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America’s Preeminence by Default

By Matthew Yglesias  

"America’s Preeminence by Default"

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China has emerged as pretty clearly the number two country in the world power hierarchy, but as David Schorr observes it’s not really clear that China has any desire to be an important world power:

As President Obma urges China to be a “source of strength for the community of nations” — i.e. help with the heavy lifting on international challenges such as global warming and nuclear proliferation — Chinese leaders prefer to downplay expectations. They’re not witholding their support and assistance, but they are parcelling out their contributions quite cautiously, rather than putting themselves at the forefront of global problem solving. Think of it as a tendency to do positive things for negative reasons. Unfortunately, it may not be enough to deal effectively with 21st century international challenges.

I spent several days in Beijing last week taking part in discussions co-organized by the Stanley Foundation with the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the China Institutes on Contemporary International Relations. This Chinese ambivalence about providing leadership was expressed in a variety of ways, including the description of China as “a global actor, not a global power.” Indeed, the true aim of key Chinese strategic concepts such as peaceful rise or harmonious world seems to be a frictionless foreign policy to conserve every ounce of effort for the challenges of domestic stability and economic growth.

The crux of the matter is that while China’s combination of scale and rapid growth make it, de factor, a big player on the world stage it’s also a profoundly poor Russia. Russia is much poorer than the United States, but it still has a GDP per capita of $16,000 or so. Brazil clocks in at just above the world average of $10,000 and South Africa is just below that number. China, meanwhile, rates as slightly poorer than Angola or Namibia. There’s no real precedent in the modern system of great powers for one of the major countries to be so economically underdeveloped. Combine that with the questionable durability of China’s political system, and you can see why the leadership mostly wants to focus on staying in power and getting richer.

That, however, leads to a bit of a leadership vacuum at the top, especially when you consider that a very sizable portion of the world’s potential wealth and power is tied up in the European Union where lack of institutional capacity makes it impossible to deploy it effectively. The result is to give the United States a more preeminent position than the underlying fundamentals would suggest at first glance. This actually creates some problems for us—seen in Obama’s exhortation—but of course the United States suffers from some schizophrenia on this front. Sometimes we’re seen urging China (or, indeed, the European Union or Japan) to play a bigger role in the world, but other times we’re clearly glad that nobody else is interesting in wielding global power in a manner that checks our own hegemonic aspirations.

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