The election of Donald Trump was to a large extent an expression of rejection by large sections of Americans of many trends in American politics in and outside the country.

Almost three decades since its victory in the Cold War, America seemed to have missed, and for many squandered, the peace dividend that some of the most prominent voices in America in the 1990s had promised.

Internally, inequality was rising. Millions were succumbing to designation and despair – such as opioid addiction – in ways America had never witnessed before. Inequality was conspicuous socially as well as geographically. This was not the classic separation in world view that has always existed between America’s coasts and its interiors. The separation here revealed major economic differences in terms of quality of living, available opportunities, levels of economic security, and prospects of improving one’s chances in life.

Fear was also rising. The second decade of the twenty first century heralded the beginning of a technological transformation that went way beyond what the internet had done a quarter of a century earlier. This time technology seemed to many on the verge of highly accelerating the separation between those equipped to deal with an extremely technologically advanced future and the rest whose skills have stagnated, if not atrophied. For the first time in many decades – and arguably ever – large sections of Americans felt that their kids were going to have lesser chances and worse living conditions that they had.

Fear was rising at a time when American economic supremacy was beginning to seem under serious threat. China appeared to have crossed a threshold after which it has begun to become a peer competitor, particularly in the industries that will likely shape the future, from quantum computing to artificial intelligence.

The tens of millions of Americans who have felt the peace dividend has escaped them, who experienced declining living standards, whose lives were increasingly separate from lives in the areas with concentrations of America’s wealth, and who felt all around them an air of apprehension and often despair, sensed that the system was not delivering for them.

America is free. Its politics is by far the most dynamic and open in the world. And American media, with its innovation and savvy, is always a conduit of the new, daring, and different. Plus, unlike many Western societies, America’s does not have taboos to be mindful of. Large spaces in the American political economy landscape were wide open for the wave of rejection and anger that Donald Trump, and behind him strong strands in the American right, embodied.

Donald Trump’s rhetoric and ways of doing things were a world apart from how American politics – domestically and internationally – used to be. But his messages have resonated not only with his constituencies in some of the most depressed parts of America, but also with ideas that were gaining ground within some of America’s key decision-making circles regarding the country’s global strategic positioning.

Two trends were coming to the surface.

One — America was going to change its modus operandi with regard to the rise of China. Gone was the assumption about the inherent superiority of America’s socio-political model (discussed in the previous article of this series), and in were fresh assessments about the reality of the Chinese threat to America’s status as the sole superpower in the world.

Two — The assessments gave rise to a realisation that confrontation with China was a realistic, and for some likely, prospect. America has by far the most sophisticated strategic foresight capabilities in the world. And so the most serious scenarios about the future were far from jumping into sensationalism or silliness. Still, they came to the clear conclusion that China’s rise presented America with the most potent challenge it had ever witnessed since it had chosen to come out of its isolation a century ago.

Importantly, both America’s and China’s strategic doctrines are assertive. Whilst both have credible checks on strategic decision-making, both do not have docile tendencies. And unlike all other countries in the world, America and China know, and internalise, that they have real imperial ambitions and capabilities. Interestingly, both the American and Chinese cultures have streaks that see oneself as deserving of, if not destined to, global eminence.

This is why America’s reassessments of its strategic position vis a vis China – during and after the time of Donald Trump’s administration - were increasingly focused on competition and confrontation, as opposed to cooperation and containment.

Perspectives about the within and without were merging. All serious circles in the Republican and Democratic parties understood that a powerful wave of anger was stirring in America’s interior. Likely for electoral purposes, as well as out of a real sense of duty, the two parties – and behind them colossal economic interests in the country – needed to release that anger and address what they had understood were its causes. This meant new approaches to correct the disparities in America’s political economy, as well as new approaches to America’s engagements in the world.

And concerning these new engagements in the world, America realised that addressing the prospect of a real strategic confrontation with China necessitated creating new realities in different parts of the world.

Donald Trump’s ways of asking Europe to significantly increase its defence budget was different from that of Jo Biden. But the two administrations shared the same objective. It was not merely about money. America wants Europe to commit to a Western stance opposed to a likely expansion of Chinese power and influence, that will likely begin in East Asia and the South and East China seas, and in American assessments, will then spread fast beyond.

In some American scenario-planning, China can attempt to mirror the pace through which America had inherited the Spanish, British, and French empires in the first half of the twentieth century. Allowing for the impact of new technologies, this means that the second quarter of the twenty first century will likely see China creating new strategic realities in its direct Pacific neighbourhood, as well as establishing considerable economic presences, and nodes of political influence, in regions it deems of strategic value for itself.

This presents America with strategic choices it has not confronted, not only since the end of the Cold War, but arguably since the mid 1980s when, following the death of the Communist Party Secretary-General Yuri Andropov and the coming of Gorbachev to power, it was clear that the Soviet Union had opted for cooperation not confrontation.

Choices entail a return to one’s experience, imagining ways of realising futures better than the present and the past, or endorsing some rhetoric while in reality doing little. History is full of examples of countries that, in the face of challenges and peril, chose the latter; they demonstrated weak will, and ended up on unstoppable trajectories of decline and often demise.

America is different. By the very nature of its formative experiences and how it sees itself (as discussed in the first few articles of this series), and because all its decision-making centres have long internalised its imperial project, America could not afford to do nothing at this moment of reckoning.

As the next article in this series will show, the administrations of both Presidents Donald Trump and Jo Biden have borrowed from America’s international playbook in the early twentieth century, as well as conceived new ways of changing America’s positioning in several parts of the world.