Thursday, January 03, 2008

Moments of transition

David Olive has a piece from a few days ago about the fundamental shift that's going on in the world economy:

It became more apparent than ever this year that the U.S. is no longer the world's lone superpower. Instead, there are five superpowers that will define the world for at least the next half-century: the U.S., China, India, Russia and a united Europe.

The news came home to Americans on Main St. from tainted Chinese products to the fact that practically every toy sold in America comes from Red China. Boston seniors on group tours of the great capitals of Europe were humbled to discover that their greenbacks had shrivelled in value to 60 per cent of the local currency. And New Yorkers were taken aback that the credit crisis arising from cascading defaults on U.S. subprime mortgages had so weakened the balance sheets of leading financial institutions in the Big Apple that the likes of Citigroup and Merrill Lynch had sought bailouts from state-owned investment funds in Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.

On a related note, G. John Ikenberry writes in Foreign Affairs:

But not all power transitions generate war or overturn the old order. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the United Kingdom ceded authority to the United States without great conflict or even a rupture in relations. From the late 1940s to the early 1990s, Japan's economy grew from the equivalent of five percent of U.S. GDP to the equivalent of over 60 percent of U.S. GDP, and yet Japan never challenged the existing international order.

Sure, the US and UK never went to war, but I continue to think that was a closer thing than most. (I once heard a historian say, “Sure, the Washington Naval Treaty failed to stop the Pacific War, but it did a really good job of stopping the Anglo-American war of 1940...” Clearly, that was kind of a joke, but it's worth remembering that Hitler and the Japanese weren't the only ones engaged in armament production pre-war.

But even if the US/UK transition is the “correct” way to see the transition between hegemonic powers, it's not like Americans have a lot to look forward to. Does nobody remember the role the Americans played during Suez? Can we look forward to the day when the Chinese call up American loans in order to stop the invasion of Nigeria?

Not to overstate things, but the transition between US and UK hegemons was pretty rocky for the British, even if it did manage to avoid a major war. Which, really, it didn't: the UK “won” two major global wars in extremely costly ways, and was so exhausted by victory (and nascent human rights movements) that its empire collapsed.

So even if we extend the Ikenberry metaphor, we can expect a major war between the US and some ascendant power, while the power that sits out the conflict ends up sitting pretty. I dunno – does the EU sit out a war between China and the US? China wins out while the US and Iran slap each other? This is the problem with analogies – even when you use them, they aren't really good at predicting squat.

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