beijing is committed to taking down, want to rescue America’s most serious adversary? Nike CEO John Donahoe went so far as to declare last month, laughably, of ongoing, full-on economic engagement with communist China, “frankly, it can almost help promote peace and understanding”—practically an excerpt from CCP propaganda materials.
We stand at a watershed in history in which the United States, without firing a shot, could inflict body blows to both China and Russia. Economic “de-coupling” is exactly what this country’s internationally engaged businesses should be doing as regards Beijing, despite Dimon’s preferences for milder measures. And in Ukraine, the United States—making the dubious claim that it would jeopardize our ability to win a war—refuses to provide the army tactical missile systems that would lead to a resonating defeat for Vladimir Putin that would squash Moscow’s global ability to project its power.
The secretary of state of the United States was actually conceding and advertising American impotence.
“We’re always better off at the table, not outside the room,” he added, casting away the diplomat’s invaluable trump card of being willing to walk out of, or refuse even to enter, the negotiating room. Such a policy renders Blinken’s later assurance that the United States will be “adversarial when it must be” lacking in all credibility.
The entire speech was actually less concerned with the threats from Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran than with the gender, sex orientation, and race composition of Pentagon and State Department employees, because, according to Blinken, “When we don’t have a diverse team, it’s like we’re conducting diplomacy with one arm tied behind our back.”
The strong American leadership in the world that polls show the public want is the way acts of war against the United States will be prevented. But when our secretary of state and our internationally engaged corporate chiefs can’t recognize our enemies even as they stare them in the face, it’s obvious to observers here and abroad that there's no leadership to be found.