Hardly a month goes by without another book or article on whether this century will be Chinese, American, or a free for all. It is a frustrating debate. These arguments all rely heavily on past performance and future projections—especially crude metrics like GDP growth and military spending. They often predict how other states will behave decades into the future when we know from history that intentions can change both from the bottom up and top down.
There is a pre-season mentality to much of this debate. In the pre-season, sports fans and pundits look at past performance and recent trades to predict who will win the Superbowl or the World Series. It’s an entertaining exercise but the favorites usually lose. The season is too long, too contingent upon performance, tactics, and strategy, to be determined by a few basic metrics. One thing is certain: it would be a foolish manager who accepted the pre-season noise as truth.
Accurate long-term predictions about geopolitics are impossible. We have no idea if the 21st century will see the continuation of the American era, a Chinese century, or a multipolar balance of power. All of these scenarios are plausible but it is a mistake to argue that they are inevitable or even likely. The 20thcentury is proof that geopolitics is inherently surprising. Its outcome was contingent upon strategic decisions, ideas, accidents, and personalities. In 1912, it was not obvious that the next eight decades would be an age of extremes, dominated by ideological movements, punctuated by vast industrial wars, and ultimately constrained by the threat of complete and mutual destruction. Nor was it obvious that the United States, a growing power whose people had little desire to seek global hegemony, would make the century American. There is no reason to believe that the human capacity for foresight has improved over time.
Consider then why the 20th century became known as the American century. Certainly, part of it had to do with projections of economic growth but, decade by decade, strategic planners got the medium term future badly wrong. Other factors were crucial—particularly social and ideological movements inside societies and adaption to technological change. But perhaps most importantly, the struggle for mastery was influenced by the strategic decisions, in wartime and peacetime, taken in Berlin, Moscow, Tokyo, London, and Washington. The 20th century became the American century partly because the United States responded well to the challenges presented to it but also because other states did not do so well and made major mistakes. So, it “won” the century. But it was hardly preordained.
It’s easy to engage in pre-season speculation about the future of U.S. power and the international order. But, ultimately it is a distraction. Understanding how the world is changing in terms of GDP growth is important but it’s not the same as understanding how the game of strategy is changing or how to play it. The real question that foreign policy experts must grapple with is this: how does the rise of the rest change the strategic competition for international influence.
There is little doubt that this will be a new strategic environment. The United States is economically interdependent with its only potential great power competitor, China. That is new. America’s allies in Asia are increasingly dependent upon China for their economic growth even as they seek to deepen their security ties with the United States. That is new. The United States will probably be more of a status quo power than it used to be. That too is fairly new.
These changes, and others, will transform how states compete in the coming decades. The state that masters these dynamics will have a much greater chance of coming out on top. For the United States this means understanding how the liberal international order must adapt and change. For others, it may mean something different. But one thing is shared: the state that spends its time and energy building a crystal ball to pick the winner will probably lose.
Thomas Wright is a fellow at the Brookings Institution