This invitation-only commentary is one in a series of global thinkers on the future of American power, examining the forces shaping the country’s global position, from the rise of China to the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Read more here.
NOTHING has eaten away foreign policy thinkers over the years more than whether the United States is in irreversible decline as a world power. The recent events in Afghanistan, which mark a further American withdrawal from Asia, certainly fuel this sentiment. But a longer-term problem for American policymakers is the constant rise in Chinese power. Is the country on the verge of overtaking America, and what are the best economic and military criteria to measure such a transition in world affairs? Isn’t China plagued by internal problems, only partially masked by the skillful public relations of an authoritarian state? Where is the era of PaxAmericana end, to be replaced by the Asian century?
It is probably unwise to rush into an immediate “yes” to this last question. Much of America and the world remains the same as it was in the 1980s when I wrote “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” (Random House, 1987). It is also true that there have been periods over the past 40 years when America’s relative position seemed to have recovered again – in the mid-1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union and in 2003 after the crushing of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader. Yet such recoveries have always been short-lived, compared to several big things that have changed – and not to the benefit of the United States. Consider three important and longer-term changes: in international relations, military strength, and economic might.
The first is that the strategic and political constellation of forces has changed since the bipolar world of the Cold War half a century ago, when America faced only a declining Soviet Union. The international system now includes four or maybe five very large states. Neither of them can, whether through hard power or soft power, force others to do what they don’t want to do.
There was already evidence of this shift to a multipolar world when I was writing the final chapter of “Rise and Fall” in the mid-1980s. But now, in the third decade of this century, the global landscape looks much more varied, with several large nation states in the lead (China, America, India and Russia), followed by the European Union and Japan, and even Indonesia and Iran.
This marks a very significant redistribution of world power, so it is simply not enough to claim, if correct, that America remains number one: because even though it is the largest gorilla in the jungle, it’s just a gorilla! And it is irrelevant to the argument that Russia’s position has shrunk even further than America’s, as both have relatively lost ground – which is, after all, the object of the realistic theory of the great powers.
The second change is that the US armed forces are considerably smaller and older than they were in the 1980s. How long, really, can the Air Force continue to repair and fly its remarkable man? 70 years old B-52 bombers, who are older than all of his active officers? And how long can the Navy continue to refurbish its 30-year-old Arleigh Burke destroyers? Although it was only a temporary embarrassment to see the western Pacific stripped of aircraft carriers last May when the USS Eisenhower group covered the start of the Afghan withdrawal, the fact is that the Navy today has fewer operational aircraft carriers than it did 40 years ago.
As the Pentagon regularly deploys its ships to different regions, the country simply does not have enough to meet its many global commitments. For the historian, America therefore looks more like the old model of the Habsburgs, with large but tired armed forces spanning too many regions. And America’s defeat in Afghanistan, leaving military equipment strewn across much of that country, also has a Habsburg sound.
Meanwhile, China seems to be showing its muscles everywhere. And behind the question of the size of the US armed forces lies a bigger problem: Isn’t the era of weapons such as manned airplanes and large surface warships passing and could disappear by 2040. One has the impression that, in some drones – dominated battlefield or ocean of the future controlled by pulsar, the odds between America and adversaries like China, Russia or Iran could change for the advantage of its own better trained soldiers will no longer be. The military revolutions of the past tended to benefit the United States; the next one might not.
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Can America afford the price to stay ahead? He must be frankly wondering what percentage of his gross domestic product would it take to have an army that fulfills the country’s many obligations (it currently spends around 3.5%). Even 4% of GDP would not be enough and while 6% could, it would be such a huge price that you can hear both economists and Congress screaming.
But what else could a future US administration do if – bad thought, barely discussed – China decided to spend much, much more? What if its autocratic leader, Xi Jinping, decides the time has come for China to allocate 5% or more of its growing GDP to its armed forces? It’s a scenario that just didn’t exist half a century ago, and no one in Washington seems to want to talk about it.
This brings up the third shift and a critical power factor: relative economic strength. The biggest global transformation since the 1980s has been in the size of China’s economy today relative to that of the United States. Whatever questions might validly be raised about China’s economic strength, such as its unreliable statistics, a shrinking future workforce, etc., the point is that it continues to grow at a steady pace. faster, both before and after Covid-19. Its economy, measure in terms of purchasing power parity-adjusted GDP, is already about as large as that of the United States.
This is a staggering statistic that points to a situation that has not existed since the 1880s, when the US economy overtook Britain’s. Throughout the 20th century, the US economy was roughly two to four times the size of any of the other great powers. America was about ten times the size of Japan during the attack on Pearl Harbor and three times the size of Germany when Hitler recklessly declared war.
This unique condition is coming to an end and an astonishing turnaround is occurring in world affairs due to the combination of China’s population size and growing prosperity. With a population of 1.4 billion compared to America’s 330 million, its citizens need only reach half the income of the average American for their total economy to be two. times more important. This would give China a huge amount of funds for future defense spending. Neither a Democratic president nor a Republican president could do much about it.
Here, with a vengeance, would be yet another episode of “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers”. Perhaps all President Xi needs to do, imitating Deng, is to avoid missteps and allow China’s economy and military capacity to grow decade after decade. It would present the biggest challenge America could face: another guy on the block as tall as her.
Paul Kennedy is professor of history at Yale University and author or editor of 19 books. He is currently working on a new edition of “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers”.