“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” – UCLA Bruins football coach Henry Russell (“Red”) Sanders (then quoted by Vince Lombardi)
“There is no such thing as second place. Either you’re first or you’re nothing.” – Gabe Paul
“Second place is just the first place loser.” – Dale Earnhardt
It’s no coincidence that all of the above quotations are sports related. Americans can’t ever depart from the mindset that winning is the only thing that matters, and sports are a pre-eminent part of our culture. There’s no room for those who try and fail to achieve first place, and unfortunately, that attitude pervades not only our arenas, but every part of our lives, every institution, most especially the Pentagon. Wars are the ultimate competition, and for all too many leaders, it’s all about not losing, or even being seen to lose (see the fall of Saigon). That’s why wars have indeed become endless — we can’t “win,” when enemies strike and then disappear into the populace instead of standing and fighting, but we won’t simply withdraw our forces and call it a day. Then we’d be losers.
The same is true regarding our economy. The United States must be the premier creator, producer, and exporter, first among all other countries, or what are we? “Second” is not an option. When President Biden gave his first press conference on March 25th, he declared, “China has an overall goal—and I don’t criticize them for the goal—but they have the overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world,” Biden said. “That’s not going to happen on my watch because the United States is going to continue to grow and expand.” In other words, we as a nation can’t allow any other country to pull ahead of us economically, let alone militarily. Why is that? Certainly, it has to do with the fact that capitalism is our be-all and end-all. As Rob Urie says in a recent Counterpunch article, “The American state has spent the last five decades in league with oligarchs to support their interests. In contrast, the Chinese state— motivated in part by a desire for political stability, has concentrated on raising living standards for the Chinese people.” We have to be first, capitalism has to be acknowledged as the best economic structure, our 1% has to have more than the other 99%, while the Chinese government is seeking stability and long-term growth, including better living standards for the people. Granted, this parsing of a rationale is a blatant simplification, but whether or not China has ulterior motives for lifting up many of its people, the effect on their lives is an overall positive one.
Conversely, there is the situation in Xinjiang province. The media have been occupied recently with the plight of the Uighurs, who, according to many reports, are being held in concentration camps, with children wrested from parents, forced “re-education,” rape and other violence. Meanwhile, the United States’ conduct at its southern border against those seeking asylum includes acts perhaps different in degree, but not in kind, from those occurring in China. Meaning that this country’s stance is ill-advised on two counts: first, although the abuses in China absolutely cannot be condoned, the U.S. has no moral high ground from which to criticize; second, saber-rattling, along with voicing the determination not to be bested, is not the way to influence China’s behavior. Rather, martial posturing and insisting on winning will surely cement China’s assertions of its own sovereignty.
Alarmingly, however, Bret Stephens at the NY Times is already asking how we can win the second cold war. There’s that “winning” obsession again. If the paper of record is turning up the heat on hostility with China two-and-a-half months into a new Presidential term, where are we headed? If one speculates that themes on TV shows reflect the general thinking in this country, we’re in trouble. I don’t watch much television, but in the last couple weeks, I’ve seen no fewer than three shows wherein the Chinese or the Russians, or both, were attempting to spy on the U.S. or steal technology or subvert the government or dump drugs into our society or spread propaganda, or a combination of the above.
And truth reflects fiction: journalist Simone Chun reported last week that, “The Pentagon recently asked Congress for an astronomical $27 billion budget increase to support a massive military buildup in Asia as part of its new Indo-Pacific plan, which calls for a substantially more aggressive military stance against China.” Further, in a recent video seminar hosted by author and filmmaker Max Blumenthal, a panel posited that the continual emphasis on China’s transgressions is actually a precept for that military ramp up.
Likewise, the drums have been beating loudly for five years about the threat that Russia poses. We’ve been told over and over that Vladimir Putin has overseen attempts to rig our elections, has worked to discredit American politicians (e.g., Hillary Clinton), and essentially wants to bury us. Despicable as most of the former guy’s behavior was, some of the worst venom from the media was reserved for his apparent alliance with Putin. This, even though the days are long gone when Russia could compete with the U.S. militarily. In fact, a report issued last May shows that in the previous fiscal year, the Pentagon outspent the Russian military by more than 35 to 1 (and even with China’s increasing military budget, the U.S. spent more than double Beijing’s amount).
The point here is that the United States is out to achieve supreme dominance in the world, on every front, however we can do so. Whether it’s naval exercises off Taiwan, sanctions against Russia, tariffs on Chinese goods, arms sales to the Ukraine, or intimidating statements directed at our supposed allies who make deals with China or Russia, the U.S. government wants to be the sole superpower again. This country isn’t facing any imminent threats from any other nation, but our leaders want to be sure that the rest of the world is subjugated. The people in charge want to be the only bullies on the block.
We saw what the first Cold War got us: an obscenely bloated military; trillions spent on weapons of mass destruction; obsolete ship, plane, and tank carcasses piled up. Did this massive effort and expenditure deter the U.S.S.R. at the time? Possibly. But as there are still enough nukes on the planet to destroy life as we know it many times over, we didn’t really “win” anything.
What if, instead of trying to prove that the U.S. is the big gun of the world, our leaders turned to another strategy, one that would actually benefit the planet? The argument has been made that the Cold War spun up because the Soviets wanted to protect themselves from U.S. hegemony. A debatable hypothesis, but not entirely implausible. What do we have to lose by finding out? In fact, where’s the downside in sitting down with the Russians and the Chinese to try to find a way to peacefully coexist and unite in solving the worst problems of the world? If the three nations worked together to address climate change, hunger, water shortages, and deficient infrastructure, huge gains could be accomplished. It seems ridiculous for our country to insist on winning and being number one just for the sake of bragging rights. How much better for the planet to drop the braggadocio and work with all nations cooperatively, leading by example and addressing human rights issues as we go along. Dictating outcomes has gotten us nowhere. Perhaps a genuine desire to cooperate would move everyone forward, a clear win for all.
Addendum: Shane Harris just authored an article in the Washington Post, outlining the National Intelligence Council’s predictions for the next 20 years. The Council lists five world scenarios it sees as possibilities. The “rosiest,” according to WaPo, is that a prosperous U.S. leads the entire world and, “Russia and China are largely left in the dust.” The trends spiral down from there, with the worst-case scenario being a world totally disrupted by climate change and other crises, with splintered societies and ineffective governments. In other words, this section of the National Intelligence director’s office is not even admitting a glimmer of hope that the most powerful nations can work together. Bleak, indeed, and a sign of the U.S. mindset at the top.