When President James Garfield was shot in 1881, the wound should not have been fatal. Doctors who rushed to examine the president probed first with unwashed fingers and then with unsterilized instruments. Years before, Joseph Lister had discovered that sterilization could prevent fatal infection. But the doctors attending Garfield either hadn’t read Lister’s work or ignored it, and sepsis and infection ultimately set in.
Today, our country is at risk of consequences both dire and preventable. On critical issues, warnings from numerous observers have been ignored or minimized. Can we shift course and take heed of the Dr. Listers of our time?
One such warning: China will replace America. China is on track to surpass us economically, militarily and geopolitically. These measures are not independent: A dominant economy provides the wherewithal to mount a dominant military. Combined, these will win for China the hearts and minds of many nations attuned to their own survival and prosperity.
China’s path to economic hegemony is partly a product of demographics: A much larger nation will inevitably have a much larger gross domestic product, assuming it employs effective economic principles, technology and education. China has replaced socialism with capitalism, stolen technology and educated large cohorts of its people — by 2016, it boasted eight times as many STEM graduates a year as the United States.
China supercharges its economic assent by employing unmatched competitive trade practices: massive subsidization, predatory pricing, monopolization of raw materials and trade-route dominance. Measured by purchasing power parity, China’s economy is already larger than ours; given a growth rate three times our own, its nominal GDP will soon be the world’s largest.
China devotes a significant share of its financial spoils to its hegemonic agenda. Defense analysts report that China already surpasses U.S. military capability in much of the Pacific. Simply put, the geographic boundaries of China’s lead are expanding.
The predictable consequence of China’s hegemony is evidenced by its conduct at home: It commits a genocide of 1 million of its people; crushes promised freedoms in Hong Kong; censors print, broadcast and social media; imprisons or executes dissidents; and subjects all citizens to ever-present spy technology and social scoring. Corruption is rife.
Despite its evident assent and horrific practices, we nod and look the other way. In his recent address to Congress, President Biden devoted a few words to China’s existential threat, then moved on to promise two years of free pre-K and community college. Across our country, libertarians and conservatives fixate on masks and cancel culture, progressives on insensitive language on campus — are we like those doctors probing Garfield’s wound, ignorant of the threat posed by our own behavior?
We may still be able to divert China from its malevolent path. First, we should solicit the best thinking of our most experienced strategists. We must constrain China’s economic predation by partnering with our allies and friends to deny China free access to our markets unless it agrees to abide by global rules of fair trade. We should encourage allies to join us in a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games, thereby reducing their revenue, hampering their propaganda and exposing their abuses. We must also reignite U.S. technology leadership by funding consortia in government labs and leading tech institutions and among high-tech corporations. We should refocus our immigration system and, while still carefully screening, give green cards to those with an advanced degree in technology — wherever they are from. Our military, coordinated with our allies, should rapidly expand capabilities in emerging warfare technologies. We should also better leverage our broadcast and media capabilities to communicate worldwide the advantages of freedom and the perils of Chinese authoritarianism. All of this will require investment and sacrifice. And it will require leadership and statesmanship from the president and Congress.
China is not the only perilous threat to our nation. We are regularly warned of the consequences of climate change. Many of us take the only actions we know how to take: turning down thermostats in winter, buying energy-efficient vehicles, separating our trash. Politicians pass small-bore measures to appease progressive voters. Being more attuned to political advantage than to actual impact, politicians shy away from committing to remedies that have the potential to slow the warming: putting a price on carbon, carbon border adjustment tariffs, nuclear power and direct carbon capture. These, too, would require investment, sacrifice and political courage.
Third on the list of critical warnings: the degradation of our national balance sheet. Our national debt will cripple us if we do not change course.
Will we respond to the growing threats to our country? In 1881, Garfield entered a train station unaware of the assassin waiting for him. The doctors who treated him were unaware of the bacteria they introduced into his body. We have no such excuse.
Mr. Romney, a Republican, is a U.S. senator from Utah.
Opinion published in the Washington Post.