In 1793, China’s Qianlong emperor dispatched a letter to King George III of Great Britain in response to the haughty demands of Lord Macartney’s embassy to Beijing. He wrote, “Our dynasty’s majestic virtue has penetrated unto every country under Heaven, and Kings of all nations have offered their costly tribute by land and sea. As your ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.”
Historians have lately questioned the popular interpretation of the emperor’s letter as signaling China’s rejection of modernity and setting it up for later victimization by technologically more advanced Western colonial powers. Nevertheless, one can’t deny the stark contrast between the emperor’s hubris — writing dismissively of “barbarian merchants” and asserting China’s global preeminence — and his country’s 1839 defeat in the first Opium War, kicking off its Century of Humiliation. It illustrates how rapidly a nation standing proudly at the top of the heap — China in the early 1800s was the world’s largest economy — can be brought to its knees.
China’s dramatic reversal of fortunes less than 50 years after the Qianlong emperor’s letter has been on my mind as a growing number of countries have shut their doors to American visitors due to our country’s inability to contain COVID-19. It’s a tragic reminder that it was only a matter of time before we went the way of all great powers that have experienced national decline — initially remote and equivocal, then suddenly undeniable and inexorable — after long imagining themselves invincible to the vicissitudes of history.
Where the emperor of China wrote that his country’s majestic virtue had penetrated unto every country under Heaven, we call ourselves “The Greatest Nation in the World.” Where China possessed all things and had no use for other countries’ manufactures, we boast of our “American exceptionalism” and never want for excuses for why we’re the only industrialized nation without universal healthcare.
But nobody stays on top forever. China learned that when it lost the first Opium War. Britons finally saw the sun set on their empire with the Suez Crisis of 1956. Thirty years later, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster set in motion the collapse of the Soviet Union. Scholars writing the history of the decline and fall of the American Empire will likely view COVID-19 in a similar light: the decisive event exposing and amplifying all the warning signs that we hitherto ignored or deprioritized because we were riding high and could avoid treating self-improvement or renewal with any urgency. Indeed, with 4.4 million Americans infected and 150,000 dead, “greatest” and “exceptional” have taken on a perverse new meaning.
Our country’s sudden humiliation should not be regarded as a deserved comeuppance or greeted with schadenfreude any more than the suffering experienced by countless Chinese as the Qing Dynasty crumbled and colonial powers picked over its carcass. But for ordinary Americans, decline is no longer a distant abstraction.
For example, our passport officially affords us visa-free entry to more than 180 countries, but presently leaves us looking like the uncool people outside the nightclub to whom the bouncer coldly says “not on the list” before unhooking the velvet rope for the VIPs. Our economy, which was long the envy of the world and had seen sustained and steady growth since the Obama administration, now sinks to levels of penury unseen since the Great Depression, even as other developed countries’ economies have started growing again thanks to their leaders’ smarter policies for mitigating the economic consequences of lockdowns.
Now, the deficiencies we accepted for so long are laid bare. We can no longer overlook that even before COVID-19, millions of Americans were a cancer diagnosis away from bankruptcy or left begging from strangers to pay for medical care. We can no longer dismiss that China built the world’s largest high-speed rail network in less than two decades while our already decrepit passenger rail system has to cut back on service. We can no longer disregard that people in Western European countries have long enjoyed a higher quality of life — with better pay, stronger labor protections and benefits, and greater upward mobility — than we do.
Before COVID-19, some variation of “love it or leave it” often greeted anyone with the temerity to suggest we have anything to learn from other countries, as if suggesting so were unpatriotic. After all, if you’re already convinced that you’re the Greatest Nation in the World and exceptional, why look beyond your borders and bother noticing that many other countries offer their citizens a quality of life palpably superior to ours?
That same arrogance is an underappreciated reason we ended up with Donald Trump as president and unable to dig ourselves out of the COVID-19 hole. Since the end of World War II, our peer nations have had their share of bad leaders, but with few exceptions, they have understood the importance of choosing people to helm the ship of state who are competent and put their countries’ best feet forward on the global stage. But we elected as president an individual obviously and manifestly unsuited to public office, a bigoted charlatan whose track record consisted almost entirely of failing upward and who clearly endangered the welfare of the nation and had no interest in uniting it. Racism among the electorate goes a long way to explaining Trump’s victory, but another reason is that being the Greatest Nation in the World, ever exceptional, granted us the luxury to be undiscerning about whom we put in charge.
COVID-19 has shown us we can no longer afford such wanton carelessness and arrogance.
Our arrogance doesn’t leave us incapable of self-reflection or mean that we’re behind the curve in every respect. The massive outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter dwarfs any effort among white Europeans to address the equally horrific racism, discrimination, violence, and poverty that the continent’s Roma people face. And alongside its gleaming bullet trains, China has constructed the biggest concentration camp system since World War II to detain and abuse Uyghurs and other minorities on the basis of ethnicity and religion.
It’s the capacity for national self-reflection demonstrated by BLM that mitigates my pessimism. While the COVID-19 disaster shows that we’ve finally pushed our luck too far, I’m equally hopeful that it could engender a sense of humility that could make us more receptive to the idea that maybe we’re not the best at everything and that the world indeed has a few things to teach us.
But tempered pessimism shouldn’t lead to optimism. What we need now is to instead be realistic and to accept that we have two paths to choose. The more challenging path is to become a better country and provide our people with a better quality of life. The easier path is to descend further into self-satisfied exceptionalist delusion, even while the rest of world passes us by, as our nation continues to fall apart.
Where China’s emperor wrote off Britain’s manufactures, our emperor walks naked through the streets. Let’s not allow ourselves to become the country where the kid who points out his nudity is whisked away by camo-clad secret police in an unmarked minivan.