In recent years, America's internal divisions have been exacerbated by social media, which, by flooding user feeds with personalized content, creates "echo chambers" that validate rather than challenge their beliefs and values. When alternative ideas do fall into this "echo chamber", they are often distorted and denigrated. And if someone inside this cell suddenly questions general beliefs, such a person risks immediately being ostracized or, in modern parlance, "canceled."
This ultra-rapid demonization of differing views not only leads to profanation of the discussion, but also narrows the space between disagreement and conflict - even power conflict. These risks are further exacerbated by widespread disillusionment with leaders' inability to provide justice, security and economic opportunity.
Similar trends can be seen in the American approach to China. For example, the just-published US State Department report "Elements of a Chinese Challenge" portrays the Chinese Communist Party as a villain who is "unchecked by respect for individual freedoms and human rights."
This report sows fear of the alleged Chinese "authoritarian goals" and "hegemonic ambitions" - the desire to plant its own socio-political model instead of a world order led by the United States. The report recommends America to create a united front against China to protect - with military force if necessary - the "freedom" of the entire world.
All this did not go unnoticed in China, which is making its own assessment of the United States, and it is increasingly negative. Today, it seems clear to the Chinese leadership, citizens and business that the United States is far from a country of freedoms and opportunities, but a deeply fragmented society poisoned by systemic racism, growing inequality and a lack of a common goal. All these diseases of American society have long been masked by fantasies about the American Dream.
Moreover, America is far from being a model democracy; its political system is highly distorted. Just recall the existence of such American institutions as the Electoral College, the Senate and the Supreme Court, as well as the use of various electoral tricks, for example, redrawing electoral boundaries, strategically reducing the number of polling stations, burdensome rules for voter identification. All this means that the majority does not always rule. Influence was gained by wealthy sponsors, either by funding campaigns or by buying the press.
China has shaken off its previous illusions about the United States, so its hopes for a constructive bilateral relationship are dying. Yes, of course, President-elect Joe Biden is unlikely to continue President Donald Trump's rollercoaster ride of surprise attacks, reversals, glitches and misses. But less chaotic doesn't necessarily mean less confrontational: Biden called Xi Jinping a "bandit" and pledged to lead a coordinated campaign to "crush, isolate and punish China."
So China is preparing for the worst. This could mean a continuation of the trade war launched by Trump, or a senseless blame for the Covid-19 pandemic. It could even mean an increase in military tensions over Taiwan, the South China Sea and China's western borders.
But that doesn't mean China is opting for American-style isolationism and demonization. On the contrary, despite the clumsy battle wolf tactics employed by some of its diplomats, China is taking important steps to advance international cooperation on key issues of common concern. For example, on the issue of climate change, Xi Jinping made a commitment at the UN to achieve a peak of zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, and by 2060 - carbon neutrality.
On the trade side, China has signed a Comprehensive Regional Economic Partnership; the share of 15 member countries of which accounts for 30% of humanity. Much to the surprise of the world, it hinted that it might join the "Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership" that came about after Trump pulled the United States out of the original Trans-Pacific Partnership.
America, unable to control the pandemic and clearly heading for a double recession, should take similar approaches. Foreign trade is the only way that will allow it to get out of its current economic predicament. And its integral component is trade with China - the first major economy in the world to recover from the shock of the pandemic, and the only one where GDP grows, not declines in 2020.
But such a path will not be possible as long as delusion, antagonism, and mutual suspicion dominate in bilateral relations. As former Secretary of Defense James Mattis said, the United States has two main powers - the power of inspiration and the power of intimidation. With China, a powerful economy and 1.4 billion people, intimidation will not work. China cannot be forced to comply with its internal affairs, such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan.
However, the US still has time to use its power of inspiration and show that America and China can be equal partners who will peacefully and jointly confront common challenges. There is a moral aspect to this imperative. Many foreigners, including the Chinese, cannot understand how it is possible that the most technologically advanced country in the world would allow more than 260 thousand people to die from the virus, which much poorer countries deal with much more successfully with very simple measures. For the collaboration to work, America needs to demonstrate its ability to think using the pronoun "we".
As Rabbi Jonathan Sachs explains, "The world is divided into people who are like us and people who are not like us, but the idea of the common good is lost." China understands this, judging by its continued commitment to the system of multilateralism. Now is the time for the United States to do the same - to maintain direct and honest dialogue on issues requiring constructive engagement.
Biden's presidency is a golden chance to start a critical dialogue. But it must be used on time. If Biden begins his presidency by choosing strife over dialogue, then changing course will soon become difficult or even impossible.