Throughout history, one of the enduring features of the international order has been the presence of a nation-state that, by virtue of its military prowess, economic leverage, and political clout, accreted a sufficiently disproportionate share of global influence as to earn the title of “superpower” or “empire.” Conventional wisdom maintains that this geopolitical asymmetry will endure in some form. Indeed, even though the United States will likely remain the world’s predominant power for the foreseeable future, a growing body of scholarship aims to predict which state or coalition of states is poised to supplant it. Most of these analyses argue that China and the European Union (EU) are among the more plausible candidates.
While historical precedent appears to validate the theory of “hegemonic continuum,” important trends suggest that the end of the United States’ reign atop the world may well conclude the era in which a superpower necessarily prevails. Such an outcome, were it to prevail, would represent a significant, but uncertain, departure from past history. Indeed, of the sparse literature that addresses evolving power dynamics, much of it expresses great alarm. Michael Mandelbaum believes that “The alternative to the role the United States plays in the world is not better global governance, but less of it – and that would make the world a far more dangerous and less prosperous place.”1 Niall Ferguson echoes this argument, but in more sobering language: “Unfortunately, the alternative to a single superpower is not a multilateral utopia, but the anarchistic nightmare of a new Dark Age.”2 The purpose of this paper is not to render such judgments, but rather, to simply explore the factors that make the emergence of a successor unlikely. To this end, I scrutinize the internal problems that China and the EU are primed to experience in forthcoming decades, and discuss the increasingly important roles of transnational phenomena such as global public opinion.
China: The Fallacy of Extrapolation
While China has recently begun to augment its military capabilities, the United States is likely to retain a significant advantage not only over any forces that it could muster, but also over the combined forces that any proposed countervailing coalition could marshal. An independent task force on Chinese military power concluded that “the balance between the United States and China, both globally and in Asia, is likely to remain decisively in America’s favor beyond the next twenty years.”5 Politically, although it is certainly an important player, it is unlikely to be able to exert a meaningful leadership role while practicing communist governance and capitalist economics. Indeed, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the attendant defeat of collectivist ideologies, communism is unlikely to experience a widespread renaissance. Democratic governance appears primed to continue, although its diffusion is certainly not guaranteed, and it is bound to experience resistance.
While China’s military and political weaknesses are more apparent, its economic foibles are not entirely concealed. Unfortunately, mainstream discourse tends to accord primacy to absolute figures, rather than relative measures or underlying trends. Thus, per capita GDP (PCGDP), while itself a crude indicator of a country’s standard of living is more revealing than GDP. In 2005, the United States ranked fourth in the world, with a PCGDP of $41,800; China ranked 118th, with a PCGDP of $6,200. In that same year, the United States ranked tenth in the world as measured by its human development index; China ranked 85th.7 Furthermore, while income inequality appears to be growing in both countries, it is more pronounced in China, with wealth increasingly concentrating in urban populations.8
Even supposing that one does not incorporate these figures into one’s analysis, history should remind one that extraordinary economic growth eventually reaches a terminus, which often proves to be quite painful. Recall that in the aftermath of the Second World War, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other “tigers” experienced what many economists deemed “miraculous” growth. Indeed, East Asia expanded robustly (and rather smoothly) for nearly four decades before devolving into crisis in 1997.
As the above discussion reveals, China is unlikely to emerge as a counterweight to the United States in the near to intermediate future. Presume, however, for argument’s sake, that enough time had passed that it had indeed arrived at this position. Even then, it would have to confront myriad, complex challenges, most of which either do not exist, or are not nearly as acute, in the United States. That corruption is endemic to the Chinese government has been widely noted, although its potential ramifications have not been properly examined. One scholar warns of “systemic risks in Chinese domestic politics that, if poorly managed, could explode, threatening the survival of the regime.”9 Furthermore, China’s crucial reliance on other countries to provide for its basic demands, such as energy consumption, will constrain any expansionist tendencies that it may harbor. Consider that, in 2003, its imports of metals, fossil fuels, and other natural resources accounted for approximately 60% of its combined imports.10 China also faces tremendous demographic challenges, perhaps the most grave of which is a rapidly spreading AIDS epidemic. In 2002, the United Nations warned, “China is on the verge of a catastrophe that could result in unimaginable human suffering, economic loss and social devastation.”11 Finally, as if its extraordinarily high population density were not the source of enough problems, it is aging more rapidly than any other country in history.12 These “domestic liabilities could bring China’s economic expansion to a halt…It remains to be seen if Beijing will be able to do enough to stave off the domestic threats to its presumed assumption as regional hegemon.13
Most of the analyses, then, that foresee China’s emergence as world superpower improperly extrapolate its current growth patterns, and neglect to consider important undercurrents that have started to bubble. As such, attempting to reverse or contain its growth would prove inimical to the United States’ interests, considering the depth of Sino-American economic synergy. Of the many insights that globalization has imparted, one of the most important is that the “zero-sum game” mentality that appears to underpin alarm over other countries’ gains, economic and otherwise, rests on fallacious laurels. As the aftermath of the Second World War revealed, the United States stands to accrue considerable dividends from others’ progress, so long as it sustains its own growth.14
The EU: Division as a Source of Weakness
Of greater importance, however, is that, its name notwithstanding, the EU does not oftentimes behave like a uniform bloc. Indeed, even in member states where nationalist sentiment is not particularly pronounced, people have not completely, or even largely, forged supranational identities. The EU’s recent failures to pass a constitutional referendum and create a budget affirm the existence of important fissures within the European community. It is unlikely that the superimposition of a unifying architecture will neatly resolve those differences. And, as history reveals, countries can neither achieve greatness nor sustain it if their citizens are unable to put aside differences in times of need, and project a common voice. The National Intelligence Council distills these arguments: “The extent to which Europe enhances its clout on the world stage depends on its ability to achieve greater political cohesion.”15 The United States should welcome Europe’s ascent onto the world stage, and view it as an opportunity to restore traditionally robust transatlantic ties that have loosened in the aftermath of the war in Iraq.
Historical Precedent and an Evolving Definition of Power
Paralleling this decline in the tenure of each superpower’s reign is an increasingly complex definition of power. In the days of the Roman Empire, territorial acquisition was a central imperative, whose pursuit conferred upon the conquering state increased economic leverage and political clout. Indeed, a country’s standing largely correlated to its military power. The concept of an international community, and the notion of tailoring one’s policies to the whims of global public opinion, did not become central considerations until after internecine destruction laid waste to much of the industrialized world. Today, as a result, the relationship between military preponderance and other forms of power is not nearly as facile.
In particular, this complication owes to the growing importance of information power, the ability to control information and the communications technologies through which it is channeled. Especially with the advent of the Internet, the global communications revolution is entrusting a multiplicity of actors with this power, ranging from states to nongovernmental organizations to individuals. As information power further decentralizes, the probability of sustained power asymmetries will diminish, because global public opinion frustrates the ability of any one country to impose its objectives upon the international community. In a passionate, if somewhat strident, essay, one scholar celebrates its ascent to the position of “second superpower”:
While global public opinion is certainly not a monolith, as this passage seems to convey, it quite often opposes American foreign policy with a striking measure of uniformity.
Appraising the Future
The second and fourth scenarios, in particular, warrant attention, because elements of each are already emerging. Although there still exists passionate debate over the importance of global public opinion, there is a wide consensus in scholarly and policymaking circles that nonstate actors and global issues are exerting greater influence. Furthermore, emerging powers such as China, India, and Brazil, while far from securing dominance in their respective spheres, have already exhibited ambitions to project global influence. Thus, President Clinton concluded that “it is highly unlikely that we will be the only superpower and have the position we now occupy for more than another couple of decades.”17
While I do not envisage the emergence of several superpowers, as Clinton does, I maintain that a multiplicity of states will likely constitute the power nexus of the future. It is this prospect that, for many, is more disconcerting than apolarity. There is some basis for this alarm. After all, tensions between competing powers led to two global conflagrations in a little over three decades, each of which resulted in tremendous destruction. Noting the United States’ increased preoccupation with prosecuting a global war against terrorism, Charles A. Kupchan expresses concern over the renewal of a similar specter:
Although scholars such as Mandelbaum, Ferguson, and Kupchan may not agree on the precise characteristics that future geopolitical structures will possess, they largely share a sense of pessimism. Predicting, then, how the disparate scenarios that I have proposed will complement, impinge upon, or otherwise interact with, one another strikes me as an exercise of tremendous theoretical interest and practical importance, especially if the world is to be spared further ravage.
As the term has only recently entered the lexicon of mainstream discourse, I see fit to quote the definition of Charles Firestone, Executive Director of the Communications and Society Program at the Aspen Institute, who coined it: “Netpolitik is a new style of diplomacy that seeks to exploit the powerful capabilities of the Internet to shape politics, culture, values, and personal identity. But unlike Realpolitik – which seeks to advance a nation’s political interests through amoral coercion – Netpolitik traffics in ‘softer’ issues such as moral legitimacy, cultural identity, societal values, and public perception.”19
Fully delineating its implications lies well beyond the scope of this paper, but succinctly distilling them seems to be in order. Fundamentally, netpolitik centers on the concept of reduced information asymmetry, which may roughly be defined as the international community’s growing ability to access, disseminate, and produce information on consequential global issues. The marked reduction in information asymmetry between the United States and the rest of the world is assuredly one of the most consequential developments of the nearly two decades since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It is a phenomenon that, while not eliciting the attention in mainstream discourse that it merits, will have important geopolitical consequences. Such is the case because, far from occurring in a vacuum, the closure of this information chasm has manifested in response to and within the system of globalization, whereby states’ conditions are increasingly contingent upon those of others.
The global communication revolution comprises myriad phenomena, but I maintain that the advent of the Internet is of chief importance. It has, effectively, served to engineer “global public opinion,” which, while not a monolith, oftentimes exemplifies a striking degree of unanimity in opposition to the United States’ foreign policy objectives. There is a rich body of scholarship that examines how American public opinion constrains or otherwise influences the manner in which the United States wields its power abroad, but little on how international sentiment similarly exerts influence.
Furthermore, most mainstream analysis on emerging geopolitical structures employs a tripartite definition of power, whereby a country’s military prowess, economic leverage, and political clout largely determine its standing in the international order. While this conception is still highly useful, as the strategic importance of information power continues to grow, it will increasingly be unable to explain the currents of the modern world. Within the body of scholarship that does focus attention on the role of information power, most mistakenly views it within the context of, rather than as separate from, the traditional lenses. The Strategic Studies Institute elegantly affirms this argument: “Unfortunately, the informational element is often viewed as a component of the diplomatic or political elements of power, but to view information solely as a subordinate tool is myopic since information is an instrument in its own right. The increasing reach of regional and global communications systems has made it an autonomous tool of statecraft.”20
It is natural to question how or why a “virtual,” transnational phenomenon like global public opinion – oftentimes appearing to be little more than an inchoate, theoretical consideration – can exert so much influence. The short answer is that while it cannot prevent the world’s lone superpower from implementing a given policy, it can make the consequences of executing that decision costly. That is to say, it imposes heretofore nonexistent constraints on the manner in which the United States engages the world.
For illustrative purposes, I offer one such limitation. Because there are very few ways to regulate the content that appears on the Internet, purported statements of fact are aired, disseminated, and recycled at a velocity that vastly exceeds the rate at which even the most sophisticated mechanisms of quality control can monitor their veracity. The unfortunate consequence, then, is that much content that is advertised as truth actually comprises distortions and falsehoods, which unwitting individuals regularly consume. It is this fact that is perhaps most unsettling, because the United States can no longer content itself with waging a battle to regain information dominance. It will increasingly have to enter the arena of perceptions, where, regrettably, distinctions between fact and fiction merit little attention and, oftentimes, are wholly irrelevant. The United States’ current public diplomacy efforts, which are widely believed to be tailored to the antiquities of Cold War, are scarcely appropriate for today’s highly decentralized, competitive environment, in which a virtually infinite number of players vie for influence.
The above discussion is not intentioned as, and does not purport to provide, an exacting appraisal of netpolitik. It is, rather, aimed at affirming my earlier contention that developing novel frameworks of international relations is not merely an exercise of idle intellectual interest and, quite to the contrary, has tremendous practical applications. The impulse to conform evolving power dynamics to tested frameworks, while understandable, will not serve the people of this nation well as the 21st century reveals both new challenges and opportunities.
* The author expresses his gratitude to Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, for encouraging me to develop the ideas that are contained in this paper, while warning me that one must exercise great caution when prophesying the future. Any failure to heed his recommendation is, of course, solely the fault of this author.
Ali Wyne is an undergraduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is pursuing dual degrees in management and political science. He is author of “Suicide Terrorism as Strategy: Case Studies of Hamas and the Kurdistan Workers Party,” which was published in the July 2005 issue of Strategic Insights. Mr. Wyne is the founder and executive editor of MIT International Review, MIT’s first student-run journal of international relations.