The last, and maybe the most important, issue is the question whether the economic confrontation between the United States and China may cause the political tensions leading to a military showdown, not to mention war. I would argue that the current developments differ enormously from those that had led to World War I and to the profound “deglobalization” of the first half of the twentieth century. The political imperialism that used to be the world’s main feature completely disappeared in recent decades; the military and political control over huge territories proved to be far less effective than economic influence; and new military capabilities excluded the prospect of direct conflict between nuclear powers since the 1950s.
Moreover, as the ideological tensions between the United States and China (as well as its satellites, Russia included) had risen since the start of the twenty-first century, the overall economic confrontation might even have a positive effect as it looks to consume both nations’ energy and devotion, which would otherwise be channeled into the military-political buckle-up. Both China and America are now the world’s top powers not because of their stealth fighters, aircraft carriers or well-trained troops but due to their economic outreach and soft power, and this “multiple globalization” may become the perfect chance for testing how strong each country is.
The model for the new era of economic and political competition was proposed more than ten years ago by the young American strategist Parag Khanna, who argued back in 2008 that the coming world will be led by three “empires”: the United States, China, and the European Union—which all are capable of projecting their economic and societal models across the globe. All the other nations, Khanna argued, will be downgraded to either the “second” or “third world” countries as the first will be able to influence the outcome of “imperial” competition while the latter will entirely lose any role in world affairs. I would not go into greater detail of Khanna’s work, but the proposed scenario looks more realistic as the technological showdown advances than it seemed to be prior to 2008 financial crisis.
To conclude, I would argue one shouldn’t fear the advance of the post-globalized world. Economic progress has proved many times to be uneven, favoring either relative cooperation or fierce competition between major rivals. As potential adversaries mature and grow, the contradictions between them increase—but the most crucial point here is that since World War II, economic competition has become increasingly peaceful. The 1989 economic revolution that left the United States at the top of the global economic hierarchy didn’t provoke any political quarrels—to the contrary, it caused a short post-historical era in world politics. In the economic and technological sphere, the post-historical age became even longer—but it seems that while economic tensions rise, the risk of political confrontation isn’t increasing.
The main result of the twentieth century seems to be a complete shift from the military towards the economic capabilities as the main lever of the global power—and this still leaves some room for talking about our times as remarkably different from the “historical” era where war was the ultimate and beloved instrument of resolving the systemic contradictions between superpowers. Today, technological superiority, soft power and the infiltration of both hi-tech products and platforms is the key factor for executing worldwide dominance—and this might be a very good news for all of us, the news that is fundamentally compatible with what Fukuyama wisely observed thirty years ago.
Vladislav Inozemtsev writes on global economy and modernization from Moscow and Washington. He is the author of Catching-Up? The Limits of Rapid Economic Development (Transaction Publishers) and Unmodern Nation: Russia in The 21st Century World (Alpina Publishing, in Russian). Dr. Inozemtsev advised both Commission on Modernization of the Russian Economy under President Medvedev in 2009–2011 and several Russian liberal politicians in more recent years.