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Traditional Allies And Trading Partners

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In 1793, the ruler of the Earth’s richest and most powerful nation met with a delegation from what was then part of the developing world seeking to establish trade relations. Saying “There is nothing we lack”, the Emperor of China dismissed the British ambassador out of hand. It was a fateful moment – indeed, a disastrous one. Supremely complacent, China spurned as irrelevant the steam-powered industrial revolution then emerging in Europe, thus ensuring its economic and political dominance by Europe for the next century-and-a-half.

Not an impulsive decision, it was the logical outcome of centuries of economic and political hegemony that, in one historian’s words, permitted the Chinese to develop a kind of “immunity to world experience.” Chinese rulers believed the only thing the rest of the world had to offer was awe and deference. And while this had long been true, by the late 18th century it was true no longer.

But it’s hard to recognize change while it’s underway; and harder still to understand its significance even if you do recognize it.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that the Emperor and his advisors made what we now know was a colossal error. They simply assumed that what had always been true was still the case and would continue to be so – a Chinese version of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But this time they got it wrong. The accumulated complacency of centuries prevented them from understanding that their time of domination was drawing to a close: threatened by rapidly developing technology and globalization that would ultimately overwhelm the Celestial Kingdom.

For most of us, it’s a jolt to be told that, in 1800, China was the most powerful nation on the planet. It just goes to show that the world was once a very different place. And it suggests that the world can be a very different place again. Like all historical analogies, this one’s imperfect. But like many historical analogies it’s close enough to give us pause.

In a time of “America First” - a time when our president pulls out of international economic agreements and attacks our traditional allies and trading partners - it’s not hard to recall that long-ago Emperor proclaiming, “There is nothing we lack.”