When it’s all said and done, 2020 may represent a milestone year in which the United States weathered a worldwide pandemic, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, widespread social unrest and upheaval, to say little of near-miss catastrophes like a hot war with Iran in early January.
And the world? The world is watching, said Tom Hanson, a former diplomatic officer and foreign policy expert who hosted a virtual Unlimited Learning seminar Tuesday, July 14. He spoke on the United States’ world standing and its role in the ever-changing landscape of technology, geopolitics and economics, as well as its looming confrontation with the People’s Republic of China.
The Zoom conference was put on by Lakes Area Unlimited Learning and nearly 40 people attended the event. Hanson is a former foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State, currently serves as a diplomat in residence at the Alworth Institute at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. He has opened embassies abroad, served as director of NATO and European Affairs and worked with the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C.
Hanson said people have to realize America’s standing on the world stage is suffering immensely, with foreign powers now treating the U.S. as a “leper colony” because of its failure to stem the spread of COVID-19, while riots and the nation’s handling of economic fallout have led some to question whether the U.S. is capable of governing itself anymore.
At the same time, the United States is contending with the rise of China — a manifold threat to U.S. supremacy, Hanson noted, where the eastern power is asserting itself as the cutting edge of technological growth, economic expansion and geopolitical might.
In particular, Hanson spoke bleakly of a burgeoning alliance between Iran, Russia and China, which represented a possible worst-case scenario for foreign policy experts in decades past.
The United States is starting to push back against China in the form of tariffs, crackdowns on state-owned companies like Byte Dance — which operates TikTok — and Huawei Technologies Co., Hanson noted. This is something of a mixed bag, acknowledged Hanson, who criticized both the United States and China as belligerent powers unwilling to engage nations in a conciliatory fashion, while alienating potential allies in the process. At the same time, he noted a stronger, more forceful stance on China has been needed for years, if not decades.
This conflict between the intertwined economic powers is starting to present the potential for a significant rift in geopolitics — or, namely, the establishment of new blocks between the West and China, while the world evolves from a globalist economy into a more regionalist model of commerce.
“It’s not just happening in the U.S., the Europeans are pushing back now,” Hanson said. “By coordinating with our allies we ought to be able to put effective pressure on China. But, if the decoupling goes too far, you could have the world have a decentralized break down into two segments based on technology — a kind of a China-dominated segment using a certain set of technologies, and then, in another sector, basically the West.”
Aspects of this decoupling may be inevitable, with China’s surging lead in technological fields like quantum computers, 5G coverage telecommunications, energy production, self-writing artificial intelligence, and social media giants like TikTok, which has swept the globe. These technologies have been making incursions into North American, European and Indian markets for some time. Now, Hanson said, countries in all three spheres are taking steps to outlaw these technologies, as ties to China’s government for companies like Byte Dance and Huawei may represent too much of a national security threat.
In turn, the United States — with its currently adversarial, strong-armed approach to diplomacy — may be ill-equipped to catch up to China’s economic and technological might, Hanson said. China’s centralized model, in which the state exerts considerable control at the market, corporate and personal level, means it can quickly mobilize any sector to do its bidding. With a corporate climate of scant oversight, little regulation, and political-economic issues hampered by greed, Hanson said, the United States may have to implement more New Deal-style legislation, almost as a wartime state, to steer the U.S. in a direction where it can contend with the Asian power.
Still, for all the talks of pushing back and contending with China, Hanson continually emphasized dialogue and common understanding. Hopefully, China will come to understand in time it can’t have every negotiation on its own terms, he added, but the U.S. has much to learn in terms of building bridges when it comes to the challenges of 2020.
“Today, we have to realize that threats come less from each other than it does from shared global threats. We're all in a predicament,” Hanson said. “Facing climate change, a technology explosion — all these things. I think, to an extent, we can define these threats not as nation to nation, but as a (world) entity facing higher threats to its survival, that can be the basis for cooperation.”