Given the frantic pace of the 24 hour news cycle, stepping back from it all and looking at history provides some immensely valuable perspective. The modern news cycle may care only about what happened in the past few years, but in reality, World History is measured in centuries. First there was the Roman empire. Then the Chinese, Mongol, British empires, and now the US. The current American hegemony is impressive in its peak, but just like all its predecessors, is bound to come to an end. The coming century is going to be marked by a Chinese hegemony. It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when.
To anyone who thinks that today’s America can continue to be the global superpower that it is, let’s look at the facts. Our military and diplomatic power, while impressive, is built on a foundation of economic power. For the past 60 years, our economic power has come from one single fact: we are the largest developed nation in the world. With 320 million people, we dwarf the next closest developed nation: Japan with a mere 125 million. But this is about to change.
China is developing rapidly, and will continue to do so. Even if their per capita income never matches that of America, it doesn’t need to. With 1.3 billion people, they will dwarf the united States, 4-to-1. Even if their per capita GDP permanently lags America’s by 30%, their population alone would give them an economic power 3 times greater than America’s. They will be to America what America is to Britain.
And this economic superpower status can buy many things. With such massive economic power will come technological power, diplomatic power, and inevitably, military power. And short of America invading China before it can happen, a completely barbaric and preposterous idea, there’s nothing we can do to stop this. In the coming decades, China will be the world’s single most powerful nation. It will be the next world superpower, the way America is today.
A Multipolar Future
This may seem like a frightening thought to many, but it doesn’t have to be. If we start acting today, to prepare for this inevitability. The United States, and its allies in America, Europe, Japan and Korea, combined, will have populations and economic powers that match China’s. India, an emerging democracy, also has a population that rivals China. Southeast Asia, a rapidly developing region with 600 Million people, is also wary of Chinese imperialism, and could serve as allies in a coalition to contain Chinese hegemony. On a global scale, China’s population of 1.3 billion is still only 15% of the global population.
Historically, coalitions like the ones described have been completely toothless in combating the war mongering of superpower nations. But this has always been by design. Such coalitions, and partner international institutions, have always been built by the world’s leading superpower of the day, and kept deliberately weak in order to ensure the continued immunity and privileges that the superpower enjoys.
Consider for example, America’s attitude towards organizations like the UN. Smaller nations would like to see these organizations given dramatically more enforcement power, in order to deter aggression from, and the impunity which larger countries enjoy. The US currently, is completely opposed to any such measures precisely because it would challenge that same impunity that it currently enjoys.
When the US invaded Iraq, in violation of UN laws, it suffered no consequences from any international organization or coalition. When the US was found to have been invading the privacy of every country in the world, even that of its allies’ heads of state, it again suffered no consequences at all to speak of. Toothless international organizations serve the US interests just fine, hence why they are toothless by design.
It’s easy for us to excuse and justify such behavior with the implicit trust that we have in America. But let’s step back for a second and examine this from a historical perspective. In the year 2060, when China dwarfs the US the way the US currently dwarfs Britain, what do we want to see happen when China unilaterally invades a sovereign nation? What do we want to see happen when China is found to be hacking and surveilling all electronic communication around the world? What do we want to see happen when China starts torturing and indefinitely detaining foreign nationals? Would we still want to live in a world of toothless international institutions?
Let’s face facts. America’s days of being a sole international superpower are numbered. China is going to replace America as the world’s leading superpower, in the coming decades. As unpalatable as these facts might be, burying our heads in the sand does nothing to change it.
But this doesn’t mean that we have to be helpless. By acting now, we can start building international coalitions, organizations and institutions with teeth. Institutions that can face up to any individual superpower, and adequately punish them for misbehavior. Institutions powerful enough to deter, and engender respect from, any country in the world. As the current global superpower, this will involve us giving up the privileges and immunities that we currently enjoy… for the moment. But when the day comes that China supplants us as the world’s hegemon, we will be safer for it.
Addendum: Please do not misinterpret this as a rant against China. Many in the west do indeed see China as a bogeyman, which makes it a convenient metaphor for this essay. But in truth, we should be wary of any one country serving unilaterally as the world’s policeman.
If there’s one thing to be learned from the Iraq debacle and the Snowden revelations, it is that no country can be trusted with absolute power. It’s time we put in place checks and balances to prevent such occurrences from ever happening again.