By Andrew Wong (V)

In 1991, with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, many American foreign policy scholars (most famously Harvard political scientist Francis Fukuyama) believed that the millennia of sociopolitical conflict between nation states that had defined human history were over, and that humanity had come to accept liberal democracy as the final form of government. Fukuyama argued in his book, The End of History and the Last Man, that from 1991 onward, history would be incredibly “boring,” as democracy spread around the world and human conflict would be reduced to little more than squabbles between democracies over trivial matters of trade and economics. Indeed, Fukuyama’s hypothesis held up for nearly a decade. According to Pew Research Center, democracies made up approximately 36% of nations in 1990. By the year 2000, 63% of nation states were democracies, and the number was only increasing as old authoritarian regimes crumbled and democracies came to replace them. Inter-state conflicts were, arguably, nowhere to be found. Indeed, with a new millennium upon us, it appeared that the era of great power conflict was over, and that freedom and liberal democracy would ultimately triumph over authoritarianism in every corner of the globe.

Fast forward two decades. 

If there ever is to be an end of history as defined by Fukuyama, the events of the last twenty years prove it will not occur in the 21st century. The percentage of democracies around the world has shrunk from a high water mark of 64% in 2006 to around 50% today. Liberalism itself has struggled to adapt to the complexities of the times, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, as we see democratic nations struggle between balancing freedom and their citizens’ health while authoritarian states tout their success in combating the pandemic by completely suppressing their citizens’ basic freedoms. 

Along with exposing major flaws within liberalism, COVID-19 has accelerated the start of a power competition between a liberal United States and illiberal Communist China. If there was any hope left for detenté between these two nations prior to the pandemic, COVID-19 has completely killed that off. The symptoms of this new conflict are all here: the end of a free Hong Kong, the U.S. government’s attempts at banning TikTok and other Chinese social media apps, the Chinese government’s encroachment upon the sovereignty of various Indo-Pacific nations, the beginnings of a 5G and AI technology arms race; the list goes on and on.

The recent release of the State Department’s policy planning paper, The Elements of The China Challenge, not only serves as additional confirmation that a new reality of a great power competition is upon us, but it also provides a framework for how America’s foreign policy should be modeled in the years to come if we wish to defend the global liberal status quo against a belligerent Chinese government. To that end, it identifies several objectives the United States must accomplish, namely:

  1. The United States must be prepared to maintain freedom and democracy at home and abroad amidst the challenges of the Twenty-first Century.
  2. The United States must cooperate with its allies in order to preserve the free, open, and rules-based international system that has guaranteed freedom, peace, national sovereignty, and human rights since the end of World War II.
  3. The United States must educate American citizens about the scope of the China challenge, while also training a new generation of American students capable of not only understanding Chinese language and culture, but also the languages and cultures of other friends or adversaries.

The reality of this new global paradigm for us Gen Z-ers is a sobering one. The chapter of world peace created by the triumph of liberalism in 1991, which endured throughout our childhoods, has been shattered by the COVID-19 pandemic and left liberalism bruised and battered. I believe a new chapter of history is beginning as you read this very article, and it is not one of peace, but of great conflict between the United States and Communist China.

Our childhoods are over. I don’t think there will be peace in this world until one side wins in this new Cold War. Rather, I believe that as the pandemic subsides, we now live in the shadow of the US-China conflict, which will come to define the 21st century forever. 

The Founding Fathers coined the phrase “United We Stand, Divided We Fall”, and I believe their words could not be truer today. If we continue down this path of great division, be it Democrat vs Republican, Rich vs Poor, Old vs Young, divisions that have already tested liberalism to its very brink amidst the chaos of the pandemic, our nation will fall as the great empires of antiquity did. I feel that we must, for our sake, for our children’s sake, find a way to mend these divides that continue to rot the very foundations of America each and every day. Only then can we firmly defend liberal democracy and finally condemn authoritarianism to the scrap heap of history where it deservedly belongs.

If government of the people is truly humanity’s destiny, I think that the events that occur in the years to come will either make or break that truth. Let us endeavor to ensure that this belief is correct.