What Will The Future Of American Power Look Like?
American power has been dominant for most living memory, and certainly since the end of the Second World War. By the end of the war, America controlled 50% of the world's GDP and 80% of its hard currency reserves. At this point, the USSR still posed a threat to American influence, and the world was thus separated into a bipolar distribution of power, where power was attracted to the two opposing poles of American and Russian influence.
Over the following decades, American power grew relatively so that, by 1991, America was the world’s uncontested hegemon. Global affairs were unipolar, revolving around the US. Following 9/11, America swept through Iraq and Afghanistan with no other power raising significant resistance.
In the past decade or so, this form of American dominance has been under stress. Putin’s aggressive, assertive Russia has replaced the inebriated, befuddled nation under Yeltsin in the 1990s and China, for the first time in close to a century of American commercial hegemony, now represents a threat to America’s economic sway.
For more than a decade intellectuals in Beijing, Moscow and other regions of the world have prophesised American decline and, indeed, It is easy to find evidence that American dominance is slipping away if one sets their mind to it. To heralds of American decline, America’s recent foreign policy blunders, most notably their botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, are indicative of Uncle Sam’s time passing. Some even go as far as to suggest that Afghanistan may be America’s Suez Crisis - a watershed moment representing the perishing of an elder empire’s position as a premier world power.
The Rise of China
There are many reasons to think that the 21st Century may not belong to the US. America’s immense economic heft, its traditional source of power, is increasingly being contested. China’s meteoric growth in the past two decades means that it can now enter the ring in the same economic weight class as the US. While China’s nominal GDP does still lag behind the USA’s, China is arguably already a more robust economy than the US. In real terms, adjusted for Purchasing-Power-Parity, China’s adjusted GDP overtook the USA as long ago as 2013.
This advantage is widened in several economic metrics, most notably in trade. In 2019, China accounted for 28.7% of the world’s manufacturing output, overshadowing the USA’s 16.8%. This economic advantage is furthered by a spate of key strategies and institutions, most notably the Belt and Road initiative, which has helped to develop Chinese informal and economic power across much of Eurasia. American attempts to replicate the Belt and Road Initiative have only had limited success, with an American-led TPP collapsing due to domestic politics.
America does still have several economic advantages. It occupies a dominant role in several key economic institutions, most notably the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and still is at the cutting-edge of most key technologies being developed. The New York Stock Exchange is currently unrivalled in prestige and sway. In many ways, its nominal GDP advantage is more important than China's PPP edge.
However, it appears to merely be a matter of time before China’s economic power definitively overtakes America’s. In the coming decades, it seems almost certain that China’s GDP will overtake America’s at international exchange rate and China is rapidly closing the two nations’ technological gap, with state-led investment into strategic ‘industries of the future’ bearing significant fruit. In the latter half of the century, it is likely that America will be relegated into a second-place spot of economic power. America may even be drop into a third-place position behind India, although the prospects of the Indian economy remain highly uncertain for the time being.
Alongside its economic threat, China represents a sophisticated military and political threat. China’s new economic weight has proved to be a sizeable club with which the CCP can bludgeon countries that do not conform to its political agenda.
This form of ‘warrior-wolf’ diplomacy has proved highly effective in forcing regional conformity to China’s geopolitical agenda. However, this form of diplomacy is also a double-edged sword. China’s combative stance towards Australia, for instance, seems to have aided American influence, by driving Australia into American arms, helping the development of recent AUKUS military collaboration.
China represents a significant threat to American power due to the fact that China simultaneously threatens America’s economic, military and political power. In many ways, China’s growth mirrors America’s own rise to dominance in the 19th and 20th centuries. China thus represents a more sophisticated threat to the future of American power than Russia, America’s other main adversary, due Russia’s moribund economy.
Military and Alliances
However, even with China’s newfound geopolitical clout, America still has several advantages over their Chinese counterparts, and indeed the rest of the world.
Firstly, in the most traditional form of power projection, military competition, America’s military still excels. Even when Purchasing Power Parity is taken into consideration, American military spending, at $778 billion a year eclipses all other nations, with China spending that second-most at $326 billion.
America’s military, at this moment, is the best suited to great power competition in the world. Although China is undergoing an extremely significant program of shipbuilding to counter the USA’s dominance, America remains the only nation that can feasibly project significant influence in every sea at once. America has 20 aircraft carriers in its fleet, whereas the countries with the second most, France and Japan, only have 4 each. America also has by far the most powerful air force in the world. Together, America’s navy and airforce make it far more able to project global authority than China feasibly can. This military advantage is exacerbated by America’s extensive system of military bases around the world that is unmatched in scope and strategic utility.
While China’s military, the PLA, is vast and is only growing in strength, The PLA is overly reliant on land-based military forces, which are of limited use for modern great power competition and is in several sectors reliant on outdated technology. America is likely to remain the most powerful nation in the world militarily for the time being.
America also benefits from a network of alliances that is unparalleled globally. The US occupies a dominant position in NATO, which overall accounts for around half the world’s military expenditure and provides a strong counterweight to Russian military power. America has also found itself able to fluidly construct alliances such as the Quad and individual military pacts such as AUKUS to provide a counterweight to Chinese power in the Asia-Pacific region. At this point, no other nation has the depth of relationships to establish a similar network of alliances.
It is easy to look at Chinese and Russian advances in their home fields and conclude that America’s power is waning. However, the mere fact that America is able to project power at both its main adversary’s doorsteps is indicative of the powerful role that America still plays geopolitically. For China to reverse their position and combat America’s influence in its home arena of North America would be entirely unheard of. America’s grand strategy is able to provide a network of alliances that its opponents find difficult to replicate, giving America influence that extends beyond its own economic and military power.
Finally, America retains a significant amount of cultural ‘soft’ power that other nations find difficult to match. While, due to the somewhat insubstantial nature of educational and cultural power, it is extremely difficult to quantify, with attempts such as the Soft Power Index generally failing to account for its complexity, America is home to a range of institutions that can help further its agenda. Apple, Hollywood, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Harvard University are all institutions that help America retain influence over culture and education, helping to spread its values globally. As of now, aided by the ubiquity of English and the closed nature of China and Russia, few nations are able to project soft power as capably as the US.
Overall, while American power is waning, America remains the most powerful nation in the world. Over the next few decades, America’s unipolar moment will fade, and we will likely enter an era of ‘bipolar’ or perhaps even ‘multipolar’ power distribution, with the EU and India both posing credible nations to have a superpower status beyond the obvious candidates of the US and China. However, while American hegemony appears to be over, America will remain a great power with a great deal of influence in world affairs.