I find the fascination with the ‘collapse of power’ thesis as annoying, as the fantasy about new rising powers. Fluctuations in power on the world stage come and go, and rarely have anything to do with genuine collapses.
What they do have to do with, is people’s unrealistic beliefs being shattered.
This childish habit has been with us since the post war anti-colonialists tried to prove that the British Empire collapsed through lack of power (as all empires must they think). Crap.
First, the artificial economic high that Britian enjoyed in the post Napoleonic war was never going to last long term. Less than 5% of the world’s population cannot have half the world’s economic power for anything but a brief period. Eventually things start to balance out.
(I heard one idiot economics 'commentator' recently talking about the collapse of Apple’s market share in i-phones. Hello.. if you invent the first one and no one else sells anything similar becasue it is not very good, you can have 100% market share. If they start welling millions and are good enough that everyone tries to copy them, you will not have 100% market share - just billions in profits. This is not a collapse by Apple. It is everyone else adapting to Apple’s techniques and moving forward. It is how human progress happens. Live with it.)
The same goes for the ‘collapse’ of American power. Post World War Two the United States had a similar domination of the world economy that Britain had 130 years earlier. But times have moved on, and communication of ideas is faster. It took only half as long for the US to fall back to a more realistic percentage of wealth for population. This is not a collapse, it is a correction. Deal with it.
Still the academic loons who make money from predicting doom and despair don’t seem to understand natural correction.
The fantasy of China as the next great superpower for instance. China usually (over 2 or 3 thousand years) controls 20-25% of the world’s population. It’s economy could potentially be 20-25% of the world’s economy. China could be powerful almost to the extent of the British Empire after the Napoleonic war, or the United States after World War Two.
It could be, but it won’t be.
China is, as it has always been, an unstable conglomeration of people’s who simply do not coalesce very well. It is an empire, not a state. More importantly it is not an empire like the Roman’s who adopted talented outsiders, or the British, who trained indigenous groups to run their own affairs. It is an Empire that has always been about controlling those dangerous people who won’t toe the line inside its borders, and living in fear of those outside its borders.
The dominant cultures and tribes in China spend as much time stamping on the fringe groups as they do developing anything useful. As a result the hierarchy of the Chinese nobility is as corrupt and self serving as any feudal aristocracy in decline at its most venal. (In fact I think I might be insulting post-feudal oligarchs with such an invidious comparison. Even the French aristocracy of the 1780’s made some efforts to look after those ontheir estates… they just hadn’t got the hang of all these new cities yet…)
China has always been ruled by the aristocracy of those who count, and has always treated the vast majority of its population as peasants and lackeys. Economically and socially, China would have to change quite enormously to evolve into a stable and productive power. It won’t.
It suprises me that people make such a big thing about the economic growth of China since the artificial brakes of Communist idealogy were removed. If something has been repressed as hard and long as the Chinese economy was repressed, then it will automatically make great leaps forward once the brakes are loosened. But the fantasy that this will inevitably lead to economic dominance is as ridiculous as it was for the Asian Tigers, or the Japanes miracle, or whatever other guide you want to use.
We have a parallel in the last century of a choatic but rumbunctious free market democracy versus a centrally controlled state system. So many theorists over decades spent vast effort trying to convince themselves that the Soviet Union was inevitably going to triumph over the US. (See Kennedy’s “Rise and Fall of the Great Power’s’ for a sample.) The same idiots seem intent on ignoring Indian growth in economics and power altogether. They shouldn’t.
Yet a vast number of bad theoreticians continue to act as if their home grown fantasies are revelations from God. China must be inevitably going to dominate, because we have learned nothing from the Asian Tigers or Japan, and we haven’t bothered to look at India at all. We just continue believing the propaganda of the command economies, and try to ignore the evidence of the Soviet Union and all other command economies. Really.
The reasons US power will not ‘collapse’, are:
First and foremost, their demographics are better than anyone else’s. Europe, China, large parts of Asia, and almost the entire Muslim world, is going through demographic retraction that will soon be astonishing. The US is not.
Second, the knowledge industry. The old Soviet empire was lagely driven under by misplaced arrogance and secrecy. The arrogance was in such simple things as avoiding English as a scientific common ground (Soviet science was done in German! The problem there being that a language that makes up new words to explain things will never match a language that uses commonly understood Latin roots for descriptive words.) The secrecy was state restriciton of information that led to a ‘right to know’ culture of permission before using a photocopier. Again, science was put back to the pre-printing press days.
Chinese firewalls, and repression of freedon of information, may have ony a few % slowing effect on their development, but it will be enough to prevent them being a serious knowledge society (no matter how good their hackers are... more shades of Cold War scares). The US economy is still open.
Third, oppenness. Immigrants want to go to the US to study and research and work and invest. China has pretty significant barriers to all those things. (See what’s happening to Japanese trade as a result of the argument over a few rocks in the South China Sea.)
US influence may collapse.
Because of US internal politics…
To be precise, the US population has traditionally been isolationist, and their willingness to play ‘world policeman’ for a few decades after World War Two is a significant aberation from their normal practices. US public opinioin these days is all about ‘bringing troops home’, not ‘making the world safe for democracy'. (Which is apparently – in Mali - being left to the French!!!)
I would suggest that the withdrawal of Britain from the role of international policeman after the Great War had far more to do with voters at home being sick of paying for it and wanting peace treaties, than with any major problems with the British economy. (I will post on that another time.)
Frankly the British taxpayer wanted out, and after being forced to carry 6 further years of conflict in World War Two, abandoned their international obligations with indecent haste. Three centuries of colonial development and defence and trade obligations were thrown over within a couple of decades. (The taxpayer having previously undercut the defence budgets so badly in the interwar period that this was considered both logical and ‘inevitable’.)
The danger is not US collapse, the danger is US voter disinterest, apathy, and revulsion, with having to carry the can for the international policing role.
Frankly if you read the abuse over ‘imperial aggression’ the Americans have been receiving from the EU (particularly France until the last few months), it sounds remarkably like the abuse Americna politicians were giving the Britsh for doing exactly the same job a century ago. Eventually, people who only get abused for trying to help tend to want to say 'f... it, you have a go...".
The British took 100 years after Napoleon to lose their economic dominance, but were still ready to play policeman up until WW1 (achieving minor things like safe international trade, virtual elimination of piracy, and the end of slavery worldwide, etc., in the process). Between the wars the British taxpayer was rebellious, and by the 1950’s, delighted to let the Yanks have a go at a task that never gets you anything but abuse.
The American’s are still economically (per head), reasonably dominant, but it only took about 30 years for the glow to go off for their policing efforts (Vietnam anyone?), and the US taxpayer has been pretty down on it for much of that time.
I heard a visiting US admiral speak at ANU when I was at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in the early 1990’s. He commented that in the 1970’s the US could intimidate India by parking a carrier battle group off the coast, but that by the 1990’s the Indians were pretty contemptuous. When pressed on whether the USN could still achieve intimidationo, he said “possibly, but the US taxpayer would never go for it”.
This was interesting because the first Gulf War, while fought largely with US troops, was not financed by the US. They passed the hat, and got money from client states like Saudi Arabia and Germany. The post 9.11 response of the US voter was a bit more into willingness to spend.. for a while.. but not to the level that would make the US an effective world’s policeman. (See Libya, Mali, Syria, etc.)
It is also notable that the Pax Americana has seen a rebirth of piracy, unsafe trade routes, and possibly even interntional slavery. (US is certainly not the only state to blame here, but the trend is worrying.)
So while I do not fear a ‘collapse’ of US power, I do fear a vacuum caused by internal politics…
But that too is another post.