Tom Dispatch

How infrastructure could be the great economic equalizer in America

During the Trump years, the phrase "Infrastructure Week" rang out as a sort of Groundhog Day-style punchline. What began in June 2017 as a failed effort by The Donald's White House and a Republican Senate to focus on the desperately needed rebuilding of American infrastructure morphed into a meme and a running joke in Washington.

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

Despite the focus in recent years on President Trump's failure to do anything for the country's crumbling infrastructure, here's a sad reality: considered over a longer period of time, Washington's political failure to fund the repairing, modernizing, or in some cases simply the building of that national infrastructure has proven a remarkably bipartisan "effort." After all, the same grand unfulfilled ambitions for infrastructure were part and parcel of the Obama White House from 2009 on and could well typify the Biden years, if Congress doesn't get its act together (or the filibuster doesn't go down in flames). The disastrous electric grid power outages that occurred during the recent deep freeze in Texas are but the latest example of the pressing need for infrastructure upgrades and investments of every sort. If nothing is done, more people will suffer, more jobs will be lost, and the economy will face drastic consequences.

Since the mid-twentieth century, when most of this country's modern infrastructure systems were first established, the population has doubled. Not only are American roads, airports, electric grids, waterways, railways and more distinctly outdated, but today's crucial telecommunications sector hasn't ever been subjected to a comprehensive broadband strategy.

Worse yet, what's known as America's "infrastructure gap" only continues to widen. The cost of what we need but haven't done to modernize our infrastructure has expanded to $5.6 trillion over the last 20 years ($3 trillion in the last decade alone), according to a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Some estimates now even run as high as $7 trillion.

In other words, as old infrastructure deteriorates and new infrastructure and technology are needed, the cost of addressing this ongoing problem only escalates. Currently, there is a $1-trillion backlog of (yet unapproved) deferred-maintenance funding floating around Capitol Hill. Without action in the reasonable future, certain kinds of American infrastructure could, like that Texas energy grid, soon be deemed unsafe.

Now, it's true that the U.S. continues to battle Covid-19 with more than half a million lives already lost and significant parts of the economy struggling to make ends meet. Even before the pandemic, however, America's failing infrastructure system was already costing the average household nearly $3,300 a year.

According to ASCE, "The nation's economy could see the loss of $10 trillion in GDP [gross domestic product] and a decline of more than $23 trillion in business productivity cumulatively over the next two decades if current investment trends continue." Whatever a post-pandemic economy looks like, our country is already starved for policies that offer safe, reliable, efficient, and sustainable future infrastructure systems. Such a down payment on our future is crucial not just for us, but for generations to come.

As early as 2016, ASCE researchers found that the overall number of dams with potential high-hazard status had already climbed to nearly 15,500. At the time, the organization also discovered that nearly four out of every 10 bridges in America were 50 years old or more and identified 56,007 of them as already structurally deficient. Those numbers would obviously be even higher today.

And yet, in 2021, what Americans face is hardly just a transportation crisis. The country's energy system largely predates the twenty-first century. The majority of American electric transmission and distribution systems were established in the 1950s and 1960s with only a 50-year life cycle. ASCE reports that, "More than 640,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the lower 48 states' power grids are at full capacity." That means our systems weren't and aren't equipped to handle excess needs — especially in emergencies.

The country is critically overdue for infrastructure development in which the government and the private sector would collaborate with intention and urgency. Infrastructure could be the great equalizer in our economy, if only the Biden administration and a now-dogmatically partisan Congress had the fortitude and foresight to make it happen.

American History Offers a Roadmap for Infrastructure Success

It wasn't always like this. Over the course of American history, building infrastructure has not only had a powerful economic impact, but regularly garnered bipartisan political support for the public good.

In July 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act. That landmark bill provided federal support to an already ongoing private effort to build the first transcontinental railroad. Though at the time all its ramifications weren't positive — notably escalating conflicts between Native Americans and settlers pushing westward — the effort did connect the country's coastal markets, provided jobs for thousands, and helped jumpstart commerce in the West. Believe it or not, most of that transcontinental railroad line is still in use today.

In December 1928, President Calvin Coolidge signed a bill authorizing the construction of a dam in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River in the American Southwest, a region that had faced unpredictable flooding and lacked reliable electricity. Despite the stock market crash of 1929 and the start of the Great Depression, by early 1931, the private sector, with government support, had begun constructing a structure of unprecedented magnitude, known today as the Hoover Dam. As an infrastructure project, it would eventually pay for itself through the sale of the electricity that it generated. Today, that dam still provides electricity and water to tens of millions of people.

Having grasped the power of the German system of autobahns while a general in World War II, President Dwight D. Eisenhower would, under the guise of "national security," launch the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, with bipartisan support, creating the interstate highway system. In its time, that system would be considered one of the "greatest public works projects in history."

In the end, that act would lead to the creation of more than 47,000 miles of roads across all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. It would have a powerful effect on commercial business activity, national defense planning, and personal travel, helping to launch whole new sectors of the economy, ranging from roadside fast-food restaurants to theme parks. According to estimates, it would return more than six dollars in economic productivity for every dollar it cost to build and support, a result any investor would be happy with.

Equivalent efforts today would undoubtedly prove to be similar economic drivers. Domestically, such investments in infrastructure have always proven beneficial. New efforts to create sustainable green energy businesses, reconfigure energy grids, and rebuild crippled transit systems for a new age would help guarantee U.S global economic competitiveness deep into the twenty-first century.

Infrastructure as an International Race for Influence

In an interview with CNBC in February 2021, after being confirmed as the first female treasury secretary, Janet Yellen stressed the crucial need not just for a Covid-19 stimulus relief but for a sustainable infrastructure one as well.

As part of what the Biden administration has labeled its "Build Back Better" agenda, she underscored the "long-term structural problems in the U.S. economy that have resulted in inequality [and] slow productivity growth." She also highlighted how a major new focus on clean-energy investments could make the economy more competitive globally.

When it comes to infrastructure and sustainable development efforts, the U.S. is being left in the dust by its primary economic rivals. Following his first phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Biden noted to a group of senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee that, "if we don't get moving, they are going to eat our lunch." He went on to say, "They're investing billions of dollars dealing with a whole range of issues that relate to transportation, the environment, and a whole range of other things. We just have to step up."

As this country, deep in partisan gridlock, stalls on infrastructure measures of any sort, its global competitors are proceeding full speed ahead. Having helped to jumpstart its economy with projects like high-speed railways and massive new bridges, China is now accelerating its efforts to further develop its technological infrastructure. As Bloomberg reported, the Chinese are focused on supporting the build-up of "everything from wireless networks to artificial intelligence. In the master plan backed by President Jinping himself, China will invest an estimated $1.4 trillion over six years" in such projects.

And it's not just that Asian giant leaving the U.S. behind. Major trading partners like Australia, India, and Japan are projected to significantly out-invest the United States. The World Economic Forum's 2019 Global Competitiveness Report typically listed this country in 13th place among the world's nations when it came to its infrastructure quality. (It had been ranked 5th in 2002.) In 2020, that organization ranked the U.S. 32nd out of 115 countries on its Energy Transition Index.

Despite the multiple stimulus packages that Congress has passed in the Covid-19 era, no funding — not a cent — has been designated for capital-building projects. In contrast, China, Japan, and the European Union have all crafted stimulus programs in which infrastructure spending was a core component.

Infrastructure Development as a Political Equalizer

Infrastructure could be the engine for the most advantageous kinds of growth in this country. An optimal combination of federal and private funds, strategic partnerships, targeted infrastructure bonds, and even the creation of an infrastructure bank could help jumpstart a range of sustainable and ultimately revenue-generating businesses.

Such investment is a matter of economics, of cost versus benefit. These days, however, such calculations are both obstructed and obfuscated by politics. In the end, however, political economics comes down to getting creative about sources of funding and how to allocate them. To launch a meaningful infrastructure program would mean deciding who will produce it, who will consume it, and what kinds of transfer of wealth would be involved in the short and long run. Though the private sector certainly would help drive such a new set of programs, government funding would, as in the past, be crucial, whether under the rubric of national security, competitive innovation, sustainable clean energy, or creating a carbon-neutral future America. Any effort, no matter the label, would undoubtedly generate sustainable public and private jobs for the future.

On both the domestic and international fronts, infrastructure is big business. Wall Street, as well as the energy and construction sectors, are all eager to learn more about Biden's Build Back Better infrastructure plan, which he is expected to take up in his already delayed first joint address to Congress. Actions, not just words, are needed.

Expectations are running high about what might prove to be a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure initiative. Such anticipation has already elevated the stock prices of construction companies, as well as shares in the sustainable energy sector.

There are concerns, to be sure. A big infrastructure package might never make it through an evenly split Senate, where partisanship is the name of the game. Some economists also fear that it could bring on inflation. There is, of course, debate over the role of the private sector in any such plan, as well as horse-trading about what kinds of projects should get priority. But the reality is that this country desperately needs infrastructure that, in turn, can secure a sustainable and green future. Someday this will have to be done, and the longer the delay, the more those costs are likely to rise. The future revenues and economic benefits from a solid infrastructure package should be key drivers in any post-pandemic economy.

The biggest asset managers in the country are already seeing more money flowing into their infrastructure and sustainable-energy funds. Financing for such deals in the private sector is also increasing. Any significant funding on the public side will only spur and augment that financing. Such projects could drive the economy for years to come. They would run the gamut from establishing smart grids and expanding broadband reach to building electric transmission systems that run off more sustainable energy sources, while manufacturing cleaner vehicles and ways to use them. Going big with futuristic transit projects like Virgin's Hyperloop, a high-speed variant of a vacuum train, or Elon Musk's initiative for the development of carbon-capture technology, could even be included in a joint drive to create the necessary clean-energy infrastructure and economy of the future.

Polling also shows that such infrastructure spending has broad public support, even if, in Congress, much-needed bipartisan backing for such a program remains distinctly in question. Still, in February, the ranking Republican senator on the environment and public works committee, West Virginia's Shelley Moore Capito, said that "transportation infrastructure is the platform that can drive economic growth — all-American jobs, right there, right on the ground — now and in the future, and improve the quality of life for everyone on the safety aspects." Meanwhile, the committee's chairman, Democratic Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, stressed that "the burdens of poor road conditions are disproportionately shouldered by marginalized communities." He pointed out that "low-income families and peoples of color are frequently left behind or left out by our investments in infrastructure, blocking their access to jobs and education opportunities."

Sadly, given the way leadership in Washington wasted endless months dithering over the merits of supporting American workers during a pandemic, it may be too much to hope that a transformative bipartisan infrastructure deal will materialize.

Infrastructure as the Great Economic Equalizer

Here's a simple reality: a strong American economy is dependent on infrastructure. That means more than just a "big umbrella" effort focused on transportation and electricity. Yes, airports, railroads, electrical grids, and roadways are all-important economic drivers, but in the twenty-first-century world, high-capacity communications systems are also essential to economic prosperity, as are distribution channels of various sorts. At the moment, there's a water main break every two minutes in the U.S. Nearly six billion gallons of treated water are lost daily thanks to such breaks. Situations like the one in Flint, Michigan, in which economic pressure and bankruptcy eventually led a city to expose thousands of its children to poisonous drinking water, will become increasingly unavoidable in a country with an ever-deteriorating infrastructure.

The great economic equalizer is this: the more efficient our infrastructure systems become, the less they cost, and the more they can be readily used by those across the income spectrum. What American history shows since the time of Abraham Lincoln is that, in periods of economic turmoil, major infrastructure building or rebuilding will not only pay for itself but support the economy for generations to come.

For the next generation, it's already clear that clean and sustainable energy will be crucial to achieving a more equal, economically prosperous, and less climate-challenged future. A renewables-based rebuilding of the economy and the creation of the jobs to go with it would be anything but some niche set of activities in the usual infrastructure spectrum. It would be the future. High-paying jobs within the sustainable energy sector are already booming. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that among the occupations projected to have the fastest employment growth from 2016 to 2026 will be those in "green" work.

Wall Street and big tech companies are also paying attention. Amazon, Google, and Facebook have become the world's biggest corporate purchasers of clean energy and are now planning for some of the world's most transformational climate targets. That will mean smaller companies will also be able to enter that workspace as innovation and infrastructure drive economic incentives.

The Next Generation

It may be ambitious to expect that we've left the Groundhog Day vortex of "infrastructure week" behind us, but the critical demand for a new Infrastructure Age confronts us now. From Main Street to Wall Street, the need and the growing market for a sustainable, efficient, and clean future couldn't be more real. An abundance of avenues to finance such a future are available and it makes logical business sense to pursue them.

It's obvious enough what should be done. The only question, given American politics in 2021, is: Can it be done?

The economy of tomorrow will be built upon the infrastructure measures of today. You can't see the value of stocks from space, nor can you see the physical value of what you've left to the next generation from stat sheets. But from the International Space Station you can see the Hoover Dam and even San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. What will future generations see that we've left behind? If the answer is nothing, that will be a tragedy of our age.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2021 Nomi Prins

Nomi Prins

Nomi Prins, a former Wall Street executive, is a TomDispatch regular. Her latest book is Collusion: How Central Bankers Rigged the World. She is currently working on her new book, Permanent Distortion. She is also the author of All the Presidents' Bankers: The Hidden Alliances That Drive American Power and five other books. Special thanks go to researcher Craig Wilson for his superb assistance.

The United States is visibly in an early stage of disintegration

Like Gregor Samsa, the never-to-be-forgotten character in Franz Kafka's story "The Metamorphosis," we awoke on January 7th to discover that we, too, were "a giant insect" with "a domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments" and numerous "pitifully thin" legs that "waved helplessly" before our eyes. If you prefer, though, you can just say it: we opened our eyes and found that, somehow, we had become a giant roach of a country.

Yes, I know, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are now in charge and waving their own little limbs wildly, trying to do some of what needs to be done for this sad land of the disturbed, over-armed, sick, and dying. But anyone who watched the scenes of Floridians celebrating a Super Bowl victory, largely unmasked and cheering, shoulder to shoulder in the streets of Tampa, can't help but realize that we are now indeed a roach nation, the still-wealthiest, most pandemically unmasked one on Planet Earth.

But don't just blame Donald Trump. Admittedly, we've just passed through the Senate trial and acquittal of the largest political cockroach around. I'm talking about the president who, upon discovering that his vice president was in danger of being "executed" ("Hang Mike Pence!") and was being rushed out of the Senate as a mob bore down on him, promptly tweeted: "Mike Pence didn't have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution."

Just imagine. The veep who had — if you don't mind my mixing my creature metaphors here — toadied up to the president for four endless years was then given a functional death sentence by that same man. You can't fall much deeper into personal roachdom than that. My point here, though, is that our all-American version of roacherie was a long time in coming.

Or put another way: unimaginable as The Donald might have seemed when he descended that Trump Tower escalator in June 2015 to hail his future "great, great wall," denounce Mexican "rapists," and bid to make a whole country into his apprentices, he didn't end up in the Oval Office for no reason. He was the symptom, not the disease, though what a symptom he would prove to be — and when it came to diseases, what a nightmare beyond all imagining.

Let's face it, whether we fully grasp the fact or not, we now live in a system, as well as a country, that's visibly in an early stage of disintegration. And there lies a remarkable tale of history happening at warp speed, of how, in not quite three decades, the USS Enterprise of imperial powers was transformed into the USS Roach.

Once Upon a Time on Earth…

Return for a moment to 1991, almost two years after the Berlin Wall fell, when the Soviet Union finally imploded and the Cold War officially ended. Imagine that you had been able to show Americans then — especially the political class in Washington — that 13-minute video of Trump statements and tweets interlarded with mob actions in the Capitol that the Democratic House impeachment managers used in their opening salvo against the former president. Americans — just about any of us — would have thought we were watching the most absurd science fiction or perhaps the single least reality-based bit of black comedy imaginable.

In the thoroughly self-satisfied (if somewhat surprised) Washington of 1991, the triumphalist capital of "the last superpower," that video would have portrayed a president, an insurrectionary mob, and an endangered Congress no one could have imagined possible — not in another nearly 30 years, not in a century, not in any American future. Then again, if in 1991 you had tried to convince anyone in this country that a walking Ponzi scheme(r) like Donald Trump could become president, no less be impeached twice, you would have been laughed out of the room.

After all, this country had just become the ultimate superpower in history, the last one ever. Left alone on this planet, it had a military beyond compare and an economy that was the heartland of a globalized system and the envy of the world. The Earth was — or at least to the political class of that moment seemed to be — ours for the taking, but certainly not for the losing, not in any imaginable future. The question then wasn't keeping them out but keeping us in. No "big, fat, beautiful walls" were needed. After all, Russia was a wreck. China was still emerging economically from the hell of the Maoist years. Europe was dependent on the U.S. and, when it came to the rest of world, what else need be said?

This was an American planet, pure and simple.

In retrospect, consider the irony. There had been talk then about a post-Cold War "peace dividend." Who would have guessed, though, that dividends of any sort would increasingly go to the top 1% and that almost 30 years later this country would functionally be a plutocracy overseen until a month ago by a self-professed multibillionaire? Who would have imagined that the American version of a peace dividend would have been siphoned off by more billionaires than anyplace else on earth and that, in those same years, inequality would reach historic heights, while poverty and hunger only grew? Who woulda guessed that whatever peace dividend didn't go to the ultra-wealthy would go to an ever-larger national security state and the industrial complex of weapons makers that surrounded it? Who woulda guessed that, in official post-Cold War Washington, peace would turn out to be the last thing on anyone's mind, even though this country seemed almost disarmingly enemy-less? (Remember when the worst imaginable combination of enemies, a dreaded "axis of evil," would prove to be Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, all embattled, distinctly tertiary powers?)Who woulda guessed that a military considered beyond compare (and funded to this day like no other) would proceed to fight war after war, literally decades of conflict, and yet — except for the quasi-triumph of the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein's Iraq — achieve victory in none of them? Staggering trillions of taxpayer dollars would be spent on them, while those billionaires were given untold tax breaks. Honestly, who would have guessed then that, on a planet lacking significant enemies, Washington, even six presidents later, would prove incapable of stopping fighting?

Who woulda guessed that, in September 2001, not Russia or Communist China, but a tiny group of Islamic militants led by a rich Saudi extremist the U.S. had once backed would send 19 (mostly Saudi) hijackers to directly attack the United States? They would, of course, cause death and mayhem, allowing President George W. Bush to launch an almost 20-year "global war on terror," which still shows no sign of ending. Who woulda guessed that, in the wake of those 9/11 terror attacks, the son of the man who had presided over the first Gulf War (but stopped short of felling Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein) and the top officials of his administration would come to believe that the world was his oyster and that the U.S. should dominate the Greater Middle East and possibly the planet in a way previously unimaginable? Who would have imagined that he would invade Iraq (having done the same in Afghanistan a year and a half earlier), effectively helping to spread Islamic extremism far and wide, while creating a never-ending disaster for this country?

Who woulda guessed that, in 2009, in the wake of a Great Recession at home, the next president, Barack Obama, would order a massive "surge" of forces into Afghanistan, a war already eight years old? Tens of thousands of new troops, not to speak of contractors, CIA operatives, and others would be sent there without faintly settling things.

By November 2016, when an antiquated electoral system gave the popular vote to Hillary Clinton but put Donald Trump, a man who promised to end this country's "endless wars" (he didn't) in the Oval Office, it should have been obvious that something was awry on the yellow brick road to imperial glory. By then, in fact, for a surprising number of Americans, this had become a land of grotesque inequality and lack of opportunity. And many of them would prove ready indeed to use their votes to send a message to the country about their desire to Trump that very reality.

From there, of course, with no Wizard of Oz in sight, it would be anything but a yellow brick road to January 6, 2021, when, the president having rejected the results of the 2020 election, a mob would storm the Capitol. All of it and the impeachment fiasco to follow would reveal the functional definition of a failing democracy, one in which the old rules no longer held.

Exiting the Superpower Stage of History

And, of course, I have yet to even mention the obvious — the still-unending nightmare that engulfed the country early in 2020 and that, I suspect, will someday be seen as the true ending point for a strikingly foreshortened American century. I'm thinking, of course, of Covid-19, the pandemic disease that swept the country, infecting tens of millions of Americans and killing hundreds of thousands in a fashion unmatched anywhere else on the planet. It would even for a time fell a president, while creating mayhem and ever more fierce division in unmasked parts of the country filled with civilians armed to the teeth, swept up in conspiracy theories, and at the edge of who knew what.

Call it a sign from the gods or anything you want, but call it startling. Imagine a disease that the last superpower handled so much more poorly than countries with remarkably fewer resources. Think of it as a kind of judgment, if not epitaph, on that very superpower.

Or put another way: not quite 30 years after the Soviet Union exited the stage of history, we're living in a land that was itself strangely intent on heading for that same exit — a crippled country led by a 78-year-old president, its system under startling pressure and evidently beginning to come apart at the seams. One of its political parties is unrecognizable; its presidency has been stripped of a fully functioning Congress and is increasingly imperial in nature; its economic system plutocratic; its military still struggling across significant parts of the planet, while a possible new cold war with a rising China is evidently on the horizon; and all of this on a planet that itself, even putting aside that global pandemic, is visibly in the deepest of trouble.

At the end of Franz Kafka's classic tale, Gregor Samsa, now a giant insect with a rotting apple embedded in its back, dies in roach hell, even if also in his very own room with his parents and sisters nearby. Is the same fate in store, after a fashion, for the American superpower?

In some sense, in the Trump and Covid-19 years, the United States has indeed been unmasked as a roach superpower on a planet going to — again, excuse the mixed animal metaphors — the dogs. The expected all-American age of power and glory hasn't been faintly what was imagined in 1991, not in a country that has shown remarkably few signs of coming to grips with what these years have truly meant.

Centuries after the modern imperial age began, it's evidently coming to an end in a hell that Joe Biden and crew won't be able to stop, even if, unlike the previous president, they're anything but intent on thoroughly despoiling this land. Still, Trump or Biden, at this point it couldn't be clearer that we need some new way of thinking about and being on this increasingly roach-infested planet of ours.

Copyright 2021 Tom Engelhardt

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

President Biden will face a vexing conundrum in China

Soon-to-be President Joe Biden will instantly face a set of extraordinary domestic crises — a runaway pandemic, a stalled economy, and raw political wounds, especially from the recent Trumpian assault on the Capitol — but few challenges are likely to prove more severe than managing U.S. relations with China. While generally viewed as a distant foreign-policy concern, that relationship actually looms over nearly everything, including the economy, the coronavirus, climate change, science and technology, popular culture, and cyberspace. If the new administration follows the course set by the preceding one, you can count on one thing: the United States will be drawn into an insidious new Cold War with that country, impeding progress in almost every significant field. To achieve any true breakthroughs in the present global mess, the Biden team must, above all else, avert that future conflict and find ways to collaborate with its powerful challenger. Count on one thing: discovering a way to navigate this already mine-laden path will prove demanding beyond words for the most experienced policymakers in Biden's leadership ensemble.

Even without the corrosive impacts of Donald Trump's hostile diplomacy of recent years, China would pose an enormous challenge to any new administration. It boasts the world's second-largest economy and, some analysts say, will soon overtake the United States to become number one. Though there are many reasons to condemn Beijing's handling of the coronavirus, its tough nationwide clampdown (following its initial failure to acknowledge the very existence of the virus, no less the extent of its spread) allowed the country to recover from Covid-19 faster than most other nations. As a result, Beijing has already reported strong economic growth in the second half of the year, the only major economy on the planet to do so. This means that China is in a more powerful position than ever to dictate the rules of the world economy, a situation confirmed by the European Union's recent decision to sign a major trade and investment deal with Beijing, symbolically sidelining the United States just before the Biden administration enters office.

After years of increasing its defense expenditures, China now also possesses the second most powerful military in the world, replete with modern weaponry of every sort. Although not capable of confronting the United States on the high seas or in far-flung locales, its military — the People's Liberation Army, or PLA — is now in a position to challenge America's longstanding supremacy in areas closer to home like the far western Pacific. Not since Japan's imperial expansion in the 1930s and early 1940s has Washington faced such a formidable foe in that part of the world.

In critical areas — scientific and technological prowess, diplomatic outreach, and international finance, among others — China is already challenging, if not overtaking America's long-assumed global primacy. On so many fronts, in other words, dealing with China poses an enormous conundrum for America's new leadership team. Worse yet, the destructive China policies of the Trump administration, combined with the authoritarian and militaristic policies of Chinese President Xi Jinping, pose immediate challenges to Biden when it comes to managing U.S.-China relations.

Trump's Toxic Legacy

Donald Trump campaigned for office pledging to punish China for what he claimed was its systemic drive to build its economy by looting the American one. In 2016, he vowed that, if elected president, he would use the power of trade to halt that country's nefarious practices and restore American global primacy. Once ensconced in the White House, he did indeed impose a series of tariffs on what now amounts to about $360 billion in Chinese imports — a significant barrier to improved relations with Beijing that Biden must decide whether to retain, loosen, or eliminate altogether.

Even more threatening to future cordial relations are the restrictions Trump placed on the access of Chinese companies to U.S. technology, especially the advanced software and computer chips needed for future developments in fifth generation (5G) telecommunications. In May 2019, claiming that leading Chinese telecom firms like Huawei and ZTE Corporation had links to the PLA and so represented a threat to American national security, Trump issued an executive order effectively barring those companies from purchasing American computer chips and other high-tech equipment. A series of further executive orders and other moves followed that were aimed at restricting Chinese companies from gaining access to U.S. technology.

In these and related actions, President Trump and his senior associates, notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and top trade adviser Peter Navarro, claimed that they were acting to protect national security from the risk of intelligence operations by the PLA. From their statements at the time, however, it was evident that their real intent was to impede China's technological progress in order to weaken its long-term economic competitiveness. Here, too, Biden and his team will have to decide whether to retain the restrictions imposed by Trump, further straining Sino-American ties, or to reverse course in an effort to enhance relations.

The China Crisis: Military and Diplomatic Dimensions

An even greater challenge for President Biden will be the aggressive military and diplomatic initiatives undertaken by the Trump administration. In 2018, his secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, issued a new military doctrine under the label "great power competition" that was meant to govern future planning by the Department of Defense. As spelled out in the Pentagon's official National Defense Policy of that year, the doctrine held that U.S. forces should now switch their focus from combatting Islamic terrorists in remote Third World locations to combatting China and Russia in Eurasia. "Although the Department continues to prosecute the campaign against terrorists," Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that April, "long-term strategic competition — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of U.S. national security."

In line with this policy, in the years that followed, the entire military establishment has been substantially refocused and reengineered from acting as a counterterror and counterinsurgency force into one armed, equipped, and focused on fighting the Chinese and Russian militaries on the peripheries of those very countries. "Today, in this era of great power competition, the Department of Defense has prioritized China, then Russia, as our top strategic competitors," Secretary of Defense Mark Esper declared this past September, shortly before he was ousted by the president for, among other things, supporting a call to redub U.S. military bases now named after Confederate Civil War generals. Significantly, while still in power, Esper identified China as America's number one strategic competitor — a distinction Mattis had failed to make.

To ensure Washington's primacy in that competition, Esper highlighted three main strategic priorities: the weaponization of advanced technologies, the further "modernization" and enhancement of the country's nuclear arsenal, and the strengthening of military ties with friendly nations surrounding China. "To modernize our capabilities," he declared, "we have successfully secured funding for game-changing technologies such as artificial intelligence, hypersonics, directed energy, and 5G networks." Significant progress, he claimed, had also been made in "recapitalizing our strategic nuclear triad," this country's vast, redundant arsenal of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and long-range nuclear bombers. In addition, with the goal of encircling China with a hostile U.S.-oriented alliance system, he bragged that "we are implementing a coordinated plan, the first of its kind, to strengthen allies and build partners."

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For Chinese leaders, the fact that Washington's military policy now called for just such a tripartite program of non-nuclear weapons modernization, nuclear weapons modernization, and military encirclement meant one obvious thing: they now face a long-term strategic threat that will require a major mobilization of military, economic, and technological capabilities in response — which is, of course, the very definition of a new Cold War competition. And the Chinese leadership made it all too clear that they would resist any such U.S. initiatives by taking whatever steps they deemed necessary to defend China's sovereignty and national interests. You undoubtedly won't be surprised to learn then, that, like the U.S., they are in the process of acquiring a wide array of modern nuclear and non-nuclear weaponry, while weaponizing emerging technologies to ensure success or at least some semblance of parity in any future encounters with American forces.

Alongside such military initiatives, the Trump administration sought to hobble China and curb its rise through a coordinated strategy of diplomatic warfare — efforts that most notably included increased support for the island of Taiwan (claimed by China as a breakaway province), ever closer military ties with India, and the promotion of joint Australian, Indian, Japanese, and U.S. military ties, an arrangement known as "the Quad."

An upgrade in ties with Taiwan was a particular objective of the Trump administration (and a particular provocation to Beijing). Ever since President Jimmy Carter agreed to recognize the Communist regime in Beijing in 1978, and not the Taiwanese, as the legitimate government of China, U.S. administrations of every sort have sought to avoid the appearance of engaging in a high-level official relationship with that island's leadership in Taipei, even as it continued to sell them arms and conduct other forms of intergovernmental relations.

In the Trump years, however, Washington has engaged in a number of high-profile actions specifically intended to show support for the Taiwanese government and, in the process, rile the Chinese leadership. These included a visit to Taipei this past August by Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar II, the first of its kind by a cabinet secretary since 1979. In yet another provocative move, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Kelly Craft, has just met with top Taiwanese officials in Taipei. The administration also sought to secure Taiwan observer status at the World Health Organization and other international bodies to help bolster its image as a nation unto itself. Of equal concern to Beijing, the administration authorized $16.6 billion in new top-grade arms sales to Taiwan over the past two years, including a record-breaking $8-billion sale of 66 advanced F-16C/D fighter planes.

Enhanced U.S. ties with India and other members of the Quad proved to be a top Trump administration foreign-policy priority as well. In October 2020, Mike Pompeo traveled to India for the third time as secretary of state and used the occasion to denounce China while promoting closer Indo-American military ties. He pointedly referred to the 20 Indian soldiers killed in a border clash with Chinese forces last June, insisting that, "the United States will stand with the people of India as they confront threats to their sovereignty and to their liberty." Defense Secretary Esper, who accompanied Pompeo on that trip to New Delhi, spoke of increasing defense cooperation with India, including prospective sales of fighter aircraft and unmanned aerial systems.

Both officials praised the country for its future participation in "Malabar," the Quad's joint naval exercises to be held that November in the Bay of Bengal. Without anyone saying so explicitly, that exercise was widely viewed as the debut performance of the burgeoning military alliance aimed at containing China. "A collaborative approach toward regional security and stability is important now more than ever, to deter all who challenge a free and open Indo-Pacific," commented Ryan Easterday, commanding officer of the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain, one of the participating vessels.

Needless to say, all this represents a complex and formidable legacy for President Biden to overcome as he seeks to establish a less hostile relationship with the Chinese.

President Biden's Xi Jinping Problem

Clearly, Trump's disruptive legacy will make it hard for President Biden to halt the downward slide in Sino-American relations and the Xi Jinping regime in Beijing will make it no easier for him. This is not the place for a detailed analysis of Xi's turn towards authoritarianism over the past few years or his growing reliance on a militaristic outlook to ensure loyalty (or submission) from the Chinese people. Much has been written about the suppression of civil liberties in China and the silencing of all forms of dissent. Equally disturbing is the adoption of a new national security law for Hong Kong, now being used to round up critics of the mainland government and independent political voices of all sorts. And nothing quite compares to the attempted brutal extinction of Uighur Muslim identity in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in China's far west, involving the incarceration of a million or more people in what amounts to concentration camps.

The suppression of civil liberties and human rights in China will make it particularly difficult for the Biden administration to mend ties with Beijing, as he has long been a strong advocate of civil rights in the U.S., as has Vice President Kamala Harris and many of their close associates. It will be almost impossible for them to negotiate with the Xi regime on any issue without raising the matter of human rights — and that, in turn, is bound to elicit hostility from the Chinese leadership.

Xi has also recentralized economic power in the hands of the state, reversing a trend towards greater economic liberalization under his immediate predecessors. State-owned enterprises continue to receive the lion's share of government loans and other financial benefits, putting private firms at a disadvantage. In addition, Xi has sought to hobble large private firms like the Ant Group, the hugely successful digital-payments enterprise founded by Jack Ma, China's most celebrated private entrepreneur.

While consolidating economic power at home, the Chinese president has scored considerable success in building economic and trade ties with other countries. In November, China and 14 nations, including Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea (but not the United States), signed one of the world's largest free-trade pacts, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP. Largely viewed as a successor to the ill-fated Trans-Pacific Partnership from which President Trump withdrew soon after taking office, the RCEP will facilitate trade among countries representing more of humanity (some 2.2 billion people) than any previous agreement of its kind. And then there's that just-initialed investment agreement between the European Union and China, another mega-deal that excludes the United States, as does China's ambitious trillion-dollar-plus Belt and Road Initiative, meant to link the economies of countries in Eurasia and Africa ever more closely to Beijing.

In other words, it will be that much more difficult for the Biden administration to bring economic leverage to bear on China or enable large American companies to act as partners in pressing for change in that country, as they might have in the past.

President Biden's Options

Biden himself has not said a great deal about what he has in mind for U.S.-China relations, but the little he has suggests a great deal of ambivalence about his top priorities. In his most explicit statement on foreign policy, an article that appeared in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, he spoke about "getting tough" on China when it comes to trade and human rights, while seeking common ground on key issues like North Korea and climate change.

While criticizing the Trump administration for alienating U.S. allies like Canada and the NATO powers, he affirmed that "the United States does need to get tough with China." If China has its way, he continued, "it will keep robbing the United States and American companies of their technology and intellectual property [and] keep using subsidies to give its state-owned enterprises an unfair advantage." The most effective approach to meet that challenge, he wrote, "is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China's abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, [nuclear] nonproliferation, and global health security."

That makes for a good sound bite, but it's an inherently contradictory posture. If there's anything that the Chinese leadership dreads — and will resist with the full weight of its powers — it's the formation of a "united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China's abusive behaviors." That, more or less, is what the Trump administration tried to do without producing any significant benefits for the United States. Biden will have to decide where his main priority lies. Is it in curbing China's abusive behaviors and human-rights violations or in gaining cooperation from the planet's other great power on the most pressing and potentially devastating issues on the global agenda at the moment: climate change before the planet desperately overheats; the nonproliferation of nuclear, hypersonic, and other kinds of advanced weaponry before they spiral out of control; and health security in a pandemic world?

As in so many other areas he will have to deal with after January 20th, to make progress on any issue, Biden will first have to overcome the destabilizing legacies of his predecessor. This will mean, above all, scaling back punitive and self-defeating tariffs and technological barriers, slowing the arms race with China, and abandoning efforts to encircle the mainland with a hostile ring of military alliances. Short of that, progress of any sort is likely to prove next to impossible and the twenty-first-century world could find itself drawn into a Cold War even more intractable than the one that dominated the second half of the last century. If so, god save us all, we could end up facing nuclear hot war or the climate-change version of the same on a failing planet.

Copyright 2021 Michael T. Klare

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is the five-college professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is the author of 15 books, the latest of which is All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change.


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