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Chapter 11: Geopolitics at the End of History

My brief survey of the modern west has finally caught up to the present.  So I’ll take some time here to try to sum up the current geopolitical state of the world from a 10,000 foot view, instead of continuing with the overview narrative approach.

The most important fact to grasp when trying to understand the modern world is the sheer dominance of the United States of America.  Politically, the USA has either allied with or co-opted virtually every country with a significant military or economy, to the point that a country’s prestige can be usefully rated by how close of an ally they are with the USA.  Europe, Japan and South Korea, almost the totality of the Western hemisphere, Australia, and the Middle East (sans Iran and Syria) are all under the US umbrella.  Moreover, most of these nations are ruled by US-friendly theocracies, and the US consistently applies pressure to the holdouts to convert.

Economically, the USA has the largest GDP in the world.  It has by far the largest GDP per capita of any large country, which excepts only some small city-states and tiny resource-intensive countries.  US policy and US-dominated institutions undergird the international system of resource flows, the US dollar is increasingly the international currency, and the US is on the forefront of the economically and strategically critical high technology industry.  On top of this, an analysis of real resource flows shows that the US is essentially being paid tribute by the rest of the world, as it exports paper (dollars and trusted debt, such as US Treasury bills) in exchange for substantial amounts of real goods and services.

Culturally, the USA is overwhelmingly dominant.  English is the modern lingua franca of commerce, diplomacy, and entertainment.  American mass media has spread throughout the world, generating the most popular artifacts around.  The theocratic values associated with the ruling American institutions (both formal and informal) are widely popular among foreign elites, with education in the highest reaches of the American university system considered particularly prestigious.

Militarily, the US can do essentially whatever it wants.  In the post-Cold War era, the USA has rapidly and successfully defeated several countries thousands of miles away.  In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the US then chose to decapitate the previously existing hierarchy and overhaul the previously existing formal structure of power.  The whole thing was then replaced with a new setup more pleasing to Americans and topped with a new flavor of local theocrat.  And all of this was done quite cheaply, in both lives and real resources expended, by even recent historical standards.  Only by a maximalist definition of success (which, undoubtedly, has been in vogue lately) can this be considered any sort of defeat.

The second most important thing to get is that, by and large, America’s dominance on these measures is not shrinking, as one would expect given the portability of technological advance.  It should be easier to follow the leader than it is for the leader to push out the technical frontier.  And yet, the US is outpacing its potential rivals on most of these key measures.  A brief survey of the other potential Great Powers is instructive.

The EU, as a collective, is riven by discord between its constituent states.  Contrary to the hopes of the elites who set it up, it is unable to act in any way resembling a transnational state.  The military might able to be summoned by each of the constituent nations is integrated tightly with the US structure and relies on US support for anything resembling power projection.  And even if it did get its act together, the EU structure is impeccably theocratic and staffed with reliable New Leftists, so it poses no threat to the current world order.

Japan is a staunch US ally which is currently almost entirely dependent on the USA for its national defense.  It is legally demilitarized, with a strong pacifist streak imprinted on the nation after its devastating loss to the US in the Second World War.  Accordingly, it continues to punch well below its weight in world affairs.  And after its excellent economic progress after the war, up through the ’80s, Japan entered a period of extended stagnation that continues to this day.  Diplomatically, the relative rise of China (whose nationalists hate the Japanese) has kept the logic behind US-Japan alliance sound.  So even if Japan chose to change course and rival the US for global supremacy for some reason, it’s definitely in a worse position to do so than it would have been 20 years ago.

Russia is a diminished shell of what it was even fifty years ago.  Its main exports are raw materials to fuel the economically functioning parts of the world, the new leadership is struggling to establish its sphere of influence in regions that should be solidly Russian (like the Ukraine or the Caucasus), and its demographics are terrible (with deaths outnumbering births for the past 20 years along with significant emigration).  Russia’s only legitimate remaining claim to Great Power status is its vast, if badly maintained, arsenal of nuclear weapons.

The other candidate people usually put forward as a potential challenger to the USA these days is China.  To be fair, China has many significant factors working in its favor, including 30 years of substantial (if likely overstated) industrial growth.  Chinese factories now produce a large proportion of all the consumer goods on the planet, which has raised living standards all over the globe (especially including China itself, where hundreds of millions of people have been raised out of desperate poverty).  China has also been moving up the technical value chain, in an attempt to gain the technical expertise necessary to design and manufacture high-tech (and high margin) devices and software.

But I think that people typically underestimate just how far behind the cutting edge the Chinese still are.  For one, they started from very nearly zero.  The Mao years were very hard on the Chinese, eventually culminating in the Cultural Revolution, mass famine, and associated economic insanity.  Even the almost miraculous level of economic progress they’ve seen since then has just been enough to lift the country to somewhere between 20-25% of the US GDP per capita.[1]  This number, I think, is a decent proxy for their technological level: they do some things well, and they have the advantage of significant scale, but they still have a long way to come in order to match the West.

And the economy is the measure by which the Chinese are the closest to the US level.  Militarily, they are falling further and further behind the US in terms of practical experience, equipment, and capacity.  They were much more competitive in the ’50s, during the Korean War, than they are to matching the current US military capability.  Diplomatically, they are almost entirely surrounded by increasingly US-aligned countries (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, India, Australia, the Philippines … even Mongolia is cozying up to the US).  And culturally, they’re probably less prominent internationally than Japan or South Korea, despite the country’s massive size.  Observers – especially modern-minded priests – tend to assume that sheer scale more than makes up for these deficiencies, but as far as candidates for the title of Great Power go, China’s quite underwhelming.

India probably deserves a quick mention.  As far as Great Power potential goes, they’re a second-rate China.  They’re both billion-person states, so by the industrial era “mass” logic, they’re a potentially threatening competitor.  But their recent economic rise has been shorter and less rapid than that of the Chinese, so they’ve fallen significantly behind their regional rivals.  Militarily, they’re nothing special.  And, like the EU, most of their ruling class consists of Western educated and approved priests, so they’re not terribly likely to rock the boat.

Every other potential nation with the desire to rival the US (North Korea, Iran, Cuba, etc.) is officially known as a “rogue state”.  This diplomatic term of art is telling.  It assumes what everybody knows: that they can’t possibly compete, alone or in concert, with the US-led world order.  They have been pushed to the margins due to their unwillingness to accept the terms of US hegemony, and they will only re-enter the global mainstream if they openly submit to the demands of the “international community”, like South Africa in the ’90s or Libya in the last decade.

To sum all that up: the USA is the runaway dominant power and its edge is growing.  If we were playing a game of Civilization, this is the point when all of the other players would resign the game and we’d start over.  Barring that, the US player would take the victory of his choice (cultural, diplomatic, space, or military conquest) and then History would end, much as Francis Fukuyama predicted in real life as the Soviet Union collapsed[2].

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[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_future_GDP_(PPP)_per_capita_estimates

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_End_of_History_and_the_Last_Man

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