The Skeptics

Can America Share Its Superpower Status?

In particular, the rise of China is the indirect cause, or enabling factor, of many of America’s setbacks. China’s backing helped Russia oppose the United States and its European allies during the crisis over Ukraine. China’s assertion of its power in East Asia has inspired the United States to tighten its links with allies like Japan, while proposing a Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty that, by excluding China, looked very much like part of a frantic policy of anti-Chinese containment. To the distress of policymakers in Washington, Brazil, India, South Africa and other countries have joined China to lay the foundations for new international institutions that the United States would not be able to dominate. Adding insult to injury, America’s own allies, Britain, Germany and France, disobeyed Washington’s request and joined the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

The standard of living in the United States will probably be higher than those in China and India for the rest of the century, if not beyond. But this is cold comfort. Even if only a fraction of the population of China or India enjoys American living standards, that elite minority could number in the hundreds of millions. And claims that America’s exceptionally innovative culture will ensure a continued technological lead is at odds with the insistence of Silicon Valley that the United States cannot continue to innovate without a constant stream of students and skilled workers who are the products of primary education in China and India, among other nations. At any rate, innovation as an element of geopolitical power is overrated. In many areas the United States was less innovative than Germany during the world wars, but prevailed nonetheless thanks to sheer demographic and industrial mass.

What about primacy as hegemony? During the Cold War, the United States acted as the hegemon of the American-led “Free World” alliance. To its allies and clients it acted as a military protector, a market for exports and provided the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Following the Cold War, optimistic policymakers of both parties hoped that America’s alliance hegemony could be translated into enduring American global hegemony. In the emerging multipolar world dominated by continent-states like China, India and the United States, along with various medium-sized powers, no nation will be able to play the role of a military, financial or commercial hegemon.

It may take time for a new system to replace the dollar as the global reserve currency. But America’s two other hegemonic functions are already under severe strain.

The world’s second-largest economy, which the United States already is when measured by purchasing power parity and will soon be when measured by market exchange rates, simply cannot function as a market of first resort for export-oriented countries, in the way that an older United States enabled the development of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Most of the growth of the global middle class in the future will take place in China, India and other parts of the non-Western world.

At the moment, the United States is determined to remain the military hegemon in four regions: East Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North America. But as China grows in wealth and power, the U.S. attempt to thwart its regional hegemony in East Asia may prove to be as doomed as would have been a British attempt to contain the United States in North America after 1900. If China and India successfully assert their own spheres of influence, after the model of America’s Monroe Doctrine, the United States may have no choice but to retreat from globalism.

In theory, the United States could augment its strength by maintaining the transatlantic alliance. Europeans might welcome U.S. aid in protecting them from dangers from the Middle East and North Africa. But they would be unlikely to join the United States as allies in a Sino-American Cold War. A defensive, neutralist Europe, a sort of giant Switzerland, with a foreign policy toward the Chinese, Indian and American titans dominated by commercial considerations, is a possible, perhaps a likely, outcome.

Confronted with projections of global power shifts, American triumphalists tend to put their hopes either in Chinese stagnation or collapse, or else in a miraculous rejuvenation of American wealth and power. But projections like the ones I have cited assume slower Chinese growth going forward.

Nor is there much the United States can do to boost its share of global GDP. The U.S. fertility rate is below replacement, and yet even admitting enough immigrants to maintain population stability may be difficult, given the public backlash against mass immigration. Because of low labor-force growth, American GDP growth will be slower than in the past and determined largely by the pace of productivity growth. American hawks who propose cuts in entitlements for the elderly to fund higher defense spending are living in a dream world. In a budgetary showdown between American retirees and the Pentagon, the Pentagon will lose.

The overall picture is clear, even though details may turn out to be wrong. By the middle of this century, most of the world’s industry and military potential are likely to be concentrated in four places: China, India, Europe and the United States. In the emerging polycentric world, no single superpower like the late-twentieth-century United States will exist to provide global security and to promote a single set of economic rules. A multipolar world is likely to be a more fragmented world of regional spheres of influence and shifting security alliances reinforced by strategic trade and investment deals. Even if new cold wars are averted, the peace among major countries is likely to be not warm friendship, but a wary cold peace.

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