TOM PLATE WRITES — The agony in Afghanistan makes for many sorrows. Beyond the scenes of chaos at Kabul airport is the unseen anguish of all those US veterans back home who are dealing with various psychological and physical traumas and are now especially unproud of their country; of families who have unnecessarily lost sons and daughters; and of young Americans who might reasonably fear a future of more wars ending in anger.

The tragic lesson of Vietnam – yes, America should have learned; the similar lesson of Afghanistan – yes, America should have learned; but we did not.

I can particularly relate to college graduates studying in the US and abroad at public policy schools and international politics programmes; the idealism in their hearts is curbed by the realism in their heads.

As future diplomats and internationalists, will they also wind up ferrying refugees out of airports in the shadow of death? Surely this is not remotely what anyone of good will meant in describing the United States, until very recently, as the “indispensable nation”.

In today’s world, there is no such thing as an indispensable nation, and now that we can forever retire that moniker on the altar of Kabul airport, let me add that my Chinese friends who might dare to imagine their nation as next up for the honour are doing their country a great disservice.

Hubris on that scale would be the beginning of a downfall. The East can always learn from the West, which has made enough errors of judgment and misplaced enough priorities as to offer the world a manual in what not to do.

I hope China learns more from the US than the West has from the East; perhaps it will learn as much from studying US arrogance as from stealing US technology. In my calculation, theft for a cause such as reducing the chances of war is no crime.

In the US, instead of trying to learn from the ancient civilisation of China, too many still show it scant respect, giving it just more lectures – whether on how best to organise the Chinese economy, handle internal dissent or treat Taiwan.

Much to China’s annoyance, the US goes around the world lecturing everyone within hearing distance. With particular ire, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has been hammering away at this point and of course this is, on the whole, a fair point to drive into the wall of American smugness. Many Asians agree with him.

What’s worrying, though, is whether Beijing will be able to restrain itself from embodying the very same conceit as the putative global lecturer-in-chief. One can only hope that China’s embedded Confucian values will prevail over its recently acquired Communist certitude.

After all, while it is doing many things right, it cannot afford to make many big mistakes. You cannot remain – or become – a successful self-correcting society unless you know where you went wrong and whether you might get it wrong again. A nation talking mainly to itself will have a hard time getting out of its head.

The move towards intellectual isolationism, as would seem the case with the Xi Jinping government’s shrinking of China’s higher education ties to the West, should worry anyone who doesn’t harbour the ambition of watching this immense country fall on its bottom and wind up a gargantuan North Korea.

Both China and America face even more problems at home than abroad. Superior self-analysis should never resemble a glossy travel brochure. It is certainly true that China has the longest bridges, while America has the shortest attention spans.

We should never forget the root-cause analysis by one of civilisation’s greatest fallen-empire experts, Edward Gibbon. The historian from 18th-century England, in his venerable The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, found much to be concerned about in the internal corrosion of a society as in any outside menace.

The great Roman empire finally collapsed, he argued, in the face of barbarian attack for the main reason that its collapse was already well-seeded internally.

By this analysis, the erosion of its own civic virtue, more than the cast-iron arms of any external enemy, unmade that society and triggered its historic decline.

For a society to remain healthy and forward-thinking, there is less need for some indispensable leader than for indispensable citizens. A great leader may be able to elevate his people, but a populace thinking only of itself and not of humanity, with its vital common concerns, will begin to eat away at its own potential greatness.

You tend not to see this all at once, though. Observes the astute George Yeo, a former foreign minister of Singapore: “Decline is a long and winding affair.” In this respect, as you read Gibbon, you have to wonder about the leaders on both sides of the Pacific, who appear to be trying to outdo each other in running up the military tab.

Gibbon stated that “as long as mankind shall continue to bestow more liberal applause on their destroyers than on their benefactors, the thirst of military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted characters”.

On the surface, for both sides, this arms race to the hilt would seem to offer the ultimate in national security. But the cost, as well as the ethic, may well eat away at the civic core.

The Chinese government insists that its foreign policy aims at win-win outcomes for all involved. But if war between the two giants does come, the result will be a lose-lose situation all around. That old Kabul feeling might surface anew.

Professor Tom Plate is Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Affairs and the Pacific Century Institute’s vice-president. This column originally appeared Tuesday in the South China Morning Post of Hong Kong.

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