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Commentary: The Long Game


It is said that the Balkans in southeast Europe “produce more history then they can consume.”  I feel that right now the United States is producing more history than it can consume: A pandemic that has killed more Americans than the total population of Columbia, a bitterly divided country led by a president who is not interested in national unity, and now the worst civil unrest in many decades. 

A couple of weeks ago I was reminded of how differently nations and societies view history.  I heard on KBIA the breaking news that China had decided to ignore its treaty with Hong Kong and drastically reduce its autonomy.  There was world-wide condemnation, including the U.S. withdrawing its special status designation and making other threats.  All of this will ultimately matter not in the least, because ultimately China doesn’t care what we think. 

China has been around as a recognizable entity for five millennia and, with the exception of a recent period of about 150 years, completely dominated East Asia.  China plays the long game and fully intends to resume its regional hegemony.  They know no one is going to war with them when they completely subjugate Hong Kong.  They also know no one is going to war with them when they take over Taiwan.  Oh, sabers will be rattled and harsh sanctions will be imposed, but China is now strong enough economically and militarily – and self-confident enough -- to brush them off.  They play the long game.

Japan is a similarly ancient society with a similar mindset.  It has been Number Two in East Asia except for its brief period of imperialism in the Twentieth Century, but it has become and remains an economic powerhouse, the third largest economy in the world, because it also plays the long game.  I remember being impressed when I learned that the Toyota Company has a 200-year plan.  Can you think of an American company that has a 200-week plan?  Kinda tough when investors reward or punish companies based on quarterly profit and loss reports. 

I cite a final and unpleasant example of the Taliban, who are negotiating a peace treaty in Afghanistan they have no intention of keeping, because they know Americans are impatient to leave, will leave soon, and the Taliban can resume control over that long-contested land at their leisure.  They are Islamists, and Islamists have centuries of tradition, reinforced by the ability to play the long game.

Even many European countries have maintained their cultural integrity and pride despite foreign occupations, revolutions, and economic catastrophes.  I was reminded of this in the 1990s when I sat in Winchester Cathedral in England in an oak pew that had been hand-carved in 1308.  Someone had been sitting in that seat for worship every Sunday for 700 years.  I thought: “My country is such an adolescent.”  And it is behaving very much like a stereotypical adolescent at the moment.

Things are off center in America just now.  Too many things are wrong.  But there is a long game for us as well, and it is the one Martin Luther King described when he said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Dr. Terry Smith is a Political Science Professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.