Various of us have discussed the nature of American power in the world and the prospect of its decline. In the last two years, there has been an enormous amount of talk around (if not on this blog) about the supposed reality of American decline. This kind of talk is often combined with references to ascending new powers such as China. The usual contention is that China is replacing the United States as the world hegemon (i.e. the single greatest power on the planet). The purpose of this entry is not to discuss the validity of expectations of China's rise or to speculate about what sort of policies an ascendant Chinese government would pursue. Rather I would like to talk about something that has been on mind lately: namely that talk of China replacing the USA is rooted in the belief that a world dominated by a single great power is the normal state of affairs and that naturally, if the USA declines it must be replaced as "top country" by some other power and the most likely candidate is China. This view is badly mistaken.
A single power (or "unipolar") world, such as we have experienced since 1989, is not normal. Neither is the "bi-polar" world we lived in between 1945 and 1989. For most of human history different regions of the world were dominated by local powers sometimes with one power dominating a region, but more often with a small group of powers contesting for regional hegemony. For most of the time, these regions were only tenuously connected to each other and rival powers from different regions rarely came into direct contact let alone conflict. That began to change in the 17th century when a cluster of European powers began to transfer their previously regional conflicts to a global stage. That state of affairs held until after World War II with the additions of the United States and Japan to what otherwise had continued to be a European multi-lateral rivalry.
World War II changed all that for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, only the United States emerged from that war with a completely intact industrial base. Second, only the United States and the USSR emerged from the war with militaries capable of imposing their governments' wills in all regions of the world.
Between 1945 and 1989 two processes occurred that set up the unprecedented situation of a single global power. Those were Europe's and Japan's recovery from WWII on the one hand and the relatively rapid decay, within the span of a single human lifetime, of the USSR on the other.
Since 1989 we have seen processes that appear to indicate a decline of US power. These are the rapid industrialization of countries that until the 1940s and 50s were largely colonies of the great powers of the pre-WWII rivalry. This includes countries like China, India, S. Korea, Brazil, etc. Related to this is the ending of the post-WWII US monopoly on global economic power. Advantages that the US had briefly after WWII have disappeared. For example, no longer can American industrial laborer charge whatever they wish for their efforts without regard to what the industrial laborers of Europe, Asia, South America or even Africa are willing to charge.
But are these developments a valid pretext for declaring an end to American power? Far from it. The US remains the wealthiest, large country on the planet by far. It also remains by far the largest military power (many times more potent than China is really). At the same time, while the gap between US power and the rest of the world has narrowed somewhat of the world's ten largest military spenders, 7 are the US and its allies. China is one. Russia and India are the remaining two and while difficult to place squarely in the US camp, both have fought minor wars with China relatively recently and neither has much reason to support China's unrestricted rise. This suggests to me that while the gap between US and Chinese power narrows, the US still has a dominant advantage diplomatically. Chinese governments' positions on crises such as those involving North Korea or Iran do not help China's diplomatic status in the world.
What we are seeing is the return to the Pre-WWII multi-lateral arrangement but without the over representation of European powers that characterized the period from the 1600s to 1945. In my view what we have seen in the last 60 years is not so much the firm establishment of US hegemony as a transition from one 350 year period of multilateralism to the next period of multilateralism. What's more, this transition has been overseen by the US. In the grand scheme of things the advantage that the US realizes as a result of this position of dominance during the transition will prove a good thing both for Americans and the world.
Well, that's my two cents for now.