Who will rule the 21st century?

This was originally published on 1st January, 2021, and republished here on 4th January, 2022.

While it may not be the case that everybody wants to rule the world, as the old Tears for Fears song suggests, it certainly is the case that some countries do want to have the Earth revolve around them.

Even since the end of the Second World War, when the United States introduced a system of multilateral diplomacy to the world, it was still a system that benefited them above all others — even if it required facing recalcitrant nations with the barrel of a gun (or a gunboat).

But anyone who observes history will realise that empires do not last. They cannot, because there will always be some weakness within them that will be exploited by those who may wish to bring that empire down in some form or another, whether that be ruling it for themselves, or replacing them with their own empire.

‘Destruction’ from Thomas Cole’s series ‘The Course of Empires,’ 1836

This means that the bell is tolling for the United States, at least in its current form. Since the beginning of the global era in the late 15th century, there have been a number of global hegemons (ie. powers that have had worldwide supremacy over all other powers), but only one — Britain — has lasted more than one era.

Portugal was the first hegemonic power, followed by the Netherlands. Britain then served twice, before handing off to the United States. Note that this power isn’t necessarily exclusive, as there is normally at least one rival for power during their ‘term’. For Portugal and part of the Netherlands’ reign, it was Spain. For the remainder of the Netherlands’ reign, along with Britain’s first era of dominance, it was France. For Britain’s second era, it was Germany, and for the United States it was the USSR.

But these challenging powers remained exactly that — challengers. None of the five changeovers took place following a direct confrontation between current hegemon and rising challenger. Portugal lost their hegemony after Spain’s union with them, as the Netherlands (who had rebelled against Spanish rule) conquered much of their trading empire. The Netherlands, in turn, lost their trading empire to England (which became Great Britain shortly afterwards) after their two crowns were united by William of Orange.

Like the Portuguese before them and the English after them, the Dutch built their hegemony through trade and naval power. (Image: Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom, ca. 1600–1630)

Note that these three hegemonies were based around naval power and trade. All three powers had only small populations and little land compared to their rivals, but made use of their coastlines to establish naval dominance, from which economic power followed. Lisbon, Amsterdam and London were all the economic centres of their era, through which world trade flowed.

Britain’s second era, however, was instead based on land power and manufacturing, as they transformed into the British Empire of the 19th century. They were then succeeded by their errant child, the United States, after bankrupting themselves in two World Wars. The United States’ dominance matches that of Britain, built on military might and manufacturing, and backed by financial dominance. This means we should expect the 21st century’s leading hegemonic power to do likewise. So, who will it be?

Scenario #1: Return of the Qing

China’s foreign policy goal has been clear for many years: re-establish the dominance that they had before the European powers entered the land, carved pieces of China for themselves, and forced them into what was essentially a position of servitude in their own country. Long before the Europeans, Ming China had formally established a tributary system, whereby their neighbours would pay them tribute (and kowtow to the emperor) as an acknowledgment of their inferiority, under the Confucian worldview’s understanding of a stable world.

Foreign dignitaries were expected to pay homage and tribute to the Emperor.

This was, in their view, a benign system through which the emperor was given his due as the ‘Son of Heaven’, with supremacy over all others. They were generally non-interventionist, as they did not use their military force against their neighbours or to settle disputes between neighbours, only using it against attacks or against rulers that did not pay them tribute.

The re-establishment of this system is playing out before our eyes, but China doesn’t intend to limit its reach to east Asia, as it was the first time around. Instead, they intend to have the world bowing at their feet without a shot being fired (which should not be confused with not having a military force, as they have the second most powerful in the world right now, and are happy to use it to claim territory for themselves, bit by bit, in a process that has been labelled ‘salami slicing’).

Already, China is the world’s largest manufacturer by almost double the next largest nation (the US). While two largest stock exchanges in the world are in New York, Shanghai is now claiming to be the third largest in the world following the growth of their science and technology market. They are also a creditor nation, and most nations that have spent this year throwing money around to combat the effects of their continual shutdowns owe at least part of that money to China.

Most of the world (including Australia, Canada, the European Union and the United Kingdom, but not the United States) is involved in their Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is a rival to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Much of the world that isn’t part of the AIIB is instead part of the Belt and Road Initiative, including almost all of Africa and the west coast of South America (that is, the coast that faces China). The BRI is an enormous economic infrastructure scheme, designed to create a new ‘Silk Road’ in the Eurasian interior, and a Maritime ‘Silk Road’ in the global south. This would allow trade to be centered around China.

To facilitate this, China has offered large loans to be used for building economic infrastructure, especially ports and roads, but also including pipelines, storage facilities and telecommunications infrastructure. These loans also have the added ‘bonus’ of being, in the words of Tanzanian President John Magufuli, “exploitative and awkward.” There are serious concerns that a number of nations are now trapped in debt to China that cannot be repaid, apart from Chinese demands for sovereignty over the infrastructure that they are helping build in the first place.

China’s first overseas military base, in the south of Djibouti. (Image: VOA/AFP)

This may end up being important to China for other strategic reasons as well, as the military presence they are establishing in these nations allows them to make up for the fact that they have few, if any, real friends in the international sphere. They are counting on not needing friends, because there will be enough nations indebted to them in one way or another that there will be no-one to seriously challenge their position.

China intends to fully establish naval dominance, first in the South China Sea, where their claims are being contested verbally but not in action, and then in the ports they are buying around the world, including in Australia, and a number of African nations. Of the African nations not part of BRI, almost all of them are landlocked. Landlocked Asian countries, by contrast, are part of the strategic goal as they can have a land connection to China.

And while officially the United States is a rival to Chinese economic domination, going so far as to recreate NATO’s encircling scheme with the so-called Quad Alliance (including Australia, India and Japan), in reality many of their leaders in all spheres of life have strong connections with China, particularly in the financial world. As with other nations, a large part of the US national debt is owed to China, just as Britain was heavily indebted to the United States after the world wars.

Furthermore, China’s technological disadvantage is constantly being reduced, as they take advantage of weak international industrial protection laws to (putting it bluntly) steal the intellectual property of overseas companies (especially, but not exclusively, American ones), either through forcing them to create Chinese subsidiaries to operate there, or through cyberespionage. Here they have learnt from the United States very well, as the US engaged in the same practice when Britain was the world leader.

(Image: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

With all this, China is moving ever closer to holding all the purse strings of the global economy. With most of the largest global corporations only interested in making money, they will continue to be the number one destination for manufacturing until they have fully established themselves. As a result, their population continues to increase their wealth, helping to fuel their local businesses. These businesses are, in turn, moving to the Chinese stock exchanges, enabling China to be increasingly independent. Eventually, their resources reliance on nations like Australia will diminish, as they create more advantageous deals with nations more willing (or desperate) for Chinese money.

If the direction of global events remains unchanged, it is inevitable that China will become the dominant power in world politics, as there is little standing in their way. The United States was able to come the leading world power by allowing the-then hegemon to bankrupt themselves with debt owed to the US, and then filling in the gap. China wishes to do likewise. They do not intend to take the planet by force, but by exercising economic power backed by an all-encompassing military presence, they also do not intend to let anyone escape their grasp without paying a price.

The Quad Alliance exists as a military bulwark, but if China doesn’t intend to attack any of the nations involved, what use is that? India — the only one of the four to have had military skirmishes (of sorts) against China in recent times — is unlikely to go to a full-scale war with them over their minor border disputes.

Chinese history is a long tale of unification, implosions, and reunification

One day, of course, China too would have to deal with their own fall from grace. It wouldn’t be the first time, as Chinese history is littered with self-destruction. States that unite the ancient kingdom inevitably fall apart, often into multiple entities, until another kingdom arises that can reunite the land, only to fall apart again a later point.

Nothing we see from China at the moment suggests that they will avoid this fate. Even this year has been a knife’s edge for them — the obscurity of the origins of The Virus could well have turned (or perhaps even will turn) out very badly for their international reputation. But it appears as though they have their hand in so many institutions around the world that the chances of serious scrutiny being applied to them is minimal.

Furthermore, corporate espionage only takes one so far. There is not much in the way of serious innovation or quality coming out of China compared to its manufacturing rivals, and given that China does not intend to conquer the world, this will cause them long-term problems as other nations become irritated with their predominance. This will be especially true once their infrastructure leases come closer to expiring, as many leases are for 99 years or so.

For the average person, measures such as social credit are important for the Chinese government establishing its predominance in the mind of citizens across the world. It was also expected that other nations would balk at the kind of measures being introduced in their countries that the Chinese government uses on its citizens, but this year has suggested that that may not be the case. Still, if not presented in just the right way, there may be a world of difference between how people take surveillance and government restrictions during a period of crisis, and how they take it during a period of normality.

Social credit has become normalised in Chinese society. (Image: Gilles Sabrie/Bloomberg)

Furthermore, China faces an unusual situation with its demographics. The long-standing One-Child Policy has resulted in a demographic situation on par with many Western nations (and Japan), but taking place alongside rapid economic growth, rather than in the aftermath. This may mean China is ill-equipped for the long-term stability, as their population ages quicker than might have been expected of a rising power. This will also happen alongside continually rising expectations for living standards, as the Chinese people look to the west as the gold standard for what their daily lives should look like. Failure to meet this standard, which has been the underpinning of their government’s credibility and legitimacy for decades, could result in civil unrest.

There is also the question of leadership. While Xi Jinping has made himself virtually emperor-for-life, there will still be a need for a new leader once he passes. The Chinese Communist Party runs itself fairly similarly to its Soviet counterpart, with no clear line of succession, inevitably causing factional squabbling when an opportunity for power-grabbing arises.

At the beginning of this year, there were rumblings that Xi has overreached, and that there would be a challenge on his leadership, but the complete and utter failure of governments around the world to act in a way that plans for the future and deals with the present has meant that those criticisms have washed away, as scrutiny of China, whether it be The Virus, or the Uyghurs, or Hong Kong, or the Falun Gong, has diminished everywhere.

The one thing this article in The Atlantic — which manages to completely forget most of world history in its assumption that ‘democracies’ always win — gets right is that autocratic leaders can rapidly change the direction of a country. If the next leader of the CCP is the wrong person, China may fall apart just as they were on the precipice of victory — and the person they need may very well depend on what’s happening in the current global hegemon.

Scenario #2: The Newnited States

If the continuation of current practice means the rise of China is inevitable, it would mean the reverse for the United States of America. Frankly, all the signs of an empire on the verge of collapse are already present, and had much to do with Donald Trump being elected in 2016. His push to ‘Make America Great Again’ was, at its core, a blast against the visible signs of decline in the United States, from infrastructure and trade to institutions and culture. Far from the new ports and roads that China has been building, much of America’s economic infrastructure is falling apart. There’s even a whole section of the country nicknamed the ‘Rust Belt.’

Parts of the Rust Belt look worse than anything you’d find in some third world nations. (Image: Eric Thayer/Reuters)

While the past four years saw Trump make great strides in realigning the economic side of the equation, at least in the short term, the institutions surrounding him did nothing to assist any return to American Greatness. Instead, his presidency has been dogged by internal and political strife, receiving the blame for anything and everything that has conceivably gone wrong in a country where there is much wrong. Furthermore, 2020 served to undo much of the economic gains through little fault of his own, with many states being willing to kamikaze themselves to ‘beat the virus’ and failing spectacularly at doing so.

What’s more, the biggest institutional problem for the United States is the degree to which the instruments of power are being used to enrich individuals at the top, many of whom are connected with China. The American people have been left almost entirely powerless, and at least half will not trust whoever is sworn in on 20th January. If it is Donald Trump, it will be like his first four years but on steroids, with distractions everywhere and, in any case, there doesn’t appear to be anyone prepared to take China head on in his place once he leaves the White House for the last time.

If it is Joe Biden, as it likely will be, everyone will know that it is not really Joe Biden because he is little more than a puppet (when he remembers where he is), and those holding his strings are either linked with China, or stand to benefit from returning to a pre-Trump approach to international relations that benefits China.

Both in their 70s, these men represent an enormous failure of the institutions to produce quality leadership, and the lack of trust that the incoming president will have among at least half of the population is not something that any nation can continue surviving. Any nation run via elections needs to ensure that those elections are completely trustworthy and reliable, and American elections have been anything but transparent for a long time. This election has only served notice for just how badly they are run.

In addition, Congress and the state legislatures are almost entirely inept and mostly useless, with power being run through the President and the Governors more than ever, while the courts wash their hands of as much as they can — when they’re not making political decisions.

The basic markers of American greatness — the economy and the institutions they inherited from Britain — are falling apart at the seams, and no two Americans seem to agree on what to do about it. There is an absurdly large political divide between people that are notionally part of the same nation, and unlike in the Civil War era, there is no shared foundation which they can base their differing beliefs on.

Also unlike the Civil War era, there is no clean geographic divide to be made. If the United States collapses, it will be as a complete dissolution, with every state left to decide for themselves what they will do — if they can survive at all.

I say all of this to indicate that what must happen in the United States to retain their hegemony is for them to undergo a complete shift in their identity. They must re-establish a shared basis for their nation, and rebuild or replace the failing institutions that have brought them to this point. In all likelihood, whatever comes out the end of that is unlikely to resemble the Republic they are now.

Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon is widely regarded as the moment when the Roman Republic fell.

They have two precedents in this regard. The first is Britain, which transformed itself from a trading nation to a land empire on either side of the Napoleonic Wars. This reinvention allowed them to hold onto hegemony in the 19th century. The second precedent is Rome, which evolved from a republic to an empire in the first century BC, as a result of the political and social crises that had been facing it prior to the ascension of Julius (and then Augustus) Caesar.

These are different kinds of transformations. Britain did not let go of its freedoms to transform its Empire (at least, not in Britain itself). But Britain was also a colonial power, drawing on the strength of its colonies and playing their rivals against each other. Rome, on the other hand, was a conqueror, not a coloniser. Its empire resembled the United States far more than Britain’s did, but when it comes to institutions, the United States inherited what Britain created, despite its Founding Fathers also drawing on Rome for inspiration.

The only thing that can draw the United States back together would be the discovery of an enemy so large that it would force people to come together. The Virus is most certainly not that thing, as evidenced by the wildly different approaches each state has had towards it. There are two possibilities I can think of. The first is an internal enemy — such as corruption — that is so large as to be impossible to ignore, and which results in a complete laying-to-waste of the institutions in which the enemy is found. The second is an external enemy, which could only be China, which did something so large as to be impossible to ignore. These two things could even be combined.

These could also be real or imagined enemies. It doesn’t really matter for the purpose of bringing the nation together at this point in time, and re-establishing their hegemony. The first scenario would result in a dictator taking on the presidency and completely changing every institution so that they move in the direction he desires; the second would result in the likely defeat (at this stage) of the only serious threat to American dominance in this century.

Much has changed since the US Navy’s ‘Great White Fleet’ travelled the world from 1907–1909. (Image: US Naval History & Heritage Command)

If neither of these things happens, the USA will not reach 2100 as the number one power in the world, though it may still reach the end of the century intact as a significant nation with some heft, just as Britain did in 2000. But what if no-one replaces them at the top?

Scenario #3: Something completely different

While I considered the possibility that a third-party may rise to be the new global hegemon instead, I simply don’t see how that is possible. The European Union will never be united fully as one nation, and wouldn’t be able to match China or the United States right now even if it was. India, while having the most potential, falls short in many categories, and therefore may be another century away from becoming a hegemon — if it even wants to be one, which is currently unclear.

But what if the era of global hegemony has passed us by? While we are becoming a more interconnected world, this doesn’t necessarily mean that one nation can control our connections. Indeed, this year has suggested that local and regional differences are becoming magnified in a way they have not been for many years.

After Rome fell, there were centuries of division upon division, before the world slowly began to reunify. Could not the same thing happen again? China is currently dependent on the United States continuing to act as it is. If the US collapses, who’s to say that China, rather than filling the space, also collapses as its economy cannot find any way to replace the consumption of the United States?

This past year has already seen many people start to think through what it means to be self-sufficient. It is entirely possible that governments will begin to reflect this way of thinking in their policies, and if nations decide that they need to be self-sufficient, the Chinese strategy of dependence will fall apart, and there will be no-one to take their place (assuming the United States fails). Alternatively, China could collapse in some other way, if one of their aforementioned weaknesses has a greater impact on their short-term future than expected.

The collapse of trade in the former Roman Empire forced local rulers to be self-sufficient.

Such an event would leave the world economy lurching, with no obvious replacement for them right now, and potentially not for a long time. When Rome collapsed in the West, it paved the way for the system of feudalism that had such a stranglehold in the Middle Ages, as local lords created a system of economic self-sufficiency, requiring no significant trade to take place outside of their lands. A collapse of the world economy would likely create something similar, either through governments or through surviving corporations taking their place.

This future may become a reality at some point, but if it were to happen, it seems unlikely that this would be the century where it takes place. It would probably also take generations for it to evolve, as all historical movements do. Perhaps in 400 years from now, some virtual archaeologist will dig up this article and wonder at how prescient this prediction was — or how incredibly inaccurate.

In any case, for us we can only focus on our lifetimes, and these are the three scenarios that I foresee across this century. None of us will be around when the next era begins during the second decade of the 22nd century, so let us hope that whatever happens this century will not merely be kind to us, but that it will create a better future for our descendants.

Because as it stands, I don’t envy the world they will know.