The famous Iron Chancellor of Germany, Otto Von Bismarck, once said of the United States, “God protects fools, drunkards and the United States of America.” While said perhaps in jest or frustration, his remarks have proved prophetic throughout the years.
The United States from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to the beginning of the Iraq War, enjoyed a moment of unipolarity in international affairs. For the first time in recorded human history, one country occupied the high ground of international affairs by itself.
When the United States became involved in the Iraq War, which soon became a quagmire, its two closest competitors on the world stage, China and Russia, began to extend their influence in world affairs at the expense of the United States. However, when one looks at the entirety of the world situation, unless there is a dramatic change in the internal affairs of the United States, the United States has a good chance of regaining its unipolarity in world affairs.
The Fundamentals of American Power
Part of the reason for the apparent durability of the ability of the United States to maintain its great power status is its geographical location. With an ocean on both coasts, friendly nations to its north and south, and a climate that provides some of the best farmland in the world, coupled with navigable rivers which provides ease of transportation of goods and services from its heartland, the United States is blessed with natural advantages. In addition, the United States is energy independent thanks to the development of oil fracking.
An additional reason for U.S. staying power is the enduring legacy of the U.S. Constitution, which so far has provided for a stable transfer of political power between various political antagonists, notwithstanding the riot and possible attempt at insurrection on January 6, 2021. With its history of stable courts and a friendly business environment, the United States has been an oasis of stability in the world so far.
Combined with the physical and non-physical advantages discussed above, U.S. demographics provide an internal manufacturing and consumer market advantage that no other nation has. While it is true that the annual growth rate of the American population is approaching stagnation levels, it can be argued that the previous Trump administration depressed demographic growth by severely limiting immigration. Coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic, the growth rate for the American population is anemic. Current estimates of demographic growth range from between 376 million to 404 million people by 2060. This would still make the United States a manufacturing and consumer market.
And while the United States did achieve a moment of unipolarity from the end of the Cold War to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it still has the potential to return to unipolarity based not only on its advantages, but also with the poor governance and negative demographic growth of its nearest competitors—Russia and China.
The People’s Republic of China
It is a popular bit of wisdom that China is the up-and-coming superpower and that the United States is a nation in decline. While it is a popular saying, a cold and sober examination of the facts about China, the economic challenges that China faces, China’s lack of natural resources, as well as the aging demographics of China, casts a sobering picture for the future of the People’s Republic of China.
While many people rave about China’s economic growth, and businesses’ prostitute themselves to try and tap China’s internal market, very few pay attention to the massive amount of debt that is an impending disaster for the Chinese economy, and the danger that such a collapse could cause.
Geopolitician Peter Zeihan compares and contrasts the idea of money between the United States and China. In the United States, money is regarded as an economic good. In China, money is regarded as a political good. In the United States, money has value in and of itself. In China, money is a political good, and only has value if it can be used to achieve a political goal. The concepts of rate of return or profit margins do not exist in China, and therein lies the danger; eventually the law of supply and demand will win out, and the Chinese economy will have to face a correction, and the longer it takes to face this economic correction, the greater damage that the inevitable correction will cause to the Chinese economy.
China’s inability of China to feed itself is an even starker problem. Partly to address this issue, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping has launched a Clean Plate Campaign in China. In 2019, the National Bureau of Statistics reported that food prices increased by 11.2 percent. Pork prices, a staple in the Chinese diet, rose some 85 percent. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates that domestic supplies of rice, wheat, and corn will fall short of demand by 25 million tons in 2025. Partly in response to its food crisis, China has dispatched fishing fleets all over the world. China has become a fishing superpower. From Ecuador and Ghana to the waters off of North Korea, Chinese fishing vessels prowl the world’s oceans harvesting fish in numbers so huge as to threaten the sustainability of certain fish species.
Another serious issue facing China is the decline of its population. Currently, there are 1.4 billion people in China. The population in China declined for the first time in 2020. According to The Lancet, the Chinese population will drop to 732 million people by 2100. This is coupled with the fact that the majority of the Chinese population will be middle-aged or elderly.
China is also the largest net importer of oil in the world. In 2020, China imported 542.37 million tons of oil. The vast majority of this oil is transported over the ocean, and the ships carrying the oil must run a gauntlet of not only the Indian Ocean but the first island chain as well in order to reach China. In the event of a conflict, China could be strangled economically by denying the use of the sea route to China by any foreign power.
When these factors are considered, China’s claim to great power status has to be questioned, if not denied.
If China is a paper dragon, Russia is a paper bear. If China’s claim to great power status is tenuous at best, Russia’s claim rests solely on its vast, but aging, nuclear arsenal. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia has declined in almost every respect of great power status, though it maintains a hold on being a regional power.
Russia’s GDP for 2020 was $1.47 trillion. Russia’s economy is currently ranked at the eleventh spot in the top world economies. While an impressive figure for a nation with slightly under 146 million people, contrasted to the U.S. GDP for 2020 of $20.93 trillion, it is lacking in great power status.
Russian demographics trends, like those for China, are on a downward trend. A Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of 2.1 represents the Replacement Level Fertility, or the average number of children per woman needed for each generation to replace itself. The TFR for Russia is 1.8. According to a United Nations report, the Russian population is projected to fall to 83.7 million by 2100.
Alcoholism and drug abuse are rampant in Russia, with the latter becoming much more common recently. It is estimated that there are over 2.2 million practicing alcoholics and 4 to 6 million regular drug addicts in Russia. This is a deep-rooted problem among the Russian people, suggesting despair and lack of hope among Russians.
While Russia is blessed with vast amounts of mineral and natural resources—including iron ore, manganese, chromium, nickel, platinum, copper, tin, lead, tungsten, diamonds, phosphates, and gold—only the fossil fuels, oil, natural gas, and coal are the ones that bring in hard currency. Russia’s inability to prosper despite having vast amounts of wealth is a problem that has bedeviled Russia since the Mongol invasion in 1240 AD.
With these issues facing the two nearest U.S. competitors, and the absence of any other world power to assume unipolarity, it is probable that the United States will eventually resume its status as a unipolar power, barring some sort of internal collapse of the United States.
Richard E. Caroll is a retired economist and has been published in Real Clear Defense, International Policy Digest, and Foreign Policy News.