Coined by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 at the height of the Cold War, “The Evil Empire” was one of the most prominent rhetorical devices of international affairs during the latter half of the twentieth century. That one term dictated the entire narrative that not just the Reagan Administration, but practically every administration following the Second World War would push in regards to the Soviet Union.
It was a simple narrative. A story of two rivals: one good and one bad, one preaching capitalism and another preaching communism, one a shining beacon of democracy and another a bastion of authoritarianism. There is no doubt that a parallel narrative was pushed within the borders of the Eastern Bloc towards the United States. Nonetheless, today Reagan’s words and the US’s perspective ring stronger. After all, history is written by the victors, and the USSR would collapse in 1991 just months after its once stoic wall in Berlin met the same fate.
The fall of the Soviet Union was the end to a great geopolitical rivalry that left the US unrivaled in holding an unprecedented complete and total global hegemony. Once the political and cultural reach of the United States penetrated the likes of Poland and Russia, the absolute hegemony of the US could no longer be questioned. Initially just the leader of the free world, as American cinema tends to constantly remind us, the US had emerged the leader of the entire globe.
Nearly thirty years following the Soviet Union’s collapse, however, it appears the United States’ political hegemony is once again being challenged – only this time the challenger resides farther east.
In Mandarin Chinese, the nation of China is termed中国 (zhōngguó), which literally translates in English to “the middle kingdom.” Dated back to roughly 1000 BCE, the word references the Chinese people’s initial unfamiliarity of advanced civilizations to the west and their belief that their empire occupied the middle of the earth and was surrounded by barbaric tribes. This historic nomenclature could no better frame the emerging geopolitical heavyweight that is China.
Thirty years after the USSR’s dissolution, the People’s Republic of China’s GDP has risen over thirtyfold as its industry has expanded at exponential rates. Its military dominance has stretched beyond its immediate borders and expanded its sphere of influence to the Middle East, Africa, and South America. Moreover, as Chinese cultural exports influence the minds of individuals around the world the country’s soft power is at a high.
The severity and validity of China’s challenge became clear to most foreign policy experts over the past decade as China pushed its geopolitical weight in the South China Sea and as President Xi unveiled his ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. However, the potential of a future with Chinese hegemony replacing that of the US truly became apparent during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic within US borders. China freshly reeling from its initial wave of the virus, was quick to donate medical supplies and equipment to vulnerable nations around the world, with one notable inclusion: the United States.
The United States, being the proud global leader it is, often showcases its humanitarian aid efforts to developing nations. Images of American humanitarian missions landing in Africa and South America are paraded across marketing materials, but the moment the Chinese government publicly offered medical support to the United States, a new power dynamic was created. The same narrative applied for the generous American actions towards developing regions could now be applied for the generous Chinese actions towards a suffering and vulnerable American nation.
That powerful rhetorical narrative of a global leader in China was only strengthened by following events in the continuing COVID-19 chronicle. As President Trump criticized and pulled funding from the World Health Organization, the Chinese government increased its support of the global institution. The United States once drew its hegemony and dominance from its leadership in international institutions. Nearly every international body from the United Nations to the International Monetary Fund is headquartered in the US, yet as America retreated from the global stage, China immediately took advantage and filled the vacuum.
As China establishes its presence as an equal to the US on the global stage, domestic politics in the US continue to show harrowing parallels to the domestic politics of the Cold War, further validating China’s claim to power. Although the Cold War was an uncertain time of geopolitical tension, near unprecedented levels of unity emerged within the US as members of both political parties and citizens of all backgrounds rallied against the common Soviet foe. Today, that same unity against a common enemy is being seen with China. From waging a trade war to terming COVID-19 the “China Virus,” President Trump has no doubt showed his animosity towards a Chinese foe. Joe Biden along with the vast majority of the Democratic Party have frankly been no different, with Biden referencing President Xi as a thug during the final presidential debate.
As tensions reach all-time highs with no signs of stopping, there is no doubt that Americans will soon see an emerging national narrative detailing a new evil empire in the guise of China. However, the question is which power will prevail in the fight for global hegemony, and which victor will get to label who history remembers as the true evil empire.