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Overloaded by Chimerica

Last year, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a memorable gaffe. She gave her Russian counterpart a “reset” button, but the word on top of it was missing two crucial letters, thus turning “reset” into “overload.”

This is the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama in a nutshell. When Obama became president, the country was economically and morally bankrupt and needed a reset button of its own. Mired in two endless wars and drowning in debt, it had just suffered a financial debacle that brought down the global economy. It was no longer able to lead, its government was corrupt and incompetent, and by the standards it had itself set in the world it would be judged a rogue nation.

Obama swept into the White House on a wave of “yes we can” hope, but in 18 months he has done nothing to alter the situation. He has been unable to extricate the United States from Iraq and has gotten the country more deeply bogged down in Afghanistan. The economy has not been fixed despite trillions of dollars of new debt. Debacles such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill reveal Washington’s impotence in dealing with national emergencies.

Despite his best efforts, Obama has not united the nation. The left seems bereft of ideas and popular leaders, whereas an ugly populist tide is rising on the right, baying for blood and producing exactly the kind of ignorant and reactionary politicians that the radical right has been notorious for since the early 20th century.

U.S. General Stanley McChrystal’s candid, blunt remarks in a Rolling Stone article suggest that the country’s military is going rogue. The United States is becoming a frightened, angry nation, and such nations often seek solace in a military dictatorship.

So far, Washington has been saved from bankruptcy by the emerging global power, China. To designate this relationship, scholars have coined a new term, Chimerica. As Washington grows weaker, China becomes correspondingly stronger, using U.S. fat to build its industrial muscle. But it remains a symbiotic relationship. China needs the United States to help innovate and develop new technologies, while the United States needs Chinese loans and cheap consumer goods to continue living high on the hog while producing little. †

The rest of the world will see the liberal democratic Pax Americana, which has prevailed since the end of World War II, replaced with a new Pax Chimerica. It is certain to be a far uglier beast. China, with its authoritarian tendencies and 1.2 billion population, is unlikely to respect human life, much less individual rights and freedoms. It passes more death sentences on its own citizens than the rest of the world combined. National self-determination, as seen by the fate of Tibet, is unlikely to be tolerated, either.

China’s foreign policy in Zimbabwe says a lot about Beijing’s values and priorities. China’s state-owned companies have signed sweetheart deals with thugs in President Robert Mugabe’s regime. China uses vacant agricultural land, which was stolen from white farmers, to grow food for its own consumption while ordinary Zimbabweans starve.

Russia will be especially vulnerable. Its state has been privatized by corrupt bureaucrats and siloviki, who cynically package themselves as “Russian patriots” while stealing as much as they can get away with. China is already settling vacant Siberian land and importing Russia’s natural resources on the cheap.

An illiberal world dominated by truculent Washington and rapacious Beijing could spell national disaster for Russia.

Alexei Bayer, native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.

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