Not so long ago, a high-ranking Chinese official, who obviously had concluded that America's decline and China's rise were both inevitable, noted in a burst of candor to a senior U.S. official:
Although the inevitability of the Chinese
leader's expectation is still far from certain, he was right to be cautious
when looking forward to America's demise.
No single power will be ready by then to exercise the role that the world, upon the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, expected the United States to play: the leader of a new, globally cooperative world order.
More probable would be a protracted phase of rather inconclusive realignments of both global and regional power, with no grand winners and many more losers, in a setting of international uncertainty and even of potentially fatal risks to global well-being.
Rather than a world where dreams of democracy
flourish, a Hobbesian world of enhanced national security based on varying
fusions of authoritarianism, nationalism, and religion could ensue.
Europe, not yet cohesive, would likely be pulled in several directions:
Others may move more rapidly to carve out their own regional spheres:
None of these countries, however, will have the
requisite combination of economic, financial, technological, and military
power even to consider inheriting America's leading role.
China thus prudently accepts the existing international system, even if it does not view the prevailing hierarchy as permanent.
It recognizes that success depends not on the system's dramatic collapse but on its evolution toward a gradual redistribution of power. Moreover, the basic reality is that China is not yet ready to assume in full America's role in the world.
Beijing's leaders themselves have repeatedly emphasized that on every important measure of development, wealth, and power, China will still be a modernizing and developing state several decades from now, significantly behind not only the United States but also Europe and Japan in the major per capita indices of modernity and national power.
Accordingly, Chinese leaders have been
restrained in laying any overt claims to global leadership.
None of China's key neighbors - India, Japan, and Russia - is ready to acknowledge China's entitlement to America's place on the global totem pole.
They might even seek support from a waning America to offset an overly assertive China. The resulting regional scramble could become intense, especially given the similar nationalistic tendencies among China's neighbors. A phase of acute international tension in Asia could ensue.
Asia of the 21st century could then
begin to resemble Europe of the 20th century - violent and
The states in that exposed position, including,
...are today's geopolitical equivalents of nature's most endangered species.
Their fates are closely tied to the nature of
the international environment left behind by a waning America, be it ordered
and restrained or, much more likely, self-serving and expansionist.
A decline in American power, however, would likely undermine the health and good judgment of the U.S. economic and political systems.
A waning United States would likely be more nationalistic, more defensive about its national identity, more paranoid about its homeland security, and less willing to sacrifice resources for the sake of others' development.
The worsening of relations between a declining America and an internally troubled Mexico could even give rise to a particularly ominous phenomenon:
Another consequence of American decline could be a corrosion of the generally cooperative management of the global commons - shared interests such as sea lanes, space, cyberspace, and the environment, whose protection is imperative to the long-term growth of the global economy and the continuation of basic geopolitical stability.
In almost every case, the potential absence of a
constructive and influential U.S. role would fatally undermine the essential
communality of the global commons because the superiority and ubiquity of
American power creates order where there would normally be conflict.
In fact, the strategic complexities of the world in the 21st century make such supremacy unattainable. But those dreaming today of America's collapse would probably come to regret it.
And as the world after America would be
increasingly complicated and chaotic, it is imperative that the United
States pursue a new, timely strategic vision for its foreign policy - or
start bracing itself for a dangerous slide into global turmoil.