In the mid-1800s, Britain was the undisputed world superpower. As Americans, we sometimes forget that the United States did not become a superpower until the world wars or even attain economic superpower status until the 1870s. We might have been growing quickly, but Britannia ruled the waves and enforced increasingly laissez-faire norms of trade (especially when compared with Britain’s 1700s mercantilism) with the power of her insurmountable and technologically superior navy. The Union Jack proudly waved over the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal of India, the shores of South Africa, and Canada’s Rockies. But Britain did not stay in this hegemonic role in the long-run, as is plainly obvious today. Germany, the United States, China, Japan, and others have all overtaken the UK in gross domestic product, cultural soft power, and military might. The British military, once second to none, is now third to many. So how did the United States steal the baton of world superpower from the British? The reasons are strikingly similar, with some notable exceptions, to the circumstances under which China aims to overtake the United States this century. Those who underestimate the strategic, economic, cultural, and military threat that the United States, and indeed the entire world, faces from a potentially hegemonic China are whistling past history’s graveyard.
The United States, after achieving Independence and fending off the British a second time in the War of 1812, had several great advantages among the nations of the world, including a free economy, a religious population with strong community instincts and voluntary organizations, and relatively unfettered immigration to the expanding frontiers, but perhaps our greatest advantage, at least in geopolitical terms, was that in North America after 1814, we ruled the roost. Separated by the vast Atlantic Ocean from the storms of European monarchies, we could develop a powerful economy on two-thirds of the continent’s breadth (soon to be the entire breadth by the time the late 1840s rolled around) without frittering away our productive capacity continually defending far-off colonies and becoming embroiled in frequent land wars. Especially in the aftermath of the Civil War, when the Republican Party held the closest thing we’ve ever had to one-party rule in this nation, America developed an industrial base rapidly by keeping interior impediments to American productivity, such as income taxes (which equaled zero) and regulations low while religiously enforcing property rights, patents, and contract obligation, allowing continued immigration to settle and develop our country and contribute ever-increasing human capital to our national stock. But we also had high tariffs at that time, especially compared with today. People these days forget that the Republican Party in the days of Lincoln and the aftermath of the Civil War was not a laissez-faire party, at least with regards to international economics. Most Republicans, and a good many northern Democrats, represented urban northern districts, or at least northern districts that had a substantial manufacturing interest even if they also had a large farming contingent (like the areas around York and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, upstate New York, and most of Ohio at the time). As contrasted with today’s United States, which places average tariffs on incoming goods at 2-3%, between 1870 and 1910, our tariffs averaged between 35-55% on incoming goods. By protecting our own fledgling industries (or perhaps in spite of it) while keeping internal impediments to production non-existent and attracting talent and labor from the world over, we surpassed Britain as the world’s largest economy in 1875 or 1876, depending on how we measure. Our production exploded, and with that production, opportunistic politicians and war profiteers realized that even though Britain was still the world’s reserve currency, most powerful military, and generally regarded as the most culturally powerful nation, America could begin using our growing cultural and economic clout to control our own sphere of influence, the Caribbean and Latin America. This would be especially true if Britain continued to fritter away moral credibility, financial resources, men, and national wherewithal in seemingly endless struggles throughout its empire to keep the peace and maintain the global order of which it was the leader. Britain hadn’t fought a war against another power that posed a credible threat to England’s existence since Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, but as any all-powerful nation does, England still skirmished and fought proxy wars like clockwork, intervening in South Africa, India, Persia, China, Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa, against New Zealand’s natives, and so forth. All the while, it spread itself thinner and thinner in the face of an America concentrating all its might on one distant continent, ready and eager to expand.
About twenty-five years after we passed British GDP, a wave of warlike fever hit the country as suddenly as the common flu, and exploiting the feeling, the more hawkish in Congress, after the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor, sent us into the Spanish-American War, kicking the last vestiges of the Spanish empire out of the hemisphere and convincingly asserting American hegemony over Latin America, building on previous precedent when we demanded to arbitrate the debt dispute between Venezuela and Britain to keep the English out of South America. And from this foothold of naval power and security to form profitable client states for US business by sending troops into Caribbean and Latin American nations over thirty times between 1900-1925, our industrial and military capacity expanded ever more. By the time World War II started, we were the only nation that could participate without having its homeland in imminent danger, and leveraging our overwhelming industrial power, we were the only power in the war to fight on two major fronts—and win convincingly on both of them. The Axis powers were on a roll before Pearl Harbor—the Japanese had taken Manchuria, coastal China, most of Southeast Asia, and several strategic island chains, while the Germans had rolled through Poland, France, Hungary, Belgium, Ukraine, and most of southern Russia—but after America jumped in, the Axis powers were on their heels within a year. US military muscle, along with a motivated soldier corps (2/3 volunteers!) landed in Morocco, putting pressure on Hitler’s southern flank, sent troops to Britain to prepare for a liberation of Europe, and reduced the Imperial Japanese Navy to a joke by the end of Guadalcanal and Midway. We leveraged our large and inventive population, along with some foreign help, to build the A-bomb, and by the time we won WWII, we had a majority of the world’s manufacturing capacity. As in: greater than 50% of all the things on Earth were made in America. We instituted a new world order built on rule-based arbitration, conflict avoidance, and an underlying assumption of American financial and military dominance. And as that latest trashy Carrie Underwood song goes, “You can figure out the rest.”
The Chinese currently employ the same tactics. With American large-scale interventions in Asia suspended since Vietnam (like British ones in North America were post-1814) and the all-powerful Soviet Empire now a military and economic ghost of its former self (like France and Spain in North America by the mid-1800s), the Chinese have little to worry about on their borders, much like 1800s America did not. The only possible caveat to this assessment is that they have India on their border, which is only half true. India borders Tibet, a sort of suppressed buffer state, and in case of war, no land army from the Indian subcontinent could feasibly cross the Himalayas that run the length of the China-India border. Much like 1800s America, the current Chinese economic strategy is to make internal environmental regulations, wage regulations, internal taxes, and the like nonexistent while protecting their producers from foreign competition with high tariffs, albeit under a politically suppressive regime rather than a republican democracy and with outright subsidies, poor patent protection, and other auxiliary market controls to boot. Their average tariffs stand at nearly 8%, more than triple the United States rate (but still not as high as the US in late 1800s), but if subsidies were treated as clandestine tariffs that aid producers, this figure for many manufacturers would near US late 1800s levels. Also much like 1800s America, the Chinese economic strategy is also based on developing talent, technology, and skilled immigration. The racism of the Chinese Communist state limits the effectiveness of this strategy, but with a domestic workforce of over one billion to train and educate and about 50 million ethnic Chinese elsewhere, ethnically restricted immigration won’t hurt China as much as it would hurt smaller nations seeking to develop technological superiority through similar methods. The Chinese government is already appealing to the nationalism and patriotism of highly-educated ethnic Chinese within the United States, like scientists and economists, trying to bring them home. As noted, though, the Chinese model calls for central control of the innovation and lack of private IP rights, which may slow China’s development and efficiency, though to date they have deftly avoided this problem by stealing enough IP from other nations to easily lead the world in technology within a decade or two at current pace. The current “belt and road” and “Made in China 2025” initiatives are like semi-state directed versions of America’s late 1800s/early 1900s invention boom, where US intellect gave the world telephones, telegraphs, automobiles, alternating current electricity, the world’s best medicine, and the most efficient agricultural techniques in the world. American ownership of these technologies, and the entrepreneurial spirit of the people that fueled them, allowed America not only to out-produce the world, but to increase its livings standards more than any other nation, to out-think and out-communicate, to own the future of world development for at least a century. Now the Chinese want to do the same with artificial intelligence, machine learning, engineering, chemistry, computer technology, energy, space exploration, and healthcare. The question is whether a state-directed form of incentives can truly accomplish the same ends as America’s free enterprise boom, but then again, it’s not entirely communist in nature. Scientists and top innovators in China are paid well, and the Chinese have ditched some of the less tenable elements of communism that completely snuff out incentive to work.
On foreign policy, it’s also clear to me that we’re playing the part of Britain at the moment. Our military, even though we don’t technically have colonies to defend, is spread across the whole world, as is our technologically superior navy. We are still the world’s de facto reserve currency, as the British pound was until Bretton Woods agreement in 1946, and like Britain in the pre-WWI era, we have not faced a serious state actor opponent for nearly three generations, but have fought an extensive series of skirmishes and wars with terrorists and states like Vietnam, that while they may have the capability to deter us on their own land, posed no threat to the immediate security of the US homeland. These sorts of brawls have taken us to: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Granada, Nicaragua, Kuwait, Vietnam, Korea, Yugoslavia, and so on. Much like the British colonial quarrels between 1815-1914, these have been mostly routs in our favor with a few notable exceptions, like Vietnam, where a stronger than anticipated local force drove our willingness to fight for very little tangible gain over the edge, but none of them succeeded in keeping peace and satisfaction within the Pax Americana, just as Britain’s overwhelming might could not keep its Empire quiet. And while we spend resources in faraway places to ensure that the national borders of (insert small country with GDP smaller than Ohio’s here), as is our supposed duty as the world’s current most powerful nation, China builds up in its own homeland and continues to concentrate its firepower on one very specific region of the globe, unencumbered by a need to fritter away resources on different continents, unless of course that effort is meant to create dependent client-states in Africa, much as the US did in Latin America in the early 1900s. Also much like the United States at the tail end of the nineteenth century, the Chinese are trying to enforce a Monroe Doctrine of their own: the South China Sea, Southeast Asia, and Taiwan are not to be interfered with by the West. And like the US of yesteryear, they’re getting disturbingly close to having the capability to enforce this backyard dominance. China is pumping anti-ship missiles, advanced fighter jets, and forward bases into the South China Sea region at alarming rates. Within a decade or two at current pace, the United States will not be able to assert its will in Southeast Asia, much less protect Taiwanese independence from the mainland. Their attempts to monopolize the Mekong River’s dams, to coerce the Taiwanese, to manipulate Korea to their liking and put artificial islands on Japan’s and the Philippines’ doorstep is all evidence of the eagerness of the Chinese to prove their renewed national greatness, starting with the nearest neighbors.
Now, all this historical analysis of the similarities between China’s strengths in current development and America’s in the late nineteenth century, with important differences noted, might bring about the retort: but was Britain’s fate all that fretful? The lack of Christianity, lack of common moral life, lack of economic freedom, high taxes, lack of gun rights, lack of free speech these days for conservatives (I highly doubt that some of my blog posts would stay up very long in today’s Britain), military flaccidity and general malaise of that once-great country all set aside for the sake of argument, I suppose not. The system the United States imposed on the world after the Second World War was not radically different than the one Britain imposed without challenge prior to the First World War. The United States did not seek to oppress the former superpower, nor did we invade the British Isles upon clearly surpassing Britain in both economic power and military capacity.
But this is because the United States developed from British colonies on the seaboard and thus has (or at least had in 1946) more in common with the UK than any other nation on Earth, save perhaps for Canada. We both spoke English, broadly believed in free-market capitalism, property rights, and liberal democracy (liberal in the sense of individual rights). We both had large Christian religious majorities, had legal systems based on the traditions of English common law, and had not fought a war with each other for over 130 years by the time the US emerged dominant from WWII, though the Brits did briefly toy with the idea of aiding the Confederacy in the Civil War to keep America divided. In short, we had little to fight about and a deep understanding of each other’s culture, heritage, economic system, and political system. China is an entirely different bear….er…..dragon.
For starters, China and the United States went to war in the 1950s in Korea, and much of the current Chinese maneuvering in North Korea negotiations aims to keep US-allied South Korea or a new US-allied regime from touching China’s current border with North Korea. The memory of war with the United States, and indeed a resentment of the West more generally, is still alive and well in China if the regime is considered representative of the Chinese people. Rather than trust built up over a century of peaceful relations, we have a tacit long-term hostility to China, which is still ruled by the Communist Party after all. We were in a Cold War with the Communist Soviet Union and its allies, including China, barely thirty years ago. Additionally, even if we had a history of peace with one another, the underlying fundamentals do not suggest it will continue once China has a realistic chance of attaining dominance. We have different economic systems (communist/state-directed development vs. capitalism, sort of), wildly different cultures and social mores, different languages, and a common need for scarce natural resources in developing regions, like Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia to power our industrial/technological economies, one commonality that leads to confrontation and competition, not understanding. Make no mistake: the American and Chinese political and economic traditions, social norms, and national egos are at direct odds, and the odds of devastating warfare between our two great nations are astronomical on the current course. Enlightenment-infused Judeo-Christianity and Machiavellian Communism mixed with Confucius cannot co-exist as superpowers of equal strength. It’s just the competitive exclusion principle of ecology at work: just as no two species can occupy the same niche, in the same space, forever, no two nations or two governing philosophies can occupy the same role (superpower) on the same fragile planet forever.
If we let China pass us on the road to economic and military development, the world will face the most famous “Thucydides trap” (when an ascendant nation threatens the established power) in history, whereby the Chinese will have good reason to think that they can assert their regional dominance, and whereby the forces of history and obligation will force our hand in disputing that claim with force. Nuclear and biological weapons will hang in the balance on both sides, ready to be used if conventional defeat looks imminent. There are four options: war later on China’s terms, war now on our terms, hope China modernizes and becomes just another nation in the “global community” of transnational citizens, or lastly, find some clever way of standing up to the Chinese without going to war, growing faster than them once again, and re-building our military with that economic growth (and also concentrating our forces in the Asia-Pacific region and away from Europe). The third option (hoping China becomes nice) sure sounds appealing, but unfortunately it is also unrealistic. Thirty years of a growing China enmeshed in global trade have not made it any more democratic, any more politically repressive (if anything, growth has given the Communist Party legitimacy), any less cruel to its own ethnic minorities, any more tolerant of free speech, or any less ambitious to control its neighbors and subsume Taiwan into the mainland. What makes us think that another thirty years of the same fuel will cause the Chinese Communist Party’s engine to stop? Option three is not an option. As Ben Franklin would have said of option three, “Those who live upon hope die fasting.” War with China later on their terms equals defeat for the United States, at least as the reigning global superpower. That may sound bearish or pessimistic, but it’s just the facts. When the UK faced a rising Germany (the other rising power besides us in early 1900s), it had France, Russia, and the other rising superpower, America, to back it up. We have no one of great military prowess to aid us. The Europeans are feeble, and the Australians might have the heart and the motivation to resist China, but are few in number. If China begins a war with us, it will be because they know the time is right for them to win comfortably so long as the war stays in the Western Pacific. We can hope they pull the trigger too soon, as Germany did, but I think that’s unlikely. That leaves us with two options: war now, which would be an offensive war, unjustifiable on the world stage, and leave us with no allies in the brawl but plenty of enemies, or a clever way of re-securing our role as the global superpower, even if we want to use that superpower status less to control the world and more to be secure at home in our own traditions and liberties to the greatest extent consistent with our own national security, not the national security of Algeria or the freedom of the people therein (a heretical idea that is today deridingly called “isolationism”).
To me, this last option seems the only tenable one. Which is to say that a trade war with China is justified, not on economic terms, or even immediate national security terms, but on long-term survival concerns. China exports much more than they import, and curtailing that export revenue would slow China’s growth and deprive them of the money necessary to fund the belt-and-road initiative, “Made in China 2025,” and military equipment. We should also slash out internal barriers to innovation and production, such as regulation, domestic income taxes, and corporate taxes. The Federal Reserve projects that this second quarter, our GDP expanded at 4.8%, much faster than the previous years and nearly as fast as China’s 6-7% growth. But we need to accelerate to that range ourselves with further incentives to innovate and produce in the United States, which could be coupled with greatly increased immigration for skilled scientists, mathematicians, artisans, and professionals under H2-C visas from the current 40,000 cap to 500,000, to be offset by cutting the limit on unskilled labor inflows. Coupled with fast growth and demand for labor, and this should raise the lower-middle classes quickly, especially as professional services get cheaper! Talk about a quick way to reduce wage inequality and raise living standards—double the supply of doctors, lawyers, and chemists but crack down on foreign unskilled labor—but there will be barriers. This will have to pass Congress, where every professional organization known to the bedraggled American citizen that gets held up by them (ABA, AMA, Optometrists, Accountants, etc) will suddenly be lobbying for restrictions immigration policy. We need congressmen with the guts to fully address immigration now, to be free-thinking rather than hard-lined “kick out all the foreigners,” or “open borders,” for our ability to maintain our lead in technological prowess, advanced manufacturing, AI, telecommunications, space exploration, and everything else depends on it. From this growth and innovation, we need to invest a sizeable chunk of it in rebuilding the military, as Trump has already begun to do, but with a heavy emphasis on asserting our presence in the Pacific and developing both more conventional power like ships and planes and more technological superiority.
Lastly, we should do two things in the trade war: first, make good on Trump’s offer for a completely tariff-free zone with the EU, Britain, Canada, and Mexico in addition to seeking freer trade with Korea, Australia, Japan, and Latin America to redound to our mutual benefit and get our allies, weak as they are, back on our side to offset lost Chinese imports (the more cheap stuff we can get from these other nations, the less the trade war with China will hit US consumers through higher prices even as the loss of export revenue batters China—though US growth will probably still slow down no matter what from this as complex supply chains running through China grind to a halt), and secondly, use attrition to not only deprive China of resources and send it into a recession, but force it, as a condition of letting up, to stop stealing US IP, stop illegal subsidies and adhere to WTO rules, and lower its tariffs on US exports, which are much higher than those that run the other direction. This would ensure that China, short on its own innovators, cannot become the world superpower by cheating its way to the top, and that America’s innovators will again have ample incentive to develop the world’s latest, greatest, and most profitable technologies. We must re-focus our forces on Asia, phase out our involvement in Europe, where a weak Russia should not be able to threaten a Europe fifteen times richer, and learn from the historical example of the United Kingdom: declining superpowers that play it passively will not stay in that role for long. They will be challenged, overtaken, be forced to rely on powerful friends as Britain was with the USA. Britain survived (in national sovereignty at least—not in culture or liberty or faith) because its friends overtook it. We won’t be so lucky. We must take our future into our own hands, and step one is to win Europe, Canada, and all the friends we can find back onto our side before initiating a totally rational, even if painful, trade war. I can only hope and pray that if we do follow through with tariffs and the ensuing hardship, Donald Trump can explain their necessity to the American public well enough to avoid an electoral defeat that would validate Xi Jinping’s belief that democracies are weak, inherently obsessed with the short-term and avoiding pain at all costs.
*Footnote: I have no desire of partaking in this modern world in which AI runs everything and we are infinitely mobile, isolated, and utility-seeking creatures, no desire to talk to machines at fast food stops and live in such a cold world of everything as understood by its portrayal on a screen and relationships as reduced to nothing. But something tells me that if China became the hegemonic power, there might not be room for author/farmer/economists living on their dream 100 acres in Kentucky, Ohio, or Tennessee with the hounds to match, unless the land is contracted for delivery to Shanghai, designed and chemically treated for maximum production without regard to the American farmer’s health, and the dogs are named variously: Mao, Zedong, and Boxer. We have to win this race if the dream of American independence and tradition is going to survive to 2100, a date I may very well live to see.