“A fox knows many things but a hedgehog knows one big thing….” So goes an ancient Greek saying by Archilochus. In our own times, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin has discussed this in the context of novelists, playwrights and poets. But this classification may also apply to the geo-political situation today.

But first, let us study the differences between a fox and a hedgehog. A fox is cunning, knows a lot of tricks, can fool easily, hides and lays ambush, and is sneaky and opportunistic. The hedgehog is simple, focused, obvious and knows only one way to defend itself, i.e., to raise its quills and slowly withdraw to its hole. In a battle between the two, who do you think will win? I have posed this question to several of my friends over the years. Invariably, they vote for the fox. And yet, it is the hedgehog that is usually the winner, with its single ‘one-pointed’ strategy. All it knows is not to expose its weakness, to make any attack on its body painful to the aggressor, and stay safe and strong. Rest all is theoretical, abstract and ineffective.

To know who you are is greatest strength. To know your enemy, his strengths and weakness, to paraphrase Sun Tzu, is the path to victory.

Thus, when one studies the present geopolitical landscape, one sees a similar battle shaping up. The US as the hedgehog with tremendous strength as a military, economic and technical superpower while China with its cunning ways as the fox, trying all the tricks at its disposal. The Dragon is using all kinds of devices such as usurping control at the UN, making small countries debt-dependent, creating a presence in South China Sea by hook or by crook and perhaps using even biological warfare and technical espionage. If our analysis above is correct, the US has an advantage as the hedgehog over China as the fox. The eagle beats the dragon hollow.

And yet, if one were a bit more deliberate in one’s analysis, this characterization is illusory. It seems to me that it is China who is the hedgehog, with its single-minded pursuit of world-dominion, rejecting all rules and courtesies and considerations, no matter what the strategies on the surface. Smarting under a couple of centuries of perceived loss of domination due to the perfidy of the West, its leadership has used all the weapons in its arsenal, arrows in its quiver, to ascend without concern for International Law or Nations’ Rights.

And the US has lost its focus. It has attempted to observe decorum while China eats away its lunch; whether it is in stealing technological knowhow or decimating American agriculture or manufacturing or manipulating the Renminbi to give unfair advantage to Chinese exporters and businesses. The eagle has dissipated its energies and is trying to outsmart the cunning adversary. In the process, it has steadily lost its strength and advantage to a far more incisive enemy. The US attempted to challenge the usurper not on its own strengths but on its weakness, a surefire way to rapid evisceration.

The dragon will outlast the eagle, if this continues.

To me, there is only one solution. The US must revert to its core strengths and reclaim its silent strength and power. How to do so?

  • First, recognize that it cannot win by being distracted and all over the place.
  • Second, focus the next decade in the post-covid era into building its economic and technical strength.
  • Third, drop the complacence that it is numero uno. It is not anymore. It has frittered away its position needlessly, due the short-sightedness of its politicians and leaders. And it has become dependent on the fox for its scraps.
  • Fourth, zealously guard the strength it builds and recovers. Allow no stealing of its intellectual property. Allow no investments from the Red Army, no matter how it is disguised.
  • Fifth, find and create allies. There are enough countries in the world who have been hurt by China’s avarice, hubris and appropriations, rank dishonesty and nonchalance, including the European Union, India, Australia and Japan.

The US must once again become a hedgehog. The American people need to understand this very clearly and deeply.

It seemed to me that economic nationalism was the best approach for the US. But I am sorry to say that even while following this strategy the US is not being laser-sharp and has compromised too easily for spurious reasons. It has veered towards easier and less painful answers even though they mean death in the longer run, i.e., three to five years.

China knows this. That is why its attempts repeatedly to cut a convenient deal with the US, avoid a showdown and prevent the US from resurging. I am not sure our strategic thinkers at the top are adhering to this principle of strengthening the core.

Military and political strength have no meaning if not backed by economic power and self-reliance. The US finances its lazy habits by outsourcing and running deficits. This is a recipe for capitulation.

We also need to have the ‘spine’ to ward off any attacker or usurper. That needs the quiet inner strength that defines us when catastrophes hit us. For now, we seem to be in a state of hiber-nation.

Creativity and allowing the best talent to immigrate have always been responsible for making the US the powerhouse it is today. The sharpest minds need to have an open invitation to come here and their success needs to be facilitated. In the internet and web-based world, things can move very fast and we need to be on our toes always, ready to seize opportunities. If we do not, we will get disrupted.

We need to re-focus on our human capital, build s-quills in our workforce and eliminate the rank commercialization that plagues our education and health.

The eagle needs to sharpen its claws and beak and be ready to wing new horizons. And no longer, hedgehog its bets.

Can the US out-fox the fox? Only if it remains true to itself.

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