October 29, 2002

Global configuration of power

Where do we stand in the broader trajectory of world history? By "we" I don't only mean the people of the United States but all of humanity. What is going to happen with all of the world's 215 or so states as political units? Will we have the U.S. continue as the sole hegemonic power in the next century or so, and live in a Pax Americana, assuming that the 1990s have been marked by that peace?

The rise of the U.S. to the position of the world's top economic power took place very early in the 20th century, and some even place its rise to dominance in the 1890s. The rise to economic supremacy made the U.S. the number-one economy in the world by the 1920s and '30s, despite the Great Depression, which after all, did not hurt the U.S. alone. Another evil that hit all the other great industrial powers, namely the Second World War, did not hit the U.S. as badly. This war indeed further induced and reinforced its economic growth and prosperity, making the U.S. the source of half the world's industrial production by the end of the war. Yet those days are gone forever, and no one could expect otherwise, since it is impossible for 3% of humanity to provide half the world's industrial products and at the same time have half the world's GDP. The situation that emerged after the war, and the relatively privileged and well-deserved place of the U.S. within it, was certainly ephemeral. As everyone knew they would, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union, Germany, Japan, and Italy recovered. No one expected them to become destitute third world countries; they were "doomed" to prosper, but at the same time, no one expected Japan and Germany to recover so well in the way in which they did. For example, Japan exceeded the victors and the defeated alike, rivaling even the U.S economy. Furthermore, with the tide of anti-colonialism, countries like India, Pakistan, Algeria, and Indonesia became independent, and they too began to claim their deserved share of world GDP through industrialization. The U.S. share of the world's industrial production declined consistently, bringing it to something like 25 percent, down from the 50 percent it happened to be in 1945.

The source of military and political power is economic and industrial strength. Immediately after the war, the U.S. had unrivaled bargaining power precisely because of all the stuff that the U.S. factories were producing. You did not need precision bombing of European and Asian cities to coerce their governments to do what the U.S. wanted them to do; they agreed to U.S. demands because economic cooperation was mutually beneficial. The U.S. economy was the driving force behind American power. Overwhelming economic superiority led to overwhelming political superiority and global hegemony. As that economic base of power weakened by almost a half in relative terms, the U.S. does not enjoy the same bargaining power today.

There is something quite funny, and I think ephemeral, about the distribution of political-military and economic power among the states today as well. Looking at the world economy ever since the 1970s, we are used to seeing a tri-polar configuration, with the U.S., Japan, and Germany being the three seats of power. Germany is also surrounded by and engaged in a union with a bunch of other wealthy industrialized European countries, calling themselves the "European Union." Yet Japan and Germany are not seats of military power because they don't have nuclear bombs in a world where even Israel and Pakistan have them. In the political-military arena, we also confront a tri-polar division: The United States, China, and the Russian Federation are the three countries with nuclear capabilities; strong armies; and enough land, natural resources, and population to become the world's sole superpower. So the U.S. has to face two contenders in the economic scene and two contenders in the military-political scene.

How uninformed is it then, to say that the U.S. is the sole superpower? I think it is just a fantasy to say that the U.S., or for that purpose, any other country, is or can be the sole superpower. But the U.S. enjoys the situation I outlined above, namely, that its economic and political-military contenders are different. No other country since the Soviet Union could combine economic and military power in such a way as to challenge the U.S. in both of these fields. Yet, just as the situation after the Second World War was, this is also a passing phenomenon. If this is the case, which nation might be the likely candidate, combining formidable military power with an economy that rivals the U.S.?

China seems to be the most likely, yet not the only candidate. The Chinese GDP, at least in terms of purchasing power, is already large. China has nuclear weapons, a seat on the United Nations security council, a million-man-strong army, a land area that equals the U.S., and a population more than four times that of the United States. Russia, if it can reverse the demographic trend toward a devastating decline in its population and bring along an economic recovery, can easily bounce back and become a superpower again, this time with a capitalist ideology. What about Japan and Germany? With that much land and population, can they become superpowers even if they do acquire nuclear weapons? Japan can, due to its isolated status as an island nation, emulate the British empire if it can supplement itself with components of military power. For countries like Germany and Japan, which already have nuclear power plants, building a nuclear missile is very easy. Germany can compensate for its small population (80 million) by subjugating the European Union to its wishes.

There are yet other countries with huge unrealized potential. Brazil is the most important one that comes to my mind. With a land area that almost equals that of the U.S. and a population that is more than a hundred and fifty million, a prosperous and militarily mighty Brazil could easily become a superpower. India is another case in point, though lacking many components of power, whereas Indonesia is lacking all components except population. The other countries of the world, countries below a population of a hundred million people and a land area of three million square kilometers (one third of the size of the U.S.) are not contenders.

As such, we have identified the political-military and economic configuration of power in the world, as of the year 2002, and the trends that favor the rise of other powers vis-à-vis the relative decline of the United States. Next week, I will look at the U.S. and its foreign policy as one of a declining superpower and what that means for us as the residents of this country and as responsible human beings.