In a recent meeting between the leaders of France and China, China’s president Xi Jinping said that both countries should “actively promote a multipolar world and the democratization of international relations.”
In case you’re not up on your diplomatic jargon, that means, “We should actively promote the weakening of America’s influence and power so that other nations, like China for instance, can have a say in the direction of international politics.”
A sea change of the distribution of global power has happened many times in history. And it is always very ugly.
There was a time when America was the young economic upstart looking for a place and a voice at the table of nations. Historian A. J. P. Taylor wrote (in The Origins of the Second World War) that WWII probably never would have happened if the the British-led allies had not been adamant that America have no say in Continental European affairs. America sent a million troops to the German front at the tail end of WWI, and we were itching to march on Berlin and force an unconditional surrender. Britain and France did not want the U.S. to have a say in the negotiation of terms though, so they offered cease-fire terms to Germany instead.
The German government, understanding how desperate their situation was, agreed with alacrity. The German people, on the other hand—because they believed the optimistic propaganda fed to them by their own government—really didn’t feel like they had been beaten, and they didn’t know how destitute of resources the country actually was. All they knew was that Germany hadn’t actually surrendered, Russia was defeated, and now they could send all of their troops West to fight off the new American threat. So, after the cease-fire, when the new Weimar government of Germany agreed to bear all of the war guilt and the entirety of the war debt, the German people felt betrayed. They were ripe for a revolutionary promising a return to the glory, honor, and economic prosperity of pre-Weimar Germany. And we know how that turned out.
It took the absolutely uncontested economic, military, and industrial superiority of the United States to finally do in 1945 what probably should have been done in 1918. By 1945, the U.S. GDP and industrial production was greater than all the other Axis and Allied powers combined. It took this uncontested superiority to finally achieve a real global peace that has lasted pretty well until now. And if we have learned anything from studying the history of nations, it is that nothing destabilizes international peace like an uncertain balance of power.
The Chinese are good students of history and diplomacy. They will not challenge American hegemony until they are absolutely confident they will come out on top. But they are certainly gearing up for a complete overturning of the global hierarchy. So when I hear subtle hints like this from China’s president, it worries me. We won’t have warning when they make their move. The weakening of American power and the rise of China does not bode well for the world. Realignments of the distribution of global power tend to have a negative impact on more than just the most powerful countries in the world. So we should probably buckle up. It’s going to be a rough ride.