ELLSWORTH — Is the American century over? How did it begin? Can the United States share power with an ascendant China?
Those were the main topics of discussion at an annual lecture by Woodrow Wilson Center senior scholar and Ellsworth American columnist Marvin Ott on Tuesday afternoon.
Ott addressed a packed auditorium at the Moore Community Center on the topic of “Requiem for The American Century?” The event was held at the Hancock County Democratic Committee’s monthly meeting and cosponsored by The American.
Ott, who also is a professor at Johns Hopkins University, began the talk by detailing the history of America’s rise as an actor on the international stage. He pegged the beginning of the American century at Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War.
“Roosevelt was avowedly determined that the U.S. would become an actor on the international stage,” said Ott, who called him “arguably the finest pure strategist that we’ve ever had in the Oval Office.”
Ott took the audience on a brief tour of U.S. history, through the two world wars up to the present, as he discussed the emergence of the American-led “liberal world order.” That order, he said, included the formation of institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which kept the United States “linked to and embedded in Europe” following World War II.
Such international institutions, Ott noted, are ones that “everybody can participate in voluntarily.” Their influence prevents countries from forming empires, he said, and gives the world a degree of political stability aimed at preventing conflict.
“It has worked, I would argue, remarkably well,” Ott said.
But the balance of power has shifted in recent decades, Ott said, in part due to a more antagonistic relationship being cultivated by Russian President Vladimir Putin and because of the rise of China.
“Other parts of the world have lots of capable people,” Ott noted. “There’s a natural process of a diffusion of power and capability, particularly economic capability. The unipolar moment is not going to last.”
“The Chinese are emerging rapidly as a genuine peer competitor,” Ott said. Their military and technological powers are “extraordinarily impressive,” and built on “real foundations.”
There is an “extremely impressive cultural patrimony if you’re born into a Chinese family,” Ott said. “It values discipline, hard work, education. They can defer gratification for generations if necessary. It builds institutions, it can be highly organized.”
The United States could potentially share the world stage with a dominant power such as China, said Ott, “without real difficulty. The problem comes when China effectively wants to rewrite the rules of the international order.”
A prime example of that, said Ott, lies in China’s territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
“That is no different to what Hitler did in Czechoslovakia,” said Ott, referring to China’s moves to take control of the waters, which include natural resource reserves, fishing stocks and vital international shipping lanes.
“I don’t think we can accommodate an aggression that becomes territorial in the vital waters of the Pacific.”
While military intervention on the part of the United States isn’t inevitable, Ott said,
“I think China is putting the U.S. in a position where we will be forced to respond, probably militarily.”
But, Ott argued, “Just simply the emergence of China as a capable competitor is not enough to imagine the breaking of the American century or the global order established by the United States. There’s only one way. The United States will have to self-destruct.”
Ott said President Trump’s administration has alienated many of the country’s strongest allies and disrupted long-standing diplomatic ties and international agreements.
The president’s nationalist rhetoric has galvanized many Americans.
“Trump has exposed something that’s always been there, there’s a lot of it there, but it’s never been given voice before, it’s never been given power before,” Ott said.
He said the reputation of the U.S. as a positive force on the international stage has been tarnished.
“This is how the American century ends,” Ott said. “The American liberal order starts to unravel as other states simply lose confidence in the United States as a leader.”