The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump is disarming America in the face-off against China

President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Buenos Aires on Dec. 1. Trump called the two leaders' relationship "very special." (Video: The Washington Post)
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As the United States and China face off, President Trump seems determined to disarm his own country — to undermine our greatest strengths.

I’m not talking about tariffs or trade rules, soybeans or steel, or whatever else Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping jawboned about Saturday in Buenos Aires as they negotiated a 90-day truce in their commercial disputes.

I’m talking about something more fundamental. Long after the truce expires, China will be promoting its authoritarian model throughout the world as a superior alternative to Western democracy.

In that competition, China boasts that one-party rule enables long-term planning and follow-through. It can complete huge infrastructure projects without pesky citizen opposition or time-sucking environmental studies. It can offer loans to small-country dictators without bothering about corruption, transparency or human rights. Its huge internal market, shielded from outside competitors, nurtures homegrown companies. Its vast storehouse of data on every citizen, collected without permission or respect for privacy, gives its companies an invaluable resource.

I’m skeptical about some of those claims. Central planning has not generally been associated with efficiency, and one-man rule can enable massive mistakes as well as massive achievements.

But China’s record of development over the past four decades is astonishing — in fact, unmatched in human history in the sheer number of people raised out of poverty. So let’s assume it can continue; let’s stipulate the strengths they claim. How does the United States counter?

One comparative advantage, historically, has been the depth and quality of America’s alliances. A visiting American once chided a Chinese leader for his country’s liaisons with unsavory regimes. “What do you expect?” the leader replied. “You’ve taken all the good ones.”

If Trump had set out to squander that advantage, it’s hard to see how he could have done better. His first move was to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have united the strongest economies on both sides of the Pacific Ocean in a covenant dedicated to the rule of law, fair treatment of workers and open investment.

Since then, he has communicated to Japan, South Korea and others an entirely transactional view of the world: Pay more or be abandoned. Nations desperate for a bulwark against Chinese bullying no longer know where to turn.

Another historical advantage has been America’s ability to attract and integrate talent from abroad. Countless brilliant students have chosen to come to our universities; many of them go on to found successful companies, make groundbreaking discoveries and contribute in other ways.

Trump has done everything he can to squander that advantage, too, from his first-week travel ban that posted a virtual Do Not Enter sign on our borders, to his continual demeaning of foreigners and immigrants, to his refusal to engage seriously in reform of immigration laws. The United States remains a magnet, but it is being tarnished.

Third, strange though this may sound right now, we benefit from the strength of our government and those who serve in it, both civilian and military. They have shown that a democracy can function competently with an incorruptible tax service, a highly knowledgeable diplomatic corps and more.

Trump has, with Congress, funded the military generously and put it in good hands. But he has shown contempt for the civil service and its leadership, and morale in many agencies is drooping. Almost halfway through his term, barely half of key government positions are filled — 378 of 704, according to a tracker maintained jointly by The Post and the Partnership for Public Service. Trump disparages the “deep state” and makes nominations — his personal physician to run the 377,000-employee Department of Veterans Affairs, for example — that mock the mission.

That contempt underlies Trump’s most damaging sabotage of what should be America’s greatest comparative strength: its fidelity to democratic values.

Even if China continued to boast shinier airports and faster trains than the United States , many people in the world would prefer to live where they can speak freely, choose their leaders, worship whatever god they prefer. China, rounding up Muslims in concentration camps and torturing lawyers who defend the rule of law, presents an easy foil.

Yet Trump cedes this advantage, too. He embraces dictators who murder imagined enemies, smears the press as unpatriotic and deceitful, spits on the independent judiciary, threatens to wield the law against personal enemies and conflates his private interests with the public welfare. Rather than offering a contrast to the authoritarians of the world, he seems to model himself on them.

Alliances, diversity, governance, liberty: These should be America’s aces. Until we again have a leader who values them, we will be ceding to China the upper hand.

Read more from Fred Hiatt’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

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