Atlantic nations have dominated the world for the last 500 years. That long historical moment is now ending. East Asian countries will return to the position of dominance they once enjoyed. This will create new roles for them, us, and everyone else.
In the last few months, our progress toward decline has quickened. President Trump favors increasing military spending and continuing to fight foreign wars while gutting our diplomatic corps. This is an unwise policy for any country, but especially so for the United States. The true source of our power is not, as some insist, the fact that we have “the world’s greatest military.” It is the natural appeal of a nation built on opportunity, innovation, diversity, openness, and freedom. When we lose that, we lose our greatest strategic asset. Today we are not only losing it, but aggressively tearing it down.
One global effect of the Trump phenomenon is growing doubt about American democracy. Foreigners have long admired our Constitution. Even as rich elites came to dominate our politics and Congress became dysfunctional, many continued to hope that our system could right itself. After all, Alexander Hamilton assured Americans nearly 250 years ago that “the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” Yet a couple of months ago a foreign head of state, appearing in Boston at an off-the-record dinner, was asked about charges that his government is undemocratic.
“American democracy gave America Trump, and this is supposed to be the most advanced democracy in the world,” he replied. “Do I make myself clear?”
China, the country that seems poised to assume global leadership as the 21st century unfolds, approaches the world quite differently from the way the United States does. Its political system, based around an emperor, has lasted for thousands of years. That system works for China. The Chinese, however, do not encourage others to try it. They realize that every political system emerges from native soil. In the post-Atlantic world, big powers will recognize that no way of organizing society is inherently superior to others. That is a profoundly un-American idea. We consider our system best for all, and want other countries to adopt it. No other great nation thinks like that.
China is unlikely ever to build expeditionary military forces like ours, capable of invading any country in the world on short notice. Nor will it seek to replace us as global hegemon. It won’t need to. With a combination of diplomacy and economic power, it can achieve what the United States has failed to achieve with guns and bombs. China does not share our enthusiasm for attacking or invading countries on other continents. The world that emerges as Euro-American power declines may offer less personal freedom, but it will be more peaceful.
In this new world, the United States will need allies. Europe will be one, but Europe is tearing itself apart with a nihilistic abandon that almost matches our own. Its strategic power is limited. So is its ambition. Blowback from centuries of imperialism and war has made Europeans gun-shy. The United States will have to look elsewhere for a strategic partner. Ultimately we are likely to settle on Russia.
In a world with three great powers, relations among the three are constantly shifting. Numbers two and three instinctively unite against number one. During the 1950s, China and Russia joined to oppose the United States. In the future, the specter of Chinese power will drive Russia and the United States together. Anything we do to make this more difficult — like demonizing Russia — weakens the possibility of such a partnership. Worse, it risks driving Russia into China’s embrace, which could create scary new security problems for us.
Whatever future alliance patterns look like, the Westphalian ideal — that all countries are equally independent — will continue to fade. The United States will ultimately accept the reality that since it demands submission from nearby nations, China and Russia will do the same. Small countries will remain sovereign only if they have governments strong enough able to resist foreign power. That may lead them to move away from American-style democracy and toward the undemocratic but relentlessly meritocratic system that gives China its future-oriented leadership.
History ordains at least our relative decline. We, however, set the pace. In recent months we have accelerated it. As our rivals watch us wound ourselves, they are laughing all the way to the geopolitical bank.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.