How Hercules’ Victory Over Antaeus Should Inspire American Relations With China


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Hercules battling Antaeus in “The Twelve Labors of Hercules.”

I had the absolute pleasure of spending time with David P. Goldman of the Asia Times Online (who has also written under the pen name of “Spengler”) at the Westminster Institute in McLean, Virginia last week (video featured below). During that time, Goldman outlined how we Americans were “geeks living in a new Roman Empire.” As if that wasn’t startling enough to the audience, Goldman then recounted for us the ancient Greek tale of the “Twelve Labors of Hercules.” The “Twelve Labors” is the story of how the ancient Greek god, Hercules, was tested as never before. Specifically, Goldman spoke of Hercules’ famous wrestling match with the Greek god, Antaeus, the half-giant son of Poseidon, the god of the sea (and half-brother of Zeus), and Gaia (the goddess of the Earth). In his recounting of the story, Goldman likened the United States to Hercules and the rising hegemon of China to Antaeus.

Antaeus was known in Greek mythology for being invincible and (as per the usual for the Greek gods) a menace to passers-by. He would routinely challenge those near him to wrestling matches. The goal of wrestling, basically, is to bring your opponent to the ground, thereby defeating him. The problem was that Antaeus was no mere competitor. He drew his invincibility in combat from his connection with the Earth. As the son of Gaia, so long as he maintained physical contact with the ground, he would remain unbeatable, and all adversaries whom he vanquished, when he brought them to the ground, would be consumed by Gaia. Antaeus would then build temples honoring his father, Poseidon, with the skulls of the opponents whom he had defeated and had the Earth crush beneath him.

The story of the “Twelve Labors” is the tale of Hercules paying penance for having slaughtered his wife and children, after he was driven mad by Hera. Thus, the Oracle at Delphi told Hercules to go to Tiryns and serve his cousin, King Eurystheus. His cousin concocted originally ten labors for Hercules to complete (all of them involved capturing or destroying a mystical item that Eurystheus wanted or feared). Then, however, the King refused to recognize two of the labors, prompting the King to establish an additional two tasks for Hercules to accomplish (the accomplishment of these 12 tasks would purify Hercules’ soul from the horror of having murdered his family).

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I like Goldman’s brief claim that America is Hercules. It makes sense. I’m going to expand on it going forward. Similar to paying penance for having slaughtered his family, the Herculean America appears to be paying some cosmological price for having destroyed itself in the sands of the Middle East and with the gluttony and greed exhibited in the run-up to the Great Recession of 2008. Thus, now, the United States is finding itself ensconced in a series of trying labors all predicated on rehabilitating its economy, reasserting its power, and reclaiming its rightful place in the world.

Toward that end, the United States is being challenged by the strong and rising Chinese Antaeus. Like Antaeus, China feeds off the world; consuming any and all raw materials and resources, while subordinating all of its “partners” to its new-age empire (I realize that the comparison is not perfect, but just go with it). Whereas Antaeus preferred Greco-style wrestling to vanquish his rivals, the Chinese prefer to play to “Go” against their adversaries–slowly, yet methodically surrounding their rivals, leaving no avenue escape, save for the one route that the Chinese have willingly left open, whereby the Chinese will spring the final trap, and obliterate their dazed and confused enemy (in this case, the U.S.).

The United States has no concept or capability to adequately play “Go.” All that we can do is recognize that, for America to complete its necessary objectives of national restoration, unfortunately, we cannot circumnavigate the Chinese on our journey. Like Antaeus, the Chinese are barring the path. The problem is: neither we nor the Chinese desire to fight each other quite yet. The Chinese prefer to use “all measures short of war” and the United States cannot afford a war. But, the conflict still exists. There are simply too many issues where the United States and China stand opposed. Eventually, these issues will demand a resolution.

It has often been said that China’s game is “Go,” while America prefers the Western game of Chess. If only we were so lucky. On the contrary, America has lost its ability to think strategically, and it shows (which is how the Chinese rose to prominence in the first place). We’re playing Checkers not Chess.

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The Chinese strategy game of “Go.”

So, what is to be done?

Recognize that the Chinese are playing us for fools, account for that going forward, and do what all good Checkers players do: move straight toward their rival and jump them. The United States and China continue to share an economy. While this shared economy is the source of much Chinese manipulation and theft, America is unlikely to fully divorce itself from the massive Chinese market. It cannot. Further, if the Trump Administration hasn’t started doing it by now, they are unlikely to seriously do so in the future (and it might be too late for that already).

As we’ve seen, China frequently uses its economic leverage to goad both rivals and partners alike into kowtowing to its will. Most of the time, this works in China’s favor. Part of the problem is that the United States has not fully brought forward its own considerable economic might to counteract the pull of China, and to force a moderation in Chinese policy. The Transpacific Partnership (TPP) was a way that the former Obama Administration was trying to accomplish this task, but President Obama’s program was haphazard, detrimental to American economic interests, and lacking a necessary ingredient: China itself.

You read that right.

For any economic balancing strategy to work against China, the United States cannot avoid the Chinese. America must work China into its plans…and then outnumber them. One way to do this, as Goldman suggested in his recent talk, would be to fully invest in the Japan-India Economic Corridor, and then build that framework out to include the Chinese. More than anything, the Chinese wish to be seen as an equal to the United States. Grant them that right, since in many ways they are. But, the United States having a more comprehensive legal system (and the world’s largest economy), as well as being a more amenable partner, would allow the middle-tier powers in Asia to find stability and balance against China without risking war.

There’s another thing also: reinvigorate the G-2. Shortly before things began fully collapsing in Sino-American relations, around 2010, the former Obama Administration was considering formalizing the G-2 paradigm. The Trump Administration should look into ways of making this happen. As Goldman has written in his excellent 2011 book, “It’s Not the End of the World, It’s Just the End of You: The Great Extinction of the Nations,” the United States is in dire need of capital and the Asian states–particularly the Chinese–have a lot of capital that they’re looking to spend. Thus, the United States should be moving closer to China economically, not farther away from it (especially as it becomes clearer to everyone–including myself–that China is not going anywhere for several decades).

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When Hercules confronted Antaeus, he found himself unable to overcome him in combat. Each time Hercules thought he managed to best his potent foe, Antaeus would simply touch the ground, and regain all of his lost strength, and hit Hercules twice as hard. It was not until Antaeus leapt up into the air–away from the safe confines of Gaia–that Hercules reached up and grabbed the giant god. When he grabbed Antaeus, Hercules embraced him in a bear hug that ultimately killed Antaeus. It was Hercules’ embrace, not his fists or weapons that smothered the otherwise unbeatable Antaeus.

A similar solution exists against China today. We should not seek war against China (for China ultimately does not seek open warfare against the U.S.–at least not yet). This is a long game that must be played with élan and forcefulness. We should seek to further enmesh China in a global economic system that surrounds them by American allies. American policymakers should reread the 11th labor of the old Greek myth of “The Twelve Labors,” with Hercules in mind to formulate better policies regarding China going forward.


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