Each national culture has a point about which it is most defensive, because on that point it has its own most serious doubts. You can’t provoke most Americans by pointing out that the country has had a very warlike record for a very long time. Many Americans view this heritage as an achievement rather than a failing, and even those who don’t aren’t likely to feel insulted or personally threatened by this critique.
Yet let a foreigner tell an American that the country is “declining,” and there will be a reaction. Denial, assent, an argument that there’s still hope — something. The intensity of the reaction obviously underscores the point that this is one of Americans’ longstanding sources of self-doubt. Other countries — Japan, Germany, England, Russia — have similar points of defensiveness. What is most deeply concerning to a culture (as for most individuals or families) is often the most difficult or infuriating for outsiders to bring up.
James Fallows, China Airborne (2012)
As Jim suggests in his still wonderful 2010 essay, “How America Can Rise Again,” this isn’t a new insecurity for the United States. I connect it to the nation’s exceptionalist roots — Winthrop’s City Upon a Hill; Jefferson’s self-evident truths — which create not just an ideal but also its negative: if America is the world’s last best hope, that means that hope might fail. To consider America to be the world’s one indispensable nation, we must imagine a world in which America has been dispensed with.
I’d add to the fear of decline that America’s other insecurity is the notion that it might not be united. I say, not infrequently, that to discern a country’s deepest anxieties, one must look to its name: Democratic Republics Of Wherever are usually not, and such. And the United States is so insistent on its unity because it fears so deeply that, unlike other nations, which are built on ancient ethnic bonds, its polity, built on ideology, might not be able to endure.
This is why the spectre of extreme partisanship is so important to American political discourse, why George Washington feared party politics, and why every president who comes along promises to mend the electorate’s divides. It’s why region is so important to Americans, and why the national bonds between Northerner and Southerner, or Easterner and Westerner, or between black and white, that appear so obvious to the outsider can seem so fragile to the insider. It’s why the Civil War is always so central to America’s understanding of itself and the way it shapes its future: this is the moment the country came closest to disunity, but was also its most forceful affirmation of its unity.
Jim goes on:
In modern China, one of these always sensitive subjects is the idea of China’s full “equality” or maturity in modern international society, especially to the white Western nations that for centuries have been in economic and political control. (Competition with Japan is a separate and equally tangled political question.) This is the significance of the phrase “Hundred Years of Humiliation” to describe China’s period of subjugation to foreigners and the repeated insistence by Chinese spokesmen on full dignity, equality, and respect in international dealings.
And later, on Chinese concerns of “splittism”:
Chinese people who are familiar with American history point out the many similarities between the current Han attitude and the drive toward Manifest Destiny thinking in the United States from the nineteenth century onward.
As for Australia’s national insecurity, I’m tempted to suggest something about fairness, but that might be too myopic, too concerned with current political disputes, and too ignorant of our underlying paranoias, the sort I can’t easily grapple with because, like all my countrypeople, I’m captive to them. So perhaps the correct answer is the question of whether Australia matters: are we influential, do people care about us, does the world realize that we are as important as we think we are? Or, to ground that question in familiar terms: has the tyranny of distance defeated us?
(I don’t know enough about Japan to guess at what its point of national defensiveness might be.)