Radical global power shifts have been common throughout history. For almost a millennium (800-100 BC) the Greek East, with its proximity to wealthy Asia and African markets and a dynamic Hellenism, was the nexus of Western civilization–before giving way to Rome and the western Mediterranean.
Yet by A.D. 300 the Greek-speaking half of the empire, more distant from northern European tribal attacks, proved the more resolute. It would endure for over 1,000 years while the fragmented West fell into chaos.
And then yet again the pendulum shifted back. The Renaissance was the product of Florence, Venice, and Rome as the Byzantine East was worn out by its elemental struggles with Islam and straitjacketed by an increasingly rigid Orthodoxy and top-heavy imperial regime.
But by 1600 the galley states of the Western Mediterranean were to lose their restored primacy for good, as to the north the ocean-going galleons of the Atlantic port nations–England, France, Holland, Portugal, and Spain–usurped commerce and monopolized the new trans-oceanic trade routes to Asia and the New World.
By the time of the industrial revolution, another radical shift had occurred in influence and power. The northern European states of England, France, and Germany, products of the Enlightenment, with sizable Protestant populations, outpaced both the old classical powers of the Mediterranean and the Spanish empire. And in early 20th century, the United States, benefiting from the Anglo tradition of transparency and the rule of law–combined with a unique constitution, exploding population, and vast resources–displaced the old European colonial empires and stood down the supposed new future of Soviet totalitarianism.
Globalization and technology, of course, can speed up these shifts and accomplish in a few years what used to transpire over centuries. We are told that a third of the planet, the two billion in China and India, is now moving at a breakneck pace with market reforms to remake the world. The old idea of a “population bomb” of too many people and too few resources has been turned upside down: The key is not how many people reside in a country but rather what those people do. A billion under a Marxist regime leads to terrible human waste and starvation; a billion in a market economy is actually advantageous–as seemingly endlessly active minds and arms flood the world with cheap consumer goods and rebuild a decaying infrastructure from the ground up.
Europe–high unemployment, layers of bureaucracy slow growth, unsustainable entitlements, ethnic and religious tensions, shrinking populations, unresponsive central governments–is often juxtaposed with Asia, as if its sun is setting just as the East’s is once again rising.
So far the European Union’s decision not to spend on defense; its inherited infrastructure and protocols; and its commitment to the rule of law keep the continent seemingly prosperous. It has some breathing space to decide whether it will reemerge as a rising power or be relegated to a curious museum for cash-laden tourists from Asia and America.
Somewhere between these poles is the United States. Pessimists point out that we increasingly don’t create the cars we drive, the phones we used, or mirabile dictu, soon the food we eat. High budget deficits, trade imbalances, enormous national debt, and growing military expenditures will supposedly take their toll at last, as pampered Americans consume what by the new global rules they don’t quite earn.
Optimists counter with their own set of statistics and point out that immigration and religion have ensured a steady if not rising population. Unemployment, interest rates, and inflation are low, and alone in the world America has an amazing resiliency and flexibility to fashion citizens and a single culture out of diverse races and religions. It also, of course, enjoys a unique constitution and laws that provide freedom without license.
We seem to enjoy the best of both worlds, symbolized by our two coasts that look on both east and west. Our European traditions ensure the rule of law and the vibrancy of Western civilization. Yet decades ago, unlike the EU, we understood the Asian challenge and kept our markets open and our economy free, often requiring great dislocation and painful adjustment. The result is that for all our bickering, we continue to remain competitive and flexible in a way Europe does not.
If we have avoided the state socialism of Europe that stymies growth, we have also already passed through all the contradictions of a breakneck capitalist transition–the dislocation of rural people, industrial pollution, unionization, suburban blues, ubiquitous graft, and petty bribery–that will increasingly plague both India and China as they leave the 18th century and enter the 21st.
But the real question is how both China and India, nuclear and arming, will translate their newfound economic clout and cash into a geopolitical role. If internal politics and protocols are any barometer of foreign policy, it should be an interesting show. We mostly welcome the new India–nuclear, law-abiding, and English-speaking–onto the world stage. It deserves a permanent seat on the Security Council and a close alliance with the United States.
China, however, is a very different story–a soon-to-be grasping Soviet Union-like superpower without any pretense of Marxist egalitarianism. Despite massive cash reserves and ongoing trade surpluses, it violates almost every international commercial protocol from copyright law to patents. It won’t discuss Tibet, and it uses staged domestic unrest to send warnings to Taiwan and Japan that their regional options will increasingly be limited by Beijing.
China could rein in Kim Jong Il tomorrow. But it derives psychological satisfaction from watching Pyongyang’s nuclear roguery stymie Japan and the United States. China’s foreign policy in the Middle East, Central and South America, and Southeast Asia is governed by realpolitik of the 19th-century American stripe, without much concern for the type of government or the very means necessary to supply its insatiable hunger for resources. The government that killed 50 million of its own has not really been repudiated and its present successor follows the same old practice of jailing dissidents and stamping out freedom. When and how its hyper-capitalist economy will mandate the end of a Communist directorate is not known.
The world has been recently flooded with media accounts that U.S. soldiers may have dropped or at least gotten wet a few Korans. Abu Ghraib, we are told, is like the Soviet gulag–the death camp of millions. Americans are routinely pilloried abroad because they liberated Iraq, poured billions into the reconstruction, and jumpstarted democracy there–but were unable to do so without force and the loss of civilian life.
This hysteria that the world’s hyper-power must be perfect or is it is no good is in dire contrast to the treatment given to China. Yet Pavlovian anti-Americanism may soon begin to die down as the Chinese increasingly flex their muscles on the global stage and the world learns better their methods of operation.
So far they have been given a pass on three grounds: the old Third World romance accorded to Mao’s Marxist legacy; the Chinese role as a counterweight to the envied power of the United States; and the silent admission that the Chinese, unlike the Americans, are a little crazy and thus unpredictable in their response to moral lecturing. Americans apologize and scurry about when an EU or U.N. official remonstrates; in contrast, a Chinese functionary is apt to talk about sending off a missile or two if they don’t shut up.
The Patriot Act to a European is proof of American illiberality in a way that China’s swallowing Tibet or jailing and executing dissidents is not. America’s support for Saudi Arabia is proof of our hypocrisy in not severing ties with an undemocratic government, while few care that a country with leaders who traverse the globe in Mao suits cuts any deal possible with fascists and autocrats for oil, iron ore, and food.
Yes, we are witnessing one of the great transfers of power and influence that have traditionally changed civilization itself, as money, influence, and military power are gradually inching away from Europe. And this time the shake-up is not regional but global. While scholars and economists concentrate on its economic and political dimensions, few have noticed how a new China and an increasingly vulnerable Europe will markedly change the image of the United States.
As nations come to know the Chinese, and as a ripe Europe increasingly cannot or will not defend itself, the old maligned United States will begin to look pretty good again. More important, America will not be the world’s easily caricatured sole power, but more likely the sole democratic superpower that factors in morality in addition to national interest in its treatment of others.
China is strong without morality; Europe is impotent in its ethical smugness. The buffer United States, in contrast, believes morality is not mere good intentions but the willingness and ability to translate easy idealism into hard and messy practice.
Most critics will find such sentiments laughable or naïve; but just watch China in the years to come. Those who now malign the imperfections of the United States may well in shock whimper back, asking for our friendship. Then the boutique practice of anti-Americanism among the global elite will come to an end.