Published in the journal Russia in Global Affairs, No. 4 2021 October/December
It is common to say that “everyone expected American domination to last forever.” That is not true. Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History was almost universally pilloried when it came out in 1992. Why? Because the United States for two decades had been staving off decline and over-investing in its military. It was widely assumed that the public debt would somehow strangle the economy. American cities, infrastructure—even their political system—looked shoddy.
And just as professors of Western Europe, people like Paul Kennedy were muttering that the U.S. was soon to follow the Soviet Union, the U.S. struck gold in Silicon Valley. The U.S. share of the global economy shot up. “Made in the USA” again became a positive brand. Maybe it was a case of “to the victor go the spoils” or perhaps a testimony of the American blend of freedom, individualism, capitalism, and the rule of law. Maybe it was blind luck. The U.S. invented a new tech economy, in which it excelled.The U.S. entered the new millennium unrivaled. But in a surprisingly short time China caught up economically.
From having an economy the size of Russia’s in the 1980s, China’s total GDP is set to pass that of the U.S. soon. For a long time that did not concern U.S. leaders, busy with the responsibilities that come with being “the indispensable nation” as one Secretary of State called it. Much like the European powers had discovered in the 1970s when the Soviets and the U.S. simply cut them out of their summits, Russia now had to get used to ordering from the same menu as second-rate powers like Britain and Germany.
Meanwhile European powers and the European Union are shrinking from the global stage. While the Europeans embraced decline as destiny, Russia was not ready to abandon its great-power pretentions. Under President Putin, the country carefully husbanded its resources with a view for some future date when the cards would be dealt anew. Steeped in history, Russia concluded that war would surely come and woe to those who are unprepared. In the U.S., few had given much time to what would follow unipolarity. Most simply assumed that the liberal internationalist gospel of values and norms would replace power and interests, leaving them on top.
China, meanwhile, rose peacefully—some would say stealthily. It built its juggernaut economy while underinvesting in its armed forces, as Deng Xiaoping had prescribed. This was to avoid raising fears that it would challenge the U.S. Under Donald Trump, parts of the U.S. woke up to the fact that the 1990s had not been a renaissance, it had been a phase. But the country’s elites seemed uninterested in fighting for dominance. Some simply invested in China, others did their best to hobble the country through identity politics.
One thing I always find amazing is how eager American scholars are to speak ill of their own country when abroad. I do not mean to call anyone out, but most people from most countries are like my own people on that score. We may criticize our country at home, to our countrymen. Never abroad to foreigners, call it loyalty or patriotism. The divisions in the U.S. plummeted to new depths under President Trump and have shown few signs of abating under Biden. The eagerness of the new president to undo all the deeds of the predecessor included one of the key geopolitical tenets of Trump: driving a wedge between Russia and China. This was abandoned.
In 2021, the U.S. is facing a potential Moscow-Beijing Axis. China is eager to draw on Russia’s military prowess, Russia on China’s economy. For Russia this partnership can easily end up like the pig and the hen that join up to make eggs and bacon. Think of the Habsburgs hitching their wagon to Germany prior to WWI. The U.S. is—not unlike in the 1980s—facing challenges in almost every regard but one: militarily. Under President Biden, the country has decided to attempt to decouple itself from the Chinese economy and retry some version of containment policy. What happens next comes down to one point: Can the U.S. break out of the slump?