China’s economic prowess is already allowing Beijing to challenge American influence all over the world. The Chinese are the preferred partners of many African governments and the biggest trading partner of other emerging powers, such as Brazil and South Africa. China is also stepping in to buy the bonds of financially strapped members of the eurozone, such as Greece and Portugal.
And China is only the largest part of a bigger story about the rise of new economic and political players. America’s traditional allies in Europe — Britain, France, Italy, even Germany — are slipping down the economic ranks. New powers are on the rise: India, Brazil, Turkey. They each have their own foreign-policy preferences, which collectively constrain America’s ability to shape the world. Think of how India and Brazil sided with China at the global climate-change talks. Or the votes by Turkey and Brazil against America at the United Nations on sanctions against Iran. That is just a taste of things to come.
Of course, it would be absurd to pretend that China does not face major challenges. In the short term, there is plenty of evidence that a property bubble is building in big cities like Shanghai, and inflation is on the rise. Over the long term, China has alarming political and economic transitions to navigate. The Communist Party is unlikely to be able to maintain its monopoly on political power forever. And the country’s traditional dependence on exports and an undervalued currency are coming under increasing criticism from the United States and other international actors demanding a “rebalancing” of China’s export-driven economy. The country also faces major demographic and environmental challenges: The population is aging rapidly as a result of the one-child policy, and China is threatened by water shortages and pollution.
Yet even if you factor in considerable future economic and political turbulence, it would be a big mistake to assume that the Chinese challenge to U.S. power will simply disappear. Once countries get the hang of economic growth, it takes a great deal to throw them off course.
American universities remain a formidable asset. But if the U.S. economy is not generating jobs, then those bright Asian graduate students who fill up the engineering and computer-science departments at Stanford University and MIT will return home in larger numbers. Fortune’s latest ranking of the world’s largest companies has only two American firms in the top 10 — Walmart at No. 1 and ExxonMobil at No. 3. There are already three Chinese firms in the top 10: Sinopec, State Grid, and China National Petroleum. America’s appeal might also diminish if the country is no longer so closely associated with opportunity, prosperity, and success. And though many foreigners are deeply attracted to the American Dream, there is also a deep well of anti-American sentiment in the world that al Qaeda and others have skillfully exploited, Obama or no Obama.
Both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton took a similar view that globalization and free trade would serve as a vehicle for the export of American values. In 1999, two years before China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, Bush argued, “Economic freedom creates habits of liberty. And habits of liberty create expectations of democracy.… Trade freely with China, and time is on our side.”
There were two important misunderstandings buried in this theorizing. The first was that economic growth would inevitably — and fairly swiftly — lead to democratization. The second was that new democracies would inevitably be more friendly and helpful toward the United States. Neither assumption is working out.
And when it comes to the broader geopolitical picture, the world of the future looks even more like a zero-sum game, despite the gauzy rhetoric of globalization that comforted the last generation of American politicians. For the United States has been acting as if the mutual interests created by globalization have repealed one of the oldest laws of international politics: the notion that rising players eventually clash with established powers.
In fact, rivalry between a rising China and a weakened America is now apparent across a whole range of issues, from territorial disputes in Asia to human rights. It is mercifully unlikely that the United States and China would ever actually go to war, but that is because both sides have nuclear weapons, not because globalization has magically dissolved their differences.