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China as #1, U.S. as #2: What We Might Learn from an Earlier Power Shift

China as #1, U.S. as #2: What We Might Learn from an Earlier Power Shift

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It was the headline that buzzed ’round the world: “China poised to pass US as world’s leading economic power this year.” Okay, so China is now #1. We are now #2.    

Let’s ask ourselves: Does it really surprise us that this has happened? Did we really think that our current course was commensurate with superpower status? That we could fritter away resources in low-yield foreign wars, run huge fiscal deficits–all the while ignoring the fundamental rules of economic growth, in terms of appropriate taxation, regulation, litigation, and energy production? Of course not.   

So what does this US-China switch mean? The short answer is that we don’t really know, because the future doesn’t provide us with many data points. And there aren’t many data points in the past, either, because the world hasn’t seen this sort of power-shift since 1872, when the British economy was eclipsed by America’s. Not long after that, Germany, too, overtook Britain in economic power. 

So how did the British react? Most Englishmen resolved not to notice. After all, in the late 19th century, the British Empire ruled over nearly a quarter of the world, both in area and population. As they liked to hear themselves say, “The sun never sets on the Union Jack.”

However, a few shrewd observers could see plainly that London’s reach was greater than its grasp.   Rudyard Kipling might be remembered as the bard of imperialism, but he was actually a clear-eyed observer of power. Commissioned to write a poem to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s reign, Kipling produced “Recessional”; the occasion might have been festive, but the tone was dire:

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:   
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!   

That is, Kipling warned, the British Empire could go the way of vanquished Middle Eastern empires.  

Two years later, in 1899, came the Boer War, in which the British fought against Dutch settlers in South Africa. The English army prevailed, but it was a demoralizing experience for the victors, a painful and morally queasy counter-insurgency campaign; the 1980 film “Breaker Morant” captured some of the English ambivalences. The Boer War drilled into Britain that it simply didn’t have the stomach to fight, everywhere, for their empire. And so the recession of British power became obvious to honest onlookers.

In our time, Americans might find themselves comparing the Boer War to the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.   

Indeed, for more insight into our predicament, we might also look back to the political and strategic thinking of H.G. Wells, the British science-fiction writer. For all his powers of imagination, Wells was an all-around brilliant thinker, deeply engaged in the real-world debates of his era.   

And so, for example, in his autobiography, published in 1934, he reflected on the turn of the century and its events. He and his circle of friends, who had organized themselves into a club calling themselves the “Coefficients,” were, he recalled, “all stung by the small but humiliating tale of disasters in the South Africa war, all sensitive to the threat of business recession, and all profoundly alarmed by the naval and military aggressiveness of Germany.”

Once again, Americans today can supply their own present-day analogies: In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, the great recession and the threat from Russia, as well as the rise of China. Wells continued:

The undeniable contraction of the British outlook in the opening decade of the new century is one that has exercised my mind very greatly… Gradually, the belief in the possible world leadership of England had been deflated, by the economic development of America and the militant boldness of Germany. 

Wells added that the long epoch of British power had made Britons forget where their power came from: 

The long reign of Queen Victoria, so prosperous, progressive, and effortless, had produced habits of political indolence and cheap assurance. As a people we had got out of training, and when the challenge of these new rivals became open, it took our breath away at once. We did not know how to meet it. 

So as to the American perspective of today, do we really think, for example, that we can maintain our vast foreign policy commitments on an economic base that’s in relative decline? 

Wells added some further criticisms of what he saw around him: 

We had educated our general population reluctantly; our universities had not kept pace with the needs of the new time; our ruling class, protected in its advantages by a universal snobbery, was broad-minded, easy-going, and profoundly lazy.

Once again, the parallels, then and now, can be piquant: The Washington Post reported recently on the startling dearth of computer science courses in DC-area high schools.  If that dearth exists nationwide–and it does–that’s a problem: do we really think that Americans can flourish if most of us are only digital consumers, and not creators? Yes, we have Silicon Valley, but other counties have tech sectors, too; surely widespread prosperity is assured only if we have widespread education in technical competence.   

Writing in the 1930s, Wells recalled of his turn-of-the-century group: 

It had an air of asking “What are we doing with the world? What are we going to do?” Or perhaps I might put it better by saying: “What is being done to our world? And what are we going to do about it?”

As we know, history was hard on Britain in the first half of the 20th century. First came World War One, which took the lives of more than 900,000 British soldiers. Yes, Britain won, but only by going deeply into debt and only with the help of the United States. Then came two decades of slow economic growth in the 20s and 30s, followed, of course, by World War Two–which finished off the empire. Today, Britain is prosperous, but it is powerful only as an adjunct to the United States.   

Indeed, if Britain is not careful today, it will find itself tractor-beamed into the Franco-German dominated European Union. It would be ironic if Britain ended up as an appendage to the continental countries against which it fought so many wars.

So yes, Kipling was on to something when he wrote “Recessional,” and Wells was right to worry about “political indolence and cheap assurance.”  

Meanwhile, in the 21st century, we Americans need to learn more about the rest of the world–starting, of course, with China. We might begin by thinking about an ancient idea in Chinese culture: fuquo qiangbing, “strong country, strong army.”  

For thousands of years, the Chinese kept that strategic idea close to heart, and it powered them to world leadership for most of human history. Then they forgot their own wisdom beginning in the 15th century; for the next half-millennium, it was a long slide downward for the Middle Kingdom.   

Interestingly, in the late 19th century, the Japanese borrowed the Chinese idea: they called it fukuko kyohei, and it served as their rationale for growth and expansion in the 20th century, by fair means and foul.  

Today, Japan has slipped, but the Chinese are back on the world stage–with a vengeance. So now Britain, Japan, and the US must look at China in a new way: if Beijing says it wants to have a strong country and a strong military, we should believe them.  

The Chinese are already strong in cyber-technology; they have cruise missiles that fly at mach 10, thus putting all our aircraft carriers at risk. And some say that their space program is just a cover for anti-satellite warfare. And oh, by the way, they are projected to lead the world in drone production.   

To be sure, in the great game of the 21st century, the US is hardly without resources of all kinds. To cite just one example, the value of all the oil and natural gas under federal lands, for example, is estimated to be $128 trillion. And coal is on top of that. Of course, today, the official US government plan is to use precisely none of that energy wealth, in the name of fighting “climate change.”  

So does America face a British future? Is it confronting the fears and dreads that plagued Kipling and Wells? If present trends continue, it surely seems that way. But present trends don’t have to continue.   

So as we wait–and, hopefully, work–to see better leadership arise, we might take comfort in the writings of another British writer, also blessed with an imaginative turn of mind: Charles Dickens. In his 1843 classic, A Christmas Carol, Dickens showed us the dolorous path to death being walked by Ebenezer Scrooge. Yet finally, after plenty of prodding, Scrooge has his epiphany: “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.” In other words, by his own actions, Scrooge’s rendezvous with doomy destiny was forestalled.  

That’s where we are today: we can see a bad course, and we are on it. We can also see, albeit hazily, a better course–and we must take it. If we don’t, our future will be one with Nineveh and Tyre.  


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