Do you have a superpower

Who will follow America as a superpower?

The United States is no longer an unrivaled world power. In the past few years, what has been called the “unipolar moment” has come to an end. Yale historian Paul Kennedy wrote in the Financial Times in 2002 that there has never been a country so much more powerful than its competitors. Not the Roman Empire, not the Frankish Empire of Charlemagne, not the British Empire in the 19th century. When Kennedy's article appeared, the United States was spending more money on its military than the next nine most powerful states on earth, combined. But Kennedy also wrote: This power will not last forever.

And he was right.

The United States still has the most expensive military in the world, but the gap to China, the country with the second highest military spending, has steadily narrowed. And China has already ousted the USA as the largest economy from the top. India is also forecast to overtake the US economy by 2030.

The Stockholm peace research institute SIPRI publishes annual statistics on global armaments expenditure. You can read the report for 2019 here. According to this, the United States spent $ 732 billion on its military, China $ 261 billion and India $ 70 billion. Germany is in seventh place with a good 49 billion dollars.

US foreign policy in recent years has reflected this slow decline. The USA is withdrawing more and more from international concerns. What began under Barack Obama, Donald Trump continued with his “America First” ideology.

It doesn't matter who sits in the White House, one thing is certain: we will live in a world where America is weaker. Who will take his place? I will run through three scenarios. The first sounds familiar, the second bitter, the third holds hope.

The idea for this text comes from the KR members. Many thanks to everyone who participated in the relevant survey. If you also have a question, ask us here.

Variant 1: China becomes the dominant world power

While the United States has fought expensive and unsuccessful wars over the past twenty years and fell apart domestically, another country has developed into a great power over the same period: China.

China's military budget now accounts for 14 percent of global military spending - it has almost doubled in the past ten years. Political scientist Roger Cliff ran a study through the scenario of a Chinese attack on Taiwan. In his opinion, in the 2020s it is becoming increasingly unlikely that the US could win such a conflict.

China's economy has also grown. Massive growth: In 2001, Chinese economic output accounted for four percent of global economic output. In 2018 it was over 16 percent. China's economy is now so strong that a joke by Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund at the time, could come true: A few years ago, on a podium, she jokingly thought about where the organization could be located in 2027 - and said: "Maybe then we won't be in Washington anymore."

In the field of artificial intelligence, China is now on a par with the USA. Of the twenty top-selling Internet companies in the world, nine are Chinese. With more than 200 supercomputers, the country has more high-performance computers than any other in the world. And while many other non-Western countries suffer from a high brain drain, the country trains more natural and computer scientists than the USA.

But what does that mean? A country with great economic power and high military spending is not yet a world power. Does China want to become a hegemon?

There are a few projects that speak for it: For example, the New silk road, a gigantic infrastructure project that brings train routes, roads, ports, pipelines and airports to 100 countries. At 900 billion US dollars, it is the largest investment program since the Marshall Plan of 1948. The establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank also suggests that it competes with the International Monetary Fund, which is dominated by the United States.

The Chinese government has restricted freedoms in Hong Kong, repeatedly violated Taiwan's airspace and is increasingly dominant in the South China Sea. That could be a taste of what the world can expect in a few years.

However, there are some political scientists who doubt it. Joshua Shifrinson argues, for example, that there are simply too many geopolitical competitors in East Asia, so China is more likely to cooperate with the United States. China's President Xi Jinping delivered an eulogy for multilateralism, i.e. close cooperation between states, at the United Nations in September.

So it remains unclear. But even if China were to put great ambition in a world power status, it is questionable whether other states, above all the USA, will allow it.

Variant 2: A Cold War 2.0 arises

If China does indeed have superpower ambitions and the US is not satisfied with its relative decline, a new Cold War threatens. We know what happens when two great powers compete for global supremacy: The Cold War between the USA and the Soviet Union dominated world politics from 1947 to 1990. That there could be a new edition, this time between China and the USA, for example the Washington Post ahead.

A look at the US National Security Strategy from 2017 shows that the United States is preparing for long-term competition with China. In a keynote address, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: "It is the mission of our time to defend our freedom before the Chinese Communist Party."

What would a new cold war bring? First of all, rising military budgets. China's neighbors such as Japan, Vietnam or India would have to bind themselves more closely to the USA. Entire value chains would have to be rebuilt in such a way that the West's dependence on China would decrease.

Experts also call this "decoupling". The British Guardian explains this phenomenon in more detail in this analysis and rightly asks: Is it really possible for the two largest economies in the world to decouple from one another?

For Europe, and especially for the trading nation Germany, this policy would raise uncomfortable questions: Should Germany also reduce its trade with China? What would happen if Germany did not bow to American pressure?

The likelihood of this scenario makes these questions all the more pressing. Because it cannot be assumed that the USA and its allies in East Asia will stand by and watch China's rise.

Variant 3: A world government is set up

That may seem a bit far-fetched: A world government?

I'm not talking about a Bill Gates-wants-to-exterminate-human-conspiracy-government. Not even the abolition of nation states. But a new, global level of government above existing states. Something like a European Union, but worldwide.

The basic idea behind it is as follows: There is really no shortage of global challenges. Many threats to global security cross national borders. They are either independent of the actions of individual states, such as the corona pandemic and climate change. Or they come from individual states, but cross borders - such as nuclear weapons arsenals: National disarmament is of little use if armaments are being built elsewhere. So you need international solutions.

At the latest with the US atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, voices became louder and louder to create a supervisory authority over the states. Even critics of a powerful world government demanded that an organization should have a monopoly on the world's most devastating weapons, including nuclear weapons.

There are similar approaches in the Charter of the United Nations. The General Staff Committee of the UN Security Council, which still exists today but is not used, originally had the task of advising on armaments issues and UN military operations. As a general staff of a kind of world army, contingents of the five permanent members of the Security Council should be subordinate to him. Even if the Cold War meant that this UN body was never used as planned, there are repeated calls to revive the General Staff Committee.

But even this minimalist approach, which could initiate the establishment of a world government, is rather unrealistic from today's perspective. In world politics, global problems do not automatically lead to global solutions.

And what will happen?

The US is more powerless than it was fifteen years ago. It is not yet entirely clear what this means for the world order of the 21st century. Without a conscious attempt to create a new order, the Cold War 2.0 scenario becomes more likely. States never cease to compete with one another. That would have fatal consequences for the whole world. Also for Germany.

At this point we have to be clear about what will happen if America's decline continues: The USA is something of a world police force. For decades, for example, they have ensured that sea routes are reasonably safe. Otherwise there would be no global trade. And that is why free sea routes are "of great strategic importance" for Germany, as Federal Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (CDU) recently said.

Is Europe really prepared for a world with a weaker America?


Editor: Philipp Daum; Final editing: Susan Mücke; Picture editing: Till Rimmele.