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Are Americans Ready to Accept Democratic Socialism?

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There is another side to the Donald Trump coin with which the media and politicians seem to be exclusively preoccupied nowadays.

Admittedly politics reduced to a reality show and sordid vituperations passing for political wisdom is more entertaining for many misguided and unconcerned people, but they remain banal and meaningless experiences. It is indeed tragic that the other side of the coin, Bernie Sanders’ Democratic Socialist agenda has by and large been ignored and underestimated by a vast majority of the media and the politicians. Its detractors continue to repeat the mantra: a Socialist is unelectable in the US; that may be fine in Europe, in the Scandinavian countries, but not here. More often than not

Democratic socialism is confused with Communism. The Pope himself has been branded a communist for mentioning the idea of distributive justice.

But those detractors ought to consider this: the infrastructure jobs program (a key element of Sanders’ platform) has presently 91% support from Democrats, 61% from independents and even 55% support from Republicans—compared to only 28% opposed. Donald Trump can only dream of being that popular among Republicans. So perhaps the attention and focus on Trump is misplaced.

Moreover, consider this too: the results of the “Big Ideas” poll commissioned by the Progressive Change Institute in January, are astounding and yet it has so far received little attention. Ideas were solicited online through an open submission process; more than 2,600 specific proposals were submitted and then people voted on them. More than a million votes were cast; then this bottom-up process was tested out in a national poll. The following all received 70% support or more:

  • Allow Government to Negotiate Drug Prices (79%)
  • Give Students the Same Low Interest Rates as Big Banks (78%)
  • Universal Pre-Kindergarten (77%)
  • Fair Trade that Protect Workers, the Environment, and Jobs (75%)
  • End Tax Loopholes for Corporations that Ship Jobs Overseas (74%)
  • End Gerrymandering (73%)
  • Let Homeowners Pay Down Mortgage With 401k (72%)
  • Debt-Free College at All Public Universities (Message A) (71%)
  • Infrastructure Jobs Program — $400 Billion / Year (71%)
  • Require NSA to Get Warrants (71%)
  • Disclose Corporate Spending on Politics/Lobbying (71%)
  • Medicare Buy-In for All (71%)
  • Close Offshore Corporate Tax Loopholes (70%)
  • Green New Deal — Millions Of Clean-Energy Jobs (70%)
  • Full Employment Act (70%)
  • Expand Social Security Benefits (70%)

Regarding big business, 74% of Americans believe corporations have too much influence on American life and politics today), 60% of Americans—including 75% of Democrats—believe that the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy and 58% of Americans support breaking up big banks like Citigroup, a key plank of Sanders’ platform and the goal of a bill that Sanders sponsored in the Senate; 73% of Americans favor tougher rules for Wall Street financial companies; 64% favor regulating greenhouse gas emissions and requiring utilities to generate more power from “clean” low-carbon sources;

80% of Americans favor requiring employers to offer paid leave to parents of new children and employees caring for sick family members; 85% percent favor requiring employers to offer paid leave to employees who are ill.

All of the above polls and statistics are in line with Bernie Sanders’ politics and all are extremely popular, with support across the political spectrum. Only the billionaire one per centers find the mere mention of those reforms highly objectionable, for obvious reasons. So, the question arises: are Americans ready for democratic socialism? The above poll and statistics would seem to suggest that the answer is a resounding yes.

In a way, both the Trump and Sanders phenomena illustrate a basic asymmetry that runs through American politics—between left and right, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, first comprehensively described by public opinion researchers Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril in a landmark 1967 book titled The Political Beliefs of Americans: A Study of Public Opinion. They discovered that half the population was ideologically conservative, in the sense of preferring a smaller, more limited government, while about two-thirds was operationally liberal, in the sense of wanting to spend more on specifically identified government programs.

Conservatives win by making broad, sweeping appeals, which can often have little relationship with the facts degenerating even into denial of scientific facts and detachment from reality: for example, President Obama was not born in the US, period. Liberals win by focusing on how to fix specific problems. Thus “government spending” in general is seen as a negative, but spending on most specific programs is strongly supported. The pattern is clear: The more practical the question, the more liberal the answers. This pattern is little understood across the Atlantic, but that’s how U.S. politics works.

If the American people understood the significant accomplishments that have taken place under social-democratic governments, democratic-socialist governments, labor governments throughout Europe, they would be shocked to know about those accomplishments. How many Americans know that in virtually every European country, when you have a baby, you get guaranteed time off and, depending on the country, significant financial benefits as well. Do most Americans even know that we’re the only major Western industrialized country that doesn’t guarantee healthcare for all? Do they   know that in many countries throughout Europe, public colleges and universities are either tuition-free or very inexpensive?

Sanders is right to think that Scandinavian socialism would be popular here in the U.S., if only people knew more about it. And he’s right to make spreading that awareness a goal of his campaign. It could be argued that opening up the political process to popular ideas that just happen to be not so popular with the billionaire class, and the political system that caters so slavishly to them, is what the Sanders’ campaign is all about.

Basically the issue that Sanders is dealing with are: big business, progressive taxation, inequality and poverty, money in politics, minimum wage and workers’ rights, health care and social security, higher education, same-sex marriage. He is not simply cherry-picking a few popular ideas here and there. He’s tapping into a broadly shared set of inter-related attitudes and ideas about closely related issues, although these views and ideas are usually sidelined in most political discourse, the convergence of attitudes into a coherent policy texture is remarkably consistent.

And this gets to a primary problem with America’s political system: liberal policy views form a coherent whole, every bit as much as conservative ones do, but they are far less publicly recognized, articulated, discussed and explored—despite the fact that they are wildly popular! Part of the problem is that conservative ideology expresses an idealized sense of individual possibility, so it’s relatively easy for people to access. Liberal ideology comes from a much more reflective place, one that encompasses thinking about society as a whole, and seeing oneself as part of a larger social fabric.

The philosopher John Rawls proposed thinking in terms of a society conceived behind a “veil of ignorance”: if we had no idea where we were to fall in the scheme of things, what kind of social order would we consider fair and just? Such a framework makes perfect sense when we act as citizens, and openly invites us to act philosophically, in a way that promotes the flourishing of our whole society.

If the overwhelming majority of Americans thinks that Sweden represents a better social order than America, then it’s hardly surprising that large numbers of them also agree with Sanders on a broad range of economic issues, as both PCI and Peter Drier lay out. And it’s not surprising that they agree on broader policies related to wealth and the exercise of political power, as well as policies making life better for the middle class, and helping more people to get into it. In fact, the only thing surprising about Bernie Sanders’ popularity is that people find it surprising. After all, the evidence has been all around us for a very long time now. What this means, in effect, is that the political system is in a state of drift, so far as the needs, interests and values of most ordinary Americans are concerned. All the supermajority issue positions that Sanders may hold are irrelevant, because the American people as a whole are irrelevant. Such is the sorry state of our democracy.

Sanders was asked recently“: Are we at one of those pivot points—as we saw in the 1930s—where our politics could open up and take the country in a much more progressive direction?” This is how he answered: “Obviously, we’re not in the midst of a massive depression, as we were in the 1930s. But I think the discontent of the American people is far, far greater than the pundits understand. Do you know what real African-American youth unemployment is? It’s over 50 percent. Families with a member 55 or older have literally nothing saved for retirement. Workers are worried about their jobs ending up in China. They’re worried about being fired when they’re age 50 and being replaced at half-wages by somebody who is 25. They’re disgusted with the degree that billionaires are able to buy elections. They are frightened by the fact that we have a Republican Party that refuses to even recognize the reality of climate change, let alone address this huge issue. In 1936, when Roosevelt ran for reelection, he welcomed the hatred of what he called “the economic royalists”—today, they’re the billionaire class—and I’m prepared to do that as well. That’s the kind of language the American people are ready to hear.”

Ultimately, the question is not “Will Bernie Sanders be elected president?” That remains to be seen. The real question is, “Will the Sanders campaign change the course of American history?”

This article has already appeared in Ovi magazine.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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The crisis of positivist, “evidence-based” political science in US

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Right from its birth in the 18th century, the United States of America emerged as one of the most advanced countries, or even the most advanced one in terms of government organization and the ideology of state building. The newly independent British colony got a chance to shed off the past and start from the ground up, and the Founding Fathers, as they are called in the US, used this chance to the max, erecting the three pillars of the American political order – the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which laid out the most progressive ideas of their time: human rights, democratic procedures, separation of powers, trial by jury, broad state autonomy, social contract, free speech, and many others.

The period of the rapid development of these ideas, akin to the French Enlightenment, has since been known in America as the “Age of Reason.” This time period, just like the ideas and principles it generated, is closely associated with empiricism and positivism – the two dominant philosophical streaks of that time, which denied philosophy as such and prioritized a scientific fact, an observed phenomenon, an experiment, logic, and ignored theoretical philosophical constructions, complex models and hypotheses not supported by scientific data. Back then, this new philosophy was the philosophy of science and was conceived as something that would replace the outdated classical philosophy with its interweaving of worldview, morality and faith, and remove ethics from the speculative structure of society, with its characteristic disregard for experiment as a method of cognition.

Today, almost 250 years since the adoption of the US Constitution, many elements of the American state system have not only lost their original progressive meaning but even look downright archaic. The most vivid examples of this are the life-long appointment of Supreme Court justices, who maintain their positions for decades, the electoral system of voting, whereby members of state electoral colleges are not obligated to vote according to the will of the people of that state, and the decentralized legal system, where precedents are superimposed on precedents, and the passage of a new law does not entail a revision of the old one.

Even though this archaism is obvious to any unbiased observer, not only are there no active discussions about constitutional reform or at least new amendments to the fundamental law of the land, but there are heated discussions going in Congress, the media and universities about how to interpret provisions of the ancient document in such a way as to better reflect the founding fathers’ ideas.

Any liberal arts education in the United States, from the high-school level  up, includes a detailed study, not critical, but apologetic, of the history of the founding of the United States, the adoption of the Constitution and the early  period of the US as a country. The personalities of the founding fathers and their philosophical views are front and center in most of these courses, and the higher the prestige of the educational institution, the more diligently the knowledge of the “essential foundations” of American statehood is implanted in the students’ minds.

As a result, the overwhelming majority of America’s intellectual elite leave their universities with deep faith in the sacredness of the US Constitution and the principles embedded in it. They are also steeped in the very spirit of empiricism and positivism of the Age of Reason. These are exactly the philosophical doctrines that shaped the development of humanitarian sciences in the United States and continue to do so today, even though they have long been considered in Europe as limited, to say the least.

This is also why scientific psychology has been reduced to behaviorism and the theory of historical stages has been dismissed, replaced by a civilizational approach and the so-called “evidence-based” or “fact-based” political science, which is the centerpiece of this article.

The seeds of political science and sociology, which fell into the fertile American soil in the first half of the 20th century, were soaked in the juices of the developed political class, their young shoots basked in the rays of a fleeting electoral cycle and an all-pervading electoral system, and their flowers were brighter than anywhere else. Election managers have never experienced any shortage of money and resources, and experts, who were able to predict the voters’ reaction, awaited universal respect and cushy jobs. 

Now, in the run-up to the 21st year of the new century, America has a whole army of sociologists and political scientists, with regiments and divisions “deployed” in every state and in every district of each state. This army is big enough to simultaneously serve the election campaigns of two presidential candidates, dozens of candidates for state governors, hundreds of congressional and senatorial hopefuls, and thousands of candidates for elected positions in local administrations. This 300,000-strong army has its own soldiers – street agitators, and its generals – campaign managers. It also has its own intelligence – sociological institutions and political spin doctors, trying to analyze the voters’ preferences and work out the best strategy and tactics.

It would seem that all this multitude of people, endowed with almost unlimited resources, should have long ago studied the political landscape of every single corner of America and provided an accurate forecast of the locals’ reaction to statements made by a politician, or steps taken by his  opponent. This doesn’t happen, however, and forecasts made by political scientists are disproved by reality. The biggest such flop ever was Donald Trump’s victory in the November 2016 presidential election.

This discrepancy between spent human and economic resources and the results attained has much to do with the culture of science and positivism that still prevails in American science. The positivist approach to science focuses on the search for objective truth, which can almost exclusively be achieved with the help of empirical facts and formal logic. This logic for centuries prevailed in physics, but even there it has been a subject of scathing criticism as it eventually turned out that the research method can affect the result of the research, and that one and the same object can have mutually exclusive properties, depending on how it is measured. This means that the fact obtained with so much effort is no longer absolute, and formal logic is simply insufficient in its toolbox.

These are the conclusions reached by physicists who study laws that are not subject to rapid change and are independent of human culture – a discovery that seems to have been completely overlooked by US political scientists, who still conduct public opinion polls as if the question never predetermines the answer, even though this is almost always the case. They avoid making assumptions, because they do not know all the facts, and try to objectively measure the immeasurable – the constantly changing moods of the mass of people divided into thousands of groups according to geographic, gender, age, educational, professional and other factors. And each of the millions of people polled represents a mixture of cultures, religions and ideologies and can change his or her opinion on a given issue every day, even a dozen times a day.

Such a system of studying the electorate and the related forecasting method are doomed to failure. Even if the combined forces of sociologists and political scientists were a hundred times larger and at a certain moment in time could collect data on the people’s preferences that would meet the strictest scientific criteria, the next day this information would be no longer relevant, and the whole work would have to be done again… In real life, however, this does not happen either.

Thus, US political scientists, who have always been taught not to invent theories, but only generalize the available facts, are chasing these facts and use them indiscriminately. Can an ordinary Biden election campaign expert run a scientific check on and compare multi-page descriptions of survey methods, when dozens of surveys are conducted each week, and sometimes, each day? Of course not, and so experts rely on the authority and decency of the organization that provides the “facts.” At best, they summarize the results of several surveys, and at worst, they use the one that suits them best.

This is the case at the level of data synthesis and forecasting, based on this generalization, but things are even worth when it comes to research and data collection. In an ever-changing environment, when precious “facts” become irrelevant in a matter of hours, research teams have to rely on the speed of research, rather than its coverage, representativeness or accuracy. This constant race leads to the emergence of such Frankenstein sociological monsters as a poll, where the difference in the candidates’ ratings is less than the margin of error allowed by the researcher, or a methodologically flawed survey, deliberately presented as an All-American poll that less than 1,000 people took part in.

And yet, US sociologists and political scientists still stick to positivism, because positivism is the true-blue American way. Never mind that these principles and methods, invented to study the eternal laws of nature, are now used to “study” the ever-changing mood of the crowd.

The bigger the process that the American system of public opinion research  tries to study or predict, the worse the result: while it works almost impeccably in local elections, at the level of elections to Congress it starts to fail, and during presidential elections things get real bad. A positivist analysis is impossible where you have no positivist facts, which means that the winner will be the one who better applies different methods of analysis. However, such methods are nowhere to find in the American universe, and those who successfully apply them are said to have “guessed.”

According to the American elite, in 2016, Trump “guessed” exactly what the conservative voter wanted. He is “guessing” again this year, while Democrats, also forced to engage in guesswork, use their favorite tactics of “identity politics”: they nominate those who they believe best relate to their typical supporter in terms of demographic indicators – an elderly white middle-aged male, and an African-American woman.

Which of them guessed better the whole world will know very soon.

From our partner International Affairs

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Israel, the Middle East and Joe Biden

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Photo by Adam Schultz

How will a Biden Administration change American policies on Iran, the Palestinians and Israel’s tightening relationships with Arab states?

Some two years ago, Democrats harshly attacked Trump for withdrawing US troops from Syria and thereby undermining the alliance with the Kurds. However, Democratic leaders also favor a reduced US presence in the Middle East and understand the region’s declining relevance to US global policy.  It was Democrat Obama who withdrew US troops from the Iraqi bloodbath; Biden, if elected, will presumably continue a similar course. The US is no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil, China is perceived as its greatest threat, and the defeat of ISIS has lowered the strategic terror threat level to US national security.

Biden, just like Trump and Obama, probably believes that the US can downscale its presence in the region and rely on its allies (the Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan and Israel, of course) and on the alliances being forged between its partners over the past two decades. The US could increase aid to a specific ally at a time of need (as was the case with the massive 2014 influx of Syrian refugees into Jordan) or Iraq (during the fighting with ISIS), but it is loath to continue meddling in local conflicts. What is more, the painful lesson of the intervention in Iraq has dissolved the Bush Administration’s messianic belief in the democratization of the Middle East. Concern about Russia or China filling the vacuum left by the US is also no longer deterring US leaders (like Obama and Trump) who are trying to score points with voters by troops drawdowns and free the administration up to deal with different matters, among them the “Pivot to Asia”.

As a Democrat, Biden is expected to be more sensitive than Trump to human rights violations in the Middle East. He condemned the conduct of the Saudi regime following the murder of exiled journalist Jamal Khashoggi in fairly harsh language several times and also called for curbing weapons sales to Riyadh.

However, if elected, Biden’s first order of business will be dealing with the biggest health and economic crisis the US has experienced since 1929. He will have to create jobs and deal with thousands of burning domestic matters. Those will be his flagship issues. He may have to set aside his moral repugnance and allow weapons exports to prevent job and profit losses for Americans. Trump, too, was harshly critical of Saudi Arabia prior to his election, but subsequently changed his tune and conducted his first overseas trip there as president.

One can cautiously assess that any change in US policy toward the Gulf would not undermine Israel’s rapprochement with those states. The strategic regional threats (expansion of Iran’s hegemony and its violations of the nuclear agreement, as well as Turkish activity in the region) will remain unchanged, and therefore the interest in economic and security cooperation between Israel and Gulf states will remain. Arab states that traditionally view Israel as a bridge to the White House could try to exploit this now official relationship to promote their standing with Congress and a new administration, if one is installed.

Biden’s position on the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) is of concern these days to both Israeli and Arab leaders, which could further cement their ties. Arab leaders are concerned about Biden rejoining and reviving the deal that Trump abandoned. They are relying on Biden’s criticism of the unilateral US pullout from the agreement and his declaration that he would make every effort to rejoin it. Nonetheless, Biden’s people seem to understand that they cannot simply turn back the clock. Blinken, one of Biden’s closest aides and potential future national security adviser, has said in interviews that the US would not return to the agreement until Iran fulfills all its commitments – meaning, until Iran walks back all its violations of the agreement. It is hard to predict just how Biden might draw Iran to the negotiating table, but as long as such an option is viable, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf states will have sufficient grounds to close ranks.

Biden is a sworn supporter of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is expected to re-open the US Consulate in East Jerusalem, restore US aid to the Palestinians and invite the PLO ambassador back to Washington. However, this does not mean that he will place the Palestinian issue on his list of priorities, especially given the domestic crisis and ongoing tensions with China. The Palestinian issue is unlikely to return to center stage following a change in the US administration. The Arab world is growing increasingly weak as the coronavirus continues to spread, the economic crisis deepens and unemployment rises. Arab states also fear that the major non-Arab states in the region – Turkey and Iran – will exploit this weakness. Should that happen, the Palestinian issue is unlikely to attract much interest from key Arab states, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, which also dictate the conduct of the Arab League.

That said, should Biden decide to revive the Arab Peace Initiative and mobilize Saudi and other Arab support (perhaps in return for a more determined US stand on Iran, the supply of US strategic weapons, etc.), pressure on Israel over the Palestinian issue could re-emerge. If Israel chooses to respond with accelerated construction in the settlements, in defiance of US policy, states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE would likely toe the line of the US administration but would not cut ties with Israel as a result.

In conclusion, a Biden victory would not affect the strengthening relationship between Israel and Arab states, especially if he opts to focus on the Iranian issue and a US return to the JCPOA. The Middle East’s relevance to the US is expected to continue its decline, prompting cooperation among its partners in the region in order to forge a robust front and repel threats from the non-Arab states (Iran and Turkey). A changed US approach to the Palestinian issue could increase pressure on Israel slightly, but is not expected to substantially change the current dynamics.

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Prospects for U.S.-China Relations in the Biden Era

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The U.S. presidential election which will be held on November 3 is drawing ever closer. As the Trump administration performs poorly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, where the death toll in the U.S. exceeded 210,000, the election trend appears to be very unfavorable for Donald Trump.

According to a recent poll conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, Joe Biden led Trump by 14 percentage points in the national elections. It is worth noting that retired American generals, who have traditionally been extremely low-key in politics, publicly supported Biden this year, something that is quite rare. On September 24, 489 retired generals and admirals, former national security officials and diplomats signed a joint letter in support of Biden. Among them are Republicans, Democrats, and non-partisans, showing that they have crossed the affiliation, and jointly support Biden to replace Trump. Although the opinion polls do not represent the final election, with the election only being one month away, the widening of the opinion gap is enough to predict the direction of the election.

For the whole world, especially for China, it is necessary to prepare for the advent of a possible Biden era of the United States. During Trump’s tenure, U.S.-China relations have taken a turn for the worse, and China has been listed as the foremost “long-term strategic competitor” of the United States.

There is a general view in China that after the Democratic Party comes to power, U.S.-China relations may worsen. The reason is that the Democratic Party places more emphasis on values such as human rights and ideology and is accustomed to using values such as human rights, democracy, and freedom in foreign policies against China. However, as far as U.S.-China relations are concerned, it is too vague to use the simple dichotomic “good” or “bad” to summarize the relationship of the two countries.

However, it is certain that after Biden takes office, his policies will be different from Trump’s. An important difference between Biden and Trump is that Biden will follow a certain order and geopolitical discipline to implement his own policies, and he will also seek cooperation with China in certain bottom-line principled arrangements. It should be stressed that it is crucial for China and the United States to reach some principled arrangements in their relations.

From an economic point of view, should Biden become the next President, the United States will likely ease its trade policy, which will alleviate China’s trade pressure. It can be expected that the Biden administration may quell the U.S.-China tariff war and adjust punitive tariff policies that lead to “lose-lose” policies. If Biden takes office, he might be more concerned about politics and U.S.-China balance. In terms of trade, although he would continue to stick to the general direction of the past, this would not be the main direction of his governance. Therefore, the U.S.-China trade war could see certain respite and may even stop. In that scenario, China as the largest trading partner of the United States, could hope for the pressures in the trade with the U.S. being reduced.

China must also realize that even if Biden takes power, some key areas of U.S.-China relations will not change, such as the strategic positioning of China as the “long-term strategic competitor” of the United States. This is not something that is decided by the U.S. President but by the strategic judgment of the U.S. decision-making class on the direction of its relations with China. This strategic positioning destined that the future U.S.-China relations will be based on the pattern dominated by geopolitical confrontation. Biden sees that by expanding global influence, promoting its political model, and investing in future technologies, China is engaging a long-term competition with the U.S, and that is the challenge that the United States faces.

On the whole, if and when Biden takes office, the U.S. government’s domestic and diplomatic practices will be different from those of the Trump administration, although the strategic positioning of China will not change, and neither will it change the U.S.’ general direction of long-term suppression of China’s rise. However, in terms of specific practices, the Biden administration will have its own approaches, and will seek a certain order and geopolitical discipline to implement its policies. He may also seek to reach some bottom-line principled arrangements with China. Under the basic framework, the future U.S.-China relations will undergo changes in many aspects. Instead of the crude “an eye for an eye” rivalry, we will see the return to the traditional systemic competition based on values, alliance interests, and rules. Facing the inevitable changes in U.S.-China relations, the world needs to adapt to the new situation.

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