China’s phenomenal economic and geopolitical ascent over the past two decades has raised the question of who will dominate in the twenty-first century: the United States or China? However, framing the question this way obscures the underlying geopolitical paradigm, which, together with the upheaval caused by climate change, will make the twenty-first century a violent one, no matter which nation finds itself atop the global order.
Geopolitical and environmental realities will result in a period of increased global chaos, which will lead to violence in many parts of the world, with a high likelihood of spillover effects that will, in turn, cause more violence and chaos. Whether this violence ultimately escalates to a level that threatens humanity’s existence will depend on whom the tidal wave of history deposits upon the levee when it impacts. Will they be Lincolns and Churchills or Buchanans and Chamberlains? The answer will ultimately determine whether humanity confronts nuclear, cyber and other advanced forms of warfare, or can reach political and diplomatic solutions to regional crises and contain broader conflict.
Under such circumstances, which of the two aforementioned nations is more likely to steer humanity well through the troubles before us, and to produce Lincolns and Churchills? The answer to this question matters a great deal, although the enmity between these two countries may itself cause the kind of disastrous conflict that only their leadership can prevent. If humanity is to navigate the stormy waters ahead, it is important that the United States remain preeminent, which it has the means to do, if it chooses.
The Third Chimpanzee: Humans Will Be Humans
The human animal—Jared Diamond’s third chimpanzee—is fundamentally no different today than when we first appeared as a distinct species. From our perch within Pax Americana, we find the horrors of the near past unfathomable and view them as historical aberrations. We are so unable to grasp the carnage that we cannot see that they are not aberrations at all, but manifestations of ancient instincts and urges, carried out using weaponry unimaginable to Genghis Khan, Tamerlane and others. These weapons may be better deterrents than their predecessors, but they may also give those who wield them outsized confidence, resulting in potentially catastrophic miscalculations.
And yet Steven Pinker’s better angels of our nature are real, and can be nurtured. Humanity is neither inherently good nor inherently evil: we are multitudinous, and our collective behaviors will be determined primarily by condition and circumstance. When needs are met, we behave charitably, but when we want for the necessities of life, we will go to extreme lengths to find them and to survive. This underlying biological instinct drives our existence, but, as some of the most fortunate people to have ever lived, we struggle to comprehend the lengths to which others may go when pushed to the limit. Even pictures of drowned Syrian and Latin American refugees, although stirring, fail to bring home to us the reality that we are already living in a world where, in many places, the better angels of our nature are not being nurtured, but forced aside, making room for the lesser devils.
Across the globe, many nations are turning inward ideologically, increasingly determined to define themselves by their geographical boundaries and shared cultural, linguistic or ethnic identities. These political trends are a manifestation of another of humanity’s shared tendencies, to identify with our group, against the perception of threat or difference. But these trends belie another reality: over time, human identity has become much more inclusive. As Diamond points out in The Third Chimpanzee, there are far fewer languages spoken today than there were only a few hundred years ago. There are far fewer distinct ethnic and national identities as well. Where now there is France, there was once Aquitaine, Toulouse, Brittany, Normandy, etc.
Were humanity to strive for it, we could build an even more inclusive identity. Perhaps we will, but in the nations with the most geopolitical might, the leaders are heading in a more divisive direction. History abounds with examples of how such division can lead to catastrophic violence and suffering, but few leaders of international import seem interested in better angels. With a few exceptions, the leaders of the world’s strongest nations are either apathetic or marching in near lockstep toward schism and conflict.
Of course, there have always been bad leaders, but the world is more connected than ever before: economically, culturally and even politically. As enfeebled as the United Nations may sometimes be, it is far more of a historical aberration than the world wars that catalyzed its creation. These webs of connection make the escalation of local conflicts far more likely than in the past, and spillover effects are hardly historically rare. The Huns’ invasion caused the Goths to migrate, which caused the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Even before the refugee crisis began, it should have been clear that the civil war in Syria would have consequences beyond that nation’s borders. Domestic violence will not remain domestic, even when the setting is a relatively small, seemingly inconsequential place like Sarajevo.
More importantly, these webs show us how dependent we are upon one another and provide a template for nurturing our better angels. It takes a village to raise a child, build prosperity or sustain global peace—but, instead of buttressing mutually beneficial relationships, today’s leaders advocate a zero-sum vision of the world.
The same leaders currently sowing international discord are also likely to repress domestic discontent. Authoritarian governance models that fail to provide outlets for public frustration must use repression against their own people. This inevitably leads to violence. Rather than inherently good or evil, human beings are inherently irrepressible. People can only be kept down for so long before they force change, whether violently or not—though violence has certainly been the preferred historical method.
This irrepressibility is the reason why history can be said to bend toward justice, if only slightly. Human beings are not fundamentally better than we once were, but our ability to accumulate collective learning does not just apply to the scientific knowledge, but to sociocultural knowledge, too. As we discard repressive structures, we can create better ones in their stead. Today’s authoritarians, for example, are unlikely to be monarchs and even more unlikely to claim a divine right to rule. However, our progress to date was not inevitable, and ultimate triumph is not assured. Our willingness and ability to inflict harm are strong and omnipresent, and the resurgence of authoritarianism shows that some repressive models are not yet relics of the past.
The effects of climate change add to the likelihood of violence. Unpredictable and indeterminate as these effects are, they are real, and their unpredictability only adds to their chaotic impact. If Europe cannot handle a refugee crisis of a few million from Syria, are China, India and other Asian nations ready for a refugee crisis if Bangladesh, the world’s eighth most populous nation, floods? Are they ready for a refugee crisis if the same happens in Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation? What would another dust bowl in the American plains states do to the global food supply chain, and how would people handle the hunger that followed? If the loss of biodiversity results in the appearance of new pandemics for which we have no cure, how will international institutions, governments and individual people react?
These are but a few of the many scenarios that might occur as a result of climate change. It is easy to imagine global upheaval not precipitated by the human propensity to violence, but by our instinct for survival. It would only take one such event to create a major international crisis. If doomsday climate scenarios materialize, societal collapse in certain parts of the world would likely follow. Not even the world’s wealthiest, mightiest nations are prepared for such contingencies, but the likelihood of a climate change induced catastrophe rises daily.
Between geopolitical tensions and potential environmental disaster, humanity’s path into the twenty-first century is strewn with booby traps. Yet this need not be a reason for cynicism. Our better angels may be in retreat, but they are never fully vanquished: they cannot be as long as human beings remain human beings.
Nurturing Our Better Angels
So, what can be done to decrease the likelihood of geopolitical conflict and mitigate the impact of climate change? Which nation leads humanity—China or the United States—will shape our responses, and therefore matters a great deal.
The domestic governance models which form the basis of each nation’s vision for a global order are fundamentally different. The US and China differ in their attitudes towards the rights of the individual vis-à-vis the collective, the ability of nations to act independently—and non-violently—in compliance with internationally agreed upon norms and towards the expectation of subservience from lesser nations toward the hegemon.
Some would argue that the United States demands such subservience from other nations—and, often, it does. But the United States also allows other nations to compete with it economically and grow wealthy within the international system it currently protects and oversees, at great cost to itself. Indeed, America’s new rival, China, has benefited greatly from integration into and participation in this system, arguably at America’s expense.
Furthermore, imperfect and inequitable though it may be, the American style of governance allows for domestic discontent and offers a more promising way of nurturing our better angels. The American public can seek change through civic processes and protests and is less likely to resort to violence to achieve domestic political change. American citizens not only enjoy more freedoms than their Chinese counterparts, but they are able to highlight injustice and advocate for change when they see fit. Imagine a Chinese counterpart to the American Black Lives Matter movement called Uighur Lives Matter. There is neither room nor tolerance in China for such a movement: instead Uighurs are sent to reeducation camps, where everything from their names to the length of their facial hair is controlled by the state.
It is often impossible to separate the moral from the pragmatic. As Robert Kagan points out in The Jungle Grows Back, the men who laid the foundation of the structures and institutions collectively known as the liberal order were not idealistic dreamers, but pragmatists who understood that the best way to prevent violence and war was to proactively invest in mankind’s better angels rather than being forced into conflict with the lesser devils. The Marshall Plan was both a moral and a pragmatic imperative.
The United States has striven, imperfectly, to uphold a set of ideals that give our better angels their best chance to thrive. Even under, arguably, the most divisive president in its history, it is still a nation that encourages its citizens to voice their misgivings about its direction, it is a nation with space for a movement like Black Lives Matter.
Would China attempt to foster such a system? No. Domestically, the Chinese government tolerates little, if any, dissent. The treatment of the Uighurs is the starkest current example of how little the government respects human rights. This is the nation of the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square—there is no room for a Uighur Lives Matter movement in China and there is no room for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s song “Ohio,” a tribute to the victims of Kent State. The Chinese government ignores and covers up the sins of its past, thus increasing the chances that they will be repeated in the future, a scenario that may be currently unfolding in Hong Kong.
If China’s treatment of its own citizens is any indicator of the expectations it might set for other nations, then let’s hope it is not tasked with leading humanity through the turmoil of the coming century.
China’s behavior in the global arena since its nascent ascent to the status of major international player also indicates that it is unlikely to be the shepherd the international community needs. Its actions in the South China Sea are bellicose and none of its neighbors are capable of challenging them. Not yet the hegemon it aspires to become and still wary of the United States and the threat of containment, China has nonetheless committed an act of maritime territorial aggression that is reminiscent of the Japanese Empire’s construction of island fortresses throughout the Pacific during World War II. How might it behave if completely unchecked?
Whether China’s lending practices under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) umbrella qualify as debt trap diplomacy, the Chinese government has explicitly stated that it is willing to partner economically with nations, regardless of their domestic policies and of how they treat their own populations. The United States has, at times, compromised its values in pursuit of its geostrategic aims; China has declared that it has no values to compromise. It is willing to pursue its economic and geostrategic goals when and where it sees fit—if this empowers leaders who repress their own people or threaten violence to their neighbors, then that’s just the cost of doing business. This may be profitable, but only temporarily, since this strategy will ultimately beat our better angels into submission.
China does not seek the violent destruction of the current global system, but a peaceful, piecemeal dismantling that will allow it to reconstruct international institutions in its own image. However, this does not mean that China will avoid conflict. Its actions in the South China Sea prove that it is open to any fight it expects it can win, and, as its might grows, so too will its ambitions and appetite for conflict in pursuit of those ambitions. It is therefore important that the United States lead the world in the twenty-first century. A period of inevitable violence awaits, and only under American stewardship can humanity hope to navigate these impending conflicts and reach a better future.
Will America Choose to Win?
Both the United States and China have unique strengths and weaknesses, but the US, if it chooses to capitalize on the tools at its disposal, is better poised to remain the global hegemon. But America’s inherent advantages are meaningless if the nation continues its current, homeopathic response to authoritarian aggression. Mimicry is the ultimate form of flattery—by imitating the behaviors Americans are ostensibly combatting, they are likely to cede control of the future to the enemies outside by releasing those within.
The United States has a tradition of entrepreneurship, absent for much of recent Chinese history. China is closing the economic gap, and its support of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) could blunt the American advantage, but, in addition to fostering more creativity, the United States is also more accustomed to the concept of creative destruction and is thus better equipped to deal with inevitable economic setbacks. China’s economic model—indeed its Faustian bargain with its own people—relies upon unending economic growth. China’s recent track record leads many to believe that it might be able to sustain its current trajectory indefinitely, but, here again, the recent past is the aberration, not the norm. No nation has sustained indefinite economic growth, especially not at the levels envisioned by China’s leaders. It is precisely because there are no historical parallels that the last two decades of economic growth in China qualify as a miracle—and yet many anticipate that this miraculous historical aberration will remain the new norm. But the next Chinese SOE to fail will also be the first to fail. How will the Chinese government and its people respond to such an event? There is a template for this in the United States; when big businesses—Kodak, Borders, Blockbuster—fail, the economy adapts. Will China adapt?
Militarily, the United States can—in almost every realm—still deploy a more capable and effective force than China. This gap may be closing too, but the American military has two other important advantages: experience and a training model that mimics the meritocracy of the US economy and government, two concepts that are closely linked. All militaries must be hierarchical, but effective tactical decisions are made by the soldiers doing the fighting. The Chinese military may understand this concept, but the American military has learned and practiced it in the jungles of Vietnam, the streets of Baghdad and the mountains of Afghanistan.
Culturally and politically, the United States is the world’s best hope. Though Americans mythologize their role as the world’s city upon a hill, the myth is rooted in the reality of America’s diversity. Never before has one nation attracted so many numbers and types of people. If the United States allows it, the resulting diversity will continue to encourage creativity and progress. There is a virtuous cycle in play as well: when one person comes to the US, friends and family are likely to follow. Through immigration and remittances, the United States is not only plugged into the global economy, it is plugged into networks of families who desire to bring their talents there and contribute them to the American experiment.
There are uncountable, unforeseeable uncertainties awaiting humanity in the remainder of the twenty-first century. Perhaps artificial intelligence will become godlike and we will become its slaves. Perhaps an asteroid or pandemic will end our existence. Or, perhaps, we will continue as we have so far, inching toward a better existence—often in spite of ourselves. In this, the most likely, scenario, humanity will inevitably face turmoil, chaos and violence that—if handled poorly—will threaten our existence. We will rely on either China or the United States to lead us through these events. The world needs the United States, which has the means, resources and capacity to nurture our better angels. Do Americans have the will to do so?