As US-China tensions fuel our age of anxiety, we must choose a better future
- Experts and US policymakers subscribing to a zero-sum view of international relations normalise and even goad conflict
- The only solution is to break this cycle of violence and normalise peace and cooperation instead
In 1948, as the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union was heating up, W.H. Auden’s long poem, The Age of Anxiety, captured both the zeitgeist and a Pulitzer Prize. Its title became a trope to describe the ruins of modernity, and moved Leonard Bernstein especially.
A year later his Symphony No 2, also titled The Age of Anxiety, fixated on the poem’s central theme: the loss of faith and the realisation that only faith remains.
This dialectic was not entirely new. Søren Kierkegaard just over a century earlier had described something similar in Fear and Trembling, reflecting on the Biblical story of God ordering Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and how Abraham resolved the anxiety this command produced by making a “leap of faith”, by preparing to do as he was told.
Although God rescinded the command at the last moment, the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wondered whether either were actually spared. Was such a leap of faith not already an act of violence against reason, and was it not also an act of violence against Isaac especially, having felt his father’s blade against his throat, a father commanded by voices Isaac could not hear?
Today, as US and Chinese officials reposition themselves amid growing differences, experts signal that a new cold war is already upon us, and that war is a growing possibility. Clearly, there is already a cold war of words in the West, spinning the hyperbolic.
Mearsheimer writes that this saw the US getting drawn into self-destructive misadventures like unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and, until relatively recently, facilitating China’s rise instead of slowing it.
On the one hand, Mearsheimer’s criticism of US foreign policy carries water. Both Democrats and Republicans have failed to formulate strategies capable of ensuring American global hegemony.
However, he doesn’t acknowledge that even if they had done so, maintaining hegemony was likely to be quixotic and, worse, undesirable, despite his insistence that international relations are always a zero-sum game, especially when great powers are involved.
The Biden administration won’t hand Xi any “wins” like reversing the trade war or de-escalating tensions in the South China Sea or Taiwan until China’s leadership question is settled.
Kierkegaard also lived in an age of anxiety, which led throughout Europe to the Revolutions of 1848. But in Denmark, Kierkegaard’s home, the struggle between the haves and have-nots was resolved through compromise, which saw the beginning of Scandinavian socialism and the limits of absolute political authority – both of which Kierkegaard feared would erode faith and social convention, but instead led to some of the most socially just and happiest societies in human history.
Instead, they normalise and even goad conflict. This is not realism – it’s a perverse metaphysics, a leap of faith to account for the loss of the same. The only solution to our anxiety is to break this cycle of violence, repudiate zero-sum approaches, and normalise peace and cooperation.
Answering Beijing positively in this regard is not appeasement or contrary to rational thinking. And neither is choosing faith in a better future.
Josef Gregory Mahoney is professor of politics at East China Normal University in Shanghai