Clash of titans

US and China, two leadership styles. The US is male, hierarchic and competitive. China is female and spins a web that gradually encircles and embraces

The meeting in Beijing between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. In the face-off between the two countries the Chinese seem to be balking at the prospect of a 6% growth rate, unthinkable a short while ago, while the Americans are worried by recent volatility on Wall Street. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/Contrast
The meeting in Beijing between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. In the face-off between the two countries the Chinese seem to be balking at the prospect of a 6% growth rate, unthinkable a short while ago, while the Americans are worried by recent volatility on Wall Street. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/Contrast

The United States and China seem to have found similar objectives to pursue within the context of their two economies which, though seemingly booming when compared to those of the rest of the industrialised world, are both starting to show signs of wear and could be on the verge of a collapse.

Thus both Xi Jinping, alarmed by a drop in growth rate down to around 6%, an inconceivable predicament just a few months ago, and Trump, shaken by the recent turbulence on Wall Street, are currently trying to show that they are willing to try and solve the tariff dispute with a negotiated solution that might sit well with both sides.

Any truce in the economic sector will only affect one of the many areas in which the American title holder is engaged in a pitched battle against its Chinese challenger with the leadership of the world at stake.

In the political as well as in the military, technological, diplomatic and cultural arenas – in some of which it has to be said the US' superiority is still overwhelming – the confrontation between the two giants is therefore very open, and is giving rise to a clash with no holds barred that alternates between moments of quiescence and others when the tensions ride high, often very abruptly.

What makes things even more complex is that the clash between the two contenders doesn't take place on a single plane but in reality takes place on three different levels.

The first level is the clash between the two men. Trump and Xi Jinping, both of whom have to prove to their respective public opinions, whether of the nation or of the party that has backed their rise, that they are essential and unique and therefore unreplaceable. They also have to show they're prepared to reach decisions to safeguard their state's vital interests on the complex international stage whenever the circumstances call for them to do so.

In this particular challenge, at least seen from outside, Trump would seem to be the more vulnerable of the two, owing to the democratic nature of his electorate and the fact that despite his very bombastic proclamations the US is a declining power. Something he too was aware of when he coined the motto Make America great again, where that "again" was a clear admission that the country had seen better times.

One should also take into consideration the fact that  dictators are often clay footed giants and how in a dictatorship that hinges more around the party than any one personality, as is the case with China, even Xi Jinping's survival ultimately depends on results. A consideration that bolsters the conviction that the confrontation between the two protagonists is very finely poised.

The second level of the confrontation is the one where the two giants come face to face, meaning between the two countries of China and the United States.

These are two adversaries in which one, China, is fuelled by the dream of a widespread and high quality of life. A dream which Beijing cannot achieve without the help of the West but which has to come to terms with the lasting resentment for the hundred and more years of painful humiliations the Middle Empire was forced to withstand at the hands of the West in times past. And how constraining and lasting Chinese ill feeling can be is apparent every day in the very tense relationship between Tokyo and Beijing.

The USA on the other hand, is living a particularly schizophrenic period of its history. On the one hand it would like to think of nothing but itself, having been overrun by one of the recurring waves of isolationism that have had such a strong bearing at many crucial junctures of America's existence. On the other, it is well aware that the United States' supremacy depends primarily on the fact that everyone else is prepared to acknowledge and accept it. They are therefore always prone to try and impose their own will, even in relations with allies and friends and in the context of disputes in which it would be much easier to find points of agreement if a more conciliatory tone were adopted.

The clash between two highly strung rivals therefore risks being and remaining a very dangerous one, constantly on the brink of flare ups that can be both sudden and devastating.

Luckily, and this is the third level one needs to take into consideration, the ways in which the two countries are accustomed to exert their leadership are completely different, and this up to now seems to have helped to slow things down.

The US prefers a vertical, hierarchic form of leadership, which can easily be described as a pyramid with 'Mister President' at its apex. With this kind of leadership all constraints of power depend on the system of checks and balances foreseen by the Constitution. This means that in times of great tension, when Mr. President is also identified as the “Commander in Chief”, even constitutional values can be momentarily and partially put on hold without any great public outcry, as was the case after the Twin Towers attacks.

China on the other hand has always worked towards a leadership based on a network, with the intent of creating a very diversified system which nevertheless means that whoever holds centre stage controls the reins of power. In such a system whoever is in power is forced to operate by convincing people rather than resorting to the use of force. The more peripheral elements will only be called upon or harnessed whenever it is deemed necessary or expedient. This is a process that certainly doesn't rule out the use of violence but always views it as a tool to fall back on as a last resort.

It's hardly surprising then that China refers to itself as the “Middle Kingdom”, the “Essential Country”, or "Fulcrum of all things". And it's no fluke that the extraordinary One Belt, One Road initiative, a very sophisticated political project launched by Beijing very recently, fits in perfectly with the kind of embracing leadership that now for the first time China is trying to expand on a more global level.

So the juxtaposition between the two countries will also and perhaps mainly involve a confrontation between two leadership styles in which the US, still rooted to its pyramidal cliché which is no longer suited to a globalised, computerized and robotic world which is increasingly veering towards a networking leadership, would probably be at a slight disadvantage. A disadvantage it may be able to counterbalance thanks to its superior military, technological and cultural development.

At least in theory then, China the challenger could have the better odds, especially in the medium to long term, compared to the title holders, though it is hoped that this does not prompt the US to react in the manner Thucydides described so well in his account of the rivalry between Athens and Sparta. 

What is also particularly remarkable is how the American leadership would seem to bear the kind of traits usually associated to male, hierarchic, pyramidal and competitive forms of leadership. While the Chinese leadership is more apt at persuasion and involvement, with its focus on being the centre of a network rather than a pinnacle. In other words more akin to a form of female leadership.

A line of reasoning which could lead us to draw two conclusions. The first is that a feminine leadership, which is more suited than the male version to deal with these new situations, is likely to prevail in the long run. And the shift involved would be truly momentous!

The second is that China is female, with all that this might entail.

But these last two statements should perhaps be completed with a conditional question mark, with further discussions on the matter to be tabled at some later date!

@romanoprodi - @sangiuit

This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.

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