In “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000,” first published in 1987, Yale Professor Paul Kennedy traces the interrelationships of politics, economies and military power within the world’s dominant powers from the Ming Dynasty to the emergence of the United States in World War II. He analyses the reasons for their decline and concludes by predicting the future roles of the former Soviet Union (USSR), the European Union (EU), Japan and The People’s Republic of China (PRC). Now, 34 years later, it’s instructive to take a look at how these predictions turned out.
The Soviet Union, obviously, is no longer with us, having lost the Cold War to the U.S, because it became clear after the Cuban Missile Crisis that our vastly superior economy could support a military, especially a navy, that was much stronger than they could afford. Our navy, thanks to Ronald Reagan’s defense build-up and 600-ship goal, was the most capable in the world. Russia emerged from the breakup of the USSR as a largely regional power with an austere economy based heavily on the export of fossil fuel. It remains a nuclear power and cyber warfare threat but it will not become the dominant world power.
The European Union remains largely a trading bloc and its 27 member nations constitute the world’s largest economy but the EU never lived up to its promise of becoming a cohesive union of member states with a unified military. The respective military forces of the welfare states that comprise the union are mostly underfunded, hollow forces and Europe relies largely on NATO, which is to say the United States, for its defense umbrella.
Japan, once the dominant military power in Asia and the Western Pacific and a formidable threat to the U.S and the European colonial empires, is constrained by its postwar constitution to limited self-defense forces but they are highly capable of much more offensively. Japanese leaders are fully aware of the threat posed by the PRC. Their naval forces are compatible with ours and Japan will be our closest and most important ally in any future conflict with the PRC. They have indicated that they would regard the PRC’s attempt to occupy Taiwan as a threat to the security of Okinawa and other Japanese territory in the Ryukyu Islands. The Republic of China (ROK), now commonly known as Taiwan, was never governed by the PRC and was formerly ruled by Japan as Formosa. Taiwan is an important trading partner with the U.S, Japan and the west and a leading producer of semiconductors and other technology.
China, of course, became the world’s fastest growing economy and is building a military, especially a navy, consistent with the size and growth of that economy. It continues to gain ground on the U.S. both economically and militarily and is expanding its sovereignty in the South China Sea, plus its economic reach and diplomatic influence globally. As the U.S. celebrated its 245th birthday on July 4th, the Communist Party of China was celebrating its 100th anniversary by challenging America’s claim to world leadership, insisting that the PRC now be treated as our equal, confident that it will soon surpass us as the world’s leading economy and military power.
At the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking at an annual event at which he takes questions from Russian citizens, also challenged American leadership in world affairs, saying that the era of U.S. world hegemony has come to an end. “The world is changing dramatically,” said Mr. Putin, characterizing the U.S. as a waning power. Leaders of both Russia and China say that The U.S. has no standing to lecture them on human rights violations, given the racial strife, social upheaval, disrespect for authority and crime we are experiencing. Despite differences of their own, Moscow and Beijing appear to be drawing closer together both economically and militarily. Russia benefits from China’s strong economy, seaports and market for Russian energy which China needs.
Meanwhile, the U.S., its navy spread thin with increasing global commitments, is not spending nearly enough on its navy and the industrial infrastructure necessary to maintain or expand it. As increased entitlements and welfare spending, plus interest on the ballooning national debt, eat up more of our revenue, less is left for discretionary spending including defense. Soon there will not be enough to stay even with China, let alone stay ahead.
So will the U.S. remain the world’s dominant economy and military power or will it cede that tile to a rising China? It’s more than just a title, of course. China is governed by the Communist Party of China which is eager to export its values and conditions for peaceful co-existence and harmony .Can we afford what it takes to maintain our position of leadership and influence in world affairs or will we just settle for becoming another welfare state, just like the former colonial powers that preceded us? I predict that we will not enjoy that status. The choice is ours. World leadership doesn’t come cheaply, nor does freedom.