As China rises, the pre-eminent U.S. may raise its game

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
July 10, 2008
SHANGHAI: For the last three years, this space has been intended as a column about China, or at the limit, one that looks at East Asia and tries to relate developments here to the rest of the world.
I begin this week’s installment with a partial disclaimer. With what follows, it may appear that I am setting off perilously into uncharted territory: the world of sports. For me, though, the most compelling event of last week took place far from the world of politics.
To be exact, it took place on Center Court at Wimbledon, and continued – in my time zone – so far into dawn Monday that I’ve experienced jet lag for the first time without flying.
That’s O.K., though, because it was worth it. I’ve been playing and watching and dreaming about tennis since I was about 10 years old, and I gladly join my voice to the many others who have described the Federer-Nadal pitched battle as the greatest match they have ever seen.
Note to the upcoming Beijing Olympics: sport at its best obliterates divisions between peoples, such as ostentatious flag waving and exaggerated national sentiment. All we cared about during the glorious four-plus hours of drama was the manifest excellence of the contest.
One could go on and on reeling off superlatives, about aces struck in extremis and the mind-bending geometry of winners hit on the run by both men under pressure, but that’s best left to the sports writers. What interests me here is something slightly different.
Roger Federer has been spoken of for some time now as tennis’s incipient GOAT – greatest of all time – and for just as long, this has struck me as a bit premature. While racking up his 12 Grand Slam victories, just two short of the record set by Pete Sampras, Federer has in my view lacked something more important than impressive statistics: an opponent cut to his own measure.
That was true, at least, until his loss Sunday to Rafael Nadal in the longest final ever played on Wimbledon’s Center Court.
One doesn’t wish to underestimate the feeling of devastation that comes with losing, especially after having had a stranglehold on that title for so many years, but Federer’s comments in defeat were ever so lacking in graciousness. He seemed unable to find anything redeemable in the experience. Indeed, it sounded for a cringe-worthy moment as if there was nothing worthwhile in life but being No. 1.
Contrast that with Nadal’s post-match remarks, in which he told how he had coped with letting the third and fourth sets slip away from him. “Well, is the final of Wimbledon, so I have to continuing fighting all the time with positive attitude,” he said. “I am playing well, so why I have to go down, no? I won two sets 6-4, 6-4. I lost two tiebreaks. A little bit unlucky.” He continues: “So just tried continuing focusing on myself, playing well. If he has a break and beat me the final, so just congratulate him and go at home, no? That’s it.”
It’s hard not to admire this sentiment, and it brings me to the reason for my topical detour: great sporting events have a lot to teach us about life, and this goes beyond us as individuals, and extends to the realm of nations.
Federer would have done better to have simply thanked Nadal for helping produce something so sublimely transcendent, and that’s not merely public relations strategy. Only by being bested by such a worthy opponent can the long-reigning No. 1 rise in our estimation and attain new heights.
As extraordinary as his talents are, it had all looked too easy for him up to this point. He may no longer win great titles at the incredible rate of recent years, but with a real peer for once, we will probably think more of him when he does. Nadal has a well-proven ability to defeat Federer. Let’s also hope that both men can continue to coax out the very best in each other.
And now, in the language of television, we return to our regular programming. For many years running, the United States has been in a position somewhat analogous to Federer’s: an unchallenged leader ranked leagues ahead of the nearest rival.
Not to draw the Federer comparison too far, but might it not also be said that unrivaled supremacy has induced signs of entitlement and complacency? The realm of global affairs offers no measuring sticks like a Wimbledon final, but experts report China’s economy will surpass the American economy in size by 2035, and there is a growing sense that the United States has found its Nadal.
The question this longtime pre-eminent nation now faces was put well by Fareed Zakaria in his recent book, “The Post-American World”: Can America “thrive in a world it cannot dominate?”
Learning that pre-eminence is guaranteed to no one can be a bitter pill, or an opportunity. Nations are defined by how they respond to new challenges.
China’s rise is mostly an immense good news story for the improving fortunes of its giant population, and therefore for humanity. One must hedge, only because the environmental consequences are far from being worked out, and because the purposes to which China’s newfound national power will be put are still unclear.
China has long measured itself against the United States and has improved itself in many ways as a consequence. Increasingly now, as it gains momentum, the shoe will be put on the other foot. For both countries, the challenge will be resisting the winning-is-everything mentality and learning to bring out the best in each other by bringing out the best in themselves.
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