Eric Li’s op-ed in the New York Times, timed to coincide with the annual round-up of big wigs (with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey leading the U.S. delegation) in Singapore, the Shangri-La Dialogue, is a useful reminder of the many good things American power has done to lay the foundation for what’s supposed to be the “Pacific Century.” Any time the Times permits even an ironic two cheers for the American Leviathan (the headline is “Hang On, Leviathan, Hang On”), it’s a good day – worth quoting at length:

A[n American] web of military alliances and international laws and institutions were established or enhanced to ensure that conflicts were resolved according to rules, not by force. Similar systems were established to govern global trade and finance.

The United States also assumed the role of judge and enforcer, issuing security guarantees to a large number of nations, patrolling the world’s sea lanes, underwriting the international trading system, punishing those it judged to be rogue players — sometimes even at the expense of breaking the very rules it is supposed to uphold, as in the invasion of Iraq.

The numbers demonstrate the magnitude of this arrangement: The United States has 4.5 percent of the world’s population and generates about a quarter of global G.D.P., yet it accounts for almost half the world’s military expenditures.

A large part of the world has prospered under this arrangement. The relative peace around the globe and the systems that govern international trade and finance have facilitated rapid economic development in many developing nations and the sustenance of welfare states in more developed ones.

Lots of reasons to “hang on,” to be sure. But Li, a venture capitalist from Shanghai and perhaps more importantly, a political scientist at Fudan University, thinks it’s too good to last and, for all the good things it’s created, ultimately self-destructive. America’s leadership is being “sustained at the expense of the American nation” and is likely to “bankrupt the country” if it continues. Li thinks that the “weight of free riders,” including his own country, is crushing Leviathan.

A local version of this drama is currently playing out in the South China Sea.Nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam, which claim to be America’s friends, are taking maximum advantage of the [Obama administration’s Asia] “pivot” to check China’s power for their own benefit.

As always, the line between political science (particularly, the “realist” international relations theory) and political propaganda is a thin one. Indeed, it must be puzzling to the Chinese, as it was to the imperial Japanese (or to the Russians the Germans, for that matter) that a country with so few people and “only” a quarter of the world’s wealth stands athwart their hegemonic ambitions.

But it helps to have lots of people “claiming” to be your friend—the Philippines even has a defense treaty that reflects our friendship. One thing America’s “free riders” provide is another place to fight rather than at home or in our neighborhood; there are many reasons to prefer that, if confrontations are to occur, they happen in the South China Sea than in, say, the Caribbean.

Li and many others think the time when U.S. “national interest coincide with the world’s interest” is coming to an end. But so far, nobody worth having as a companion on a family car trip seems to want to go for a ride with the Chinese; the other occupants of their minivan include Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Robert Mugabe, Hugo Chavez, guys like that. Even the Burmese generals wanted to get out. Another political science term for “free riders” is “bandwagoners,” that is, those who know a good thing when they see it.

Finally, Li sees lots of signs of social decay in America, particularly in our partisan politics. On the other hand, there’s not much that makes us call out tanks into the streets, not even in Wisconsin. With the Chinese economy clearly cooling and with ours still coming out of the deep freeze, the coming years are indeed likely to provide something of a test of which model, American or Chinese, can withstand tough times.

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