Beyond the age of hegemony


In the 16th century, Spain became the first global empire. By the 19th century, Britain became a global hegemon. After World War II, the US took over as the new global hegemon. Now America’s power is fading and some Americans fear that China will be the next hegemon. In fact, we are moving to a post-hegemonic world.  

To see why, let us understand the drivers of geopolitical change.  

How did the UK achieve global dominance from around 1815-1914? In the 1770s, James Watt, working at the University of Glasgow, produced a highly efficient steam engine. Britain thereafter harnessed the low-cost steam power and its vast coal reserves to build the world’s modern industrial economy, and the world’s first modern industrial military. Britain’s steam-powered navy ruled the seas.    

Britain’s innovations gave Britain roughly a 75-year lead over its closest competitors, the US and Germany. By the end of the 19th century, the US and Germany, rich with their own coal, had adopted, adapted, and in many cases surpassed Britain’s industrial innovations.  

Between 1914 and 1945, the British empire was mortally wounded by two world wars. The US, protected by two oceans, surged in industrial power and technology. By 1945, Britain’s empire was broken, while America was flying high. To secure its new hegemony, the US established hundreds of overseas military bases in around eighty countries, and the CIA, established in 1947, led coups, assassinations, and insurrections against governments resisting US power.

China’s rise between 1980 and 2020 recalls the rise of Germany and the US in the late 19thcentury, but with a major difference.  Catching up these days can be much faster than in the 19thand 20th centuries. Technology spreads very rapidly to well-organized countries such as today’s China, which successfully promoted quality education and the spread of science and technology.  

There is nothing nefarious about the rapid spread of technology. On the contrary, the rapid spread of technology raises global living standards and spurs further innovations. China’s rise has been good not only for China but for the world. Economic advancement is a positive-sum game, not a zero-sum struggle.  

With the rise of China and much of Asia, the US no longer dominates the world economy. More generally, the economic predominance of the North Atlantic Region – Western Europe, the US, and Canada – is coming to an end as the rest of the world closes the gaps in education, technology, innovation, and productivity.  

We are therefore reaching the end of centuries of Western dominance. Starting with Columbus’s voyages from Europe to the Americas, the North Atlantic region rose in global power until it dominated global politics, economy, and technology in the 19th and 20th centuries. Thanks to economic convergence and demographic trends, the era of Western dominance is reaching an end. We are entering a multi-polar world with no hegemon.

American politicians tremble that China will become the new global hegemon, but they should calm down and look at the facts. Throughout its long history of more than 2,200 years as a unified state, China has never sought an overseas empire. The only times that China tried – and failed – to invade Japan, was 750 years ago, when China was under Mongol rule! 

Nor could China become the new global hegemon even if it wanted – which it does not. There are two main reasons. First, technological upgrading is boosting not only China but most of the world. India, for example, is roughly at the GDP per capita income of China 15 years ago, but is now growing faster than China. Just behind India will likely come Africa’s era of rapid catch-up growth.

Second, China’s population peaked in 2023 and is starting to decline.  Because of the coming decline in China’s population, China’s share of world output (measured at purchasing-power-adjusted prices, and according to IMF data) will probably reach its maximum in the next few years, at roughly 20% of world output, and will likely gradually decline in the 2030s and onward to around 17 percent by 2050.  

India’s global share of GDP, by contrast, will likely rise from around 7 percent today to perhaps 13 percent in 2050.  The US share of the world economy will diminish from around 15 percent of GDP in 2023 to somewhere around 10 percent in 2050.  

Africa will also likely become a much bigger part of the world economy by mid-century, because of the combination of a rapid rise of GDP per person and a burgeoning population.  In 2023, Africa accounted for roughly 5% of the world economy. By 2050, that share is likely to rise to somewhere around 20%, as Africa’s share of world population rises from 18 percent today to 26 percent in 2050.  

President Joe Biden, an old man with reveries of the past, continues to assert that “American leadership is what holds the world together,” even as the US is ever more isolated diplomatically, and as the BRICS nations overtake the G7 in economic size and global sway. The US continues to push its hegemonic aspirations by trying to expand NATO to Ukraine, thereby provoking dangerous, bloody, and costly conflicts with Russia. Similarly, the U.S. continues to arm Taiwan despite China’s strenuous objections and US promises dating back forty years that the US would phase out military support to Taiwan.  

America’s hegemonic aspirations are neither broadly accepted by the rest of the world nor remotely realistic in view of America’s waning relative power. Rather than scheming fruitlessly to prolong hegemonic dominance that no longer exists, the US should aim for global peace and cooperation as the true basis for US security, and should work to promote prosperity and wellbeing at home. A useful step would be for the US to close most of its overseas military bases, as these have drained the US budget, destabilized the host countries, and drawn the US into endless and needless wars in recent decades.       


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