TWQ: American and Chinese Power after the Financial Crisis - Fall 2010

  • Oct 1, 2010

    The United States has been widely blamed for the recent financial crisis. As the U.S. economy floundered and China continued to grow in the great recession of 2008-2009, Chinese authors launched ‘‘a flood of declinist commentary about the United States.’’ One expert claimed that the high point of U.S. power projection was 2000. The Chinese were not alone in such statements. Goldman Sachs advanced the date at which it expects the  size of the Chinese economy to surpass the U.S. economy to 2027. In a 2009 Pew Research Center poll, majorities or pluralities in 13 of 25 countries believed that China will replace the United States as the world’s leading superpower. Even the U.S. government’s National Intelligence Council projected in 2008 that U.S. dominance would be ‘‘much diminished’’ by 2025. President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia called the 2008 financial crisis a sign that the United States’ global leadership is coming to an end, and even a sympathetic observer, Canadian opposition leader Michael Ignatieff, suggested that Canada should look beyond North America now that the ‘‘the noon hour of the United States and its global dominance are over.’’

    One should be wary, however, of extrapolating long-term trends from cyclical events, while being aware of misleading metaphors of organic decline. Nations are not like humans with predictable life spans. For example, after the United Kingdom lost its American colonies at the end of the eighteenth century, Horace Walpole lamented its reduction to ‘‘as  insignificant a country as Denmark or Sardinia.’’ He failed to foresee that the industrial revolution would give the United Kingdom a second century of even greater ascendency. Likewise, Rome remained dominant for  more than three centuries after the apogee of Roman power. Even then, Rome did not succumb to the rise of another state, but died a death of a  thousand cuts inflicted by various barbarian tribes. Indeed for all the  fashionable predictions of Brazil, China, or India surpassing the United States in the next decades, the greater threats may come from cuts from modern barbarians and non-state actors.

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Joseph S. Nye Jr.