The United States is once again increasingly assuming its role as geopolitical leader. The reason is the war in Ukraine and China’s imperialist ambitions. At the same time, America has its own problems to contend with.

The US geopolitical analyst George Friedman writes in an article that the United States is once again the sole superpower at the center of world affairs. This situation is being caused by new threats emanating from Russia and China.

According to Friedman, the scenario of being dominated by a continuously more aggressive People’s Republic led to more and more countries taking refuge in the protection of the United States. In fact, in a survey by the Washington PEW Institute last year, overwhelming majorities in 16 industrialized nations stated that they had a bad image of China due to the human rights violations in the People’s Republic and that they therefore wanted less cooperation with the country and greater economic cooperation cooperation with the United States.

A decoupling of the world economy from the People’s Republic, as well as from Russia, seems more than ever not only advisable, but the only strategy that is already being pursued by countries like the USA, Japan or Taiwan. However, this decoupling, necessary as it is to reduce reliance on dictatorships, spells the end of the intellectual foundations of the world order that made the US a world power after 1945.

Because the reconstruction after the Second World War, both in the Atlantic and in the Pacific region, followed the rule of thumb: Economic cooperation lays the foundation for cultural exchange and for a common policy. These three economy, culture and politics are core elements of any democratic system of government and any free society. Where this recipe was used, from Spain to South Korea, dictatorships ended up becoming democracies.

Democracy was understood as the American variant of this form of rule and society. This reading of the capitalist-democratic marriage favors the economic, whereas Europe focuses on the socio-political aspect. Otto von Bismarck already remarked that no state can be created under the auspices of uninhibited capitalism.

The social market economy, on the other hand, which excludes certain goods from the market for the benefit of society (e.g. water, health care, school education), which sets rules for the economy and uses the instruments of the welfare state to counteract hardship, is a recipe that is also successful in present-day democratization processes could find application.

As opposite as the People’s Republic and the US may be politically (another rule of thumb applies here, namely that the worst democracy is preferable to the “best” dictatorship), it is striking that their societies face the same problems, because the People’s Republic looks to the has set the same economic system as the USA, namely an “unhinged capitalism”.

In this sense, the reformer Deng Xiao-ping already said that in China only a few would become rich first, so that in the end the largest possible number would achieve a certain level of prosperity through them. That sounds a lot like the “trickle down,” the mantra of the US Republican Party, according to which tax breaks for very wealthy corporations would eventually “trickle down” to their humble workers. This alleged effect has been sufficiently refuted.

Today, wealth in the US and China is similarly unequally distributed, with a small group grabbing the lion’s share of resources and capital. Wang Huning, advisor to three Chinese presidents, Jiang Zeming, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, visited the USA as a university professor in the late 1980s and expressed his conviction in his book “America Against America” that the liberal spirit of the USA and its democratic system are responsible for the inequality in the country.

After his return, he went into politics and has been fighting ever since, most successfully under Xi, against everything free and democratic. The fact that China is isolated on the international stage today because of Wang’s false assumptions (due to the Uyghur genocide, Hong Kong’s oppression, restricted citizens’ freedoms, the threat of war against Taiwan, the list goes on) is essentially due to this false assumption. The USA, on the other hand, although its democracy is a farce in many places, has the strength to always free itself from every crisis due to its liberal order.

America is back, if you want to share Friedmann’s thoughts, because the People’s Republic has copied the worst things about the country, including a misunderstood great power mentality, and as a dictatorship has not received any forces that could serve to heal it. An almost irreparable error. In the free world, however, it is not economic America that plays a prominent role as a world power, as Friedman assumes. Rather, it is the world order built by the United States, which is based on human dignity and the rule of law, that represents an alternative to the dictatorships controlled in Beijing and Moscow. It is now up to their actors to create a sustainable economic system that is not based on growth and the overexploitation of nature, and that protects the rights of workers.

China does not want to participate in building such an order, more and more people and nations are feeling that. According to the PEW survey, the fact that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi failed with an offer to cooperate with a total of ten Pacific island states is another concrete indicator of this. The countries do not believe China’s declaration of intent that Beijing is concerned with their development. Rather, they fear that a hegemon in the People’s Republic wants to establish itself in their region, which will restrict their sovereignty.

The US is currently ranked 26th on the Economist’s Democracy Index. Such a country can only conditionally lead the free world. George Friedman’s statement that the United States of America had returned to being the only or leading world power through no fault of its own should be rather worrying in view of this finding.

That they are nevertheless viewed by many people and countries as a bulwark against newly strengthening dictatorships may have the same reason why Joe Biden became US President. A majority of Americans gave the reason for their voting decision: “Biden is not Trump”. For the United States, you are not China. That’s good for the moment, but no longer. If the United States, as the leader of the free world, wants to remain an attractive alternative to China in the long term, it urgently needs to renovate and improve its democracy.

Alexander Görlach is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York. The PhD linguist and theologian teaches democratic theory in Germany, Austria and Spain as an honorary professor at Leuphana University. In the 2017-18 academic year, he was at National Taiwan University and City University Hong Kong to conduct research on China’s rise. He is currently researching new technologies at the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute and how they are used in democracies and abused in dictatorships.