The ever-provocative Harvard historian Niall Ferguson writes in the Wall Street Journal that we are not just living in the departing days of the U.S. as the world’s superpower, but in the end time of five centuries of Western predominance. As a 2,500-word trailer for a forthcoming book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, his argument tends to skip from peak to peak without much by way of slogging though the valleys of supporting evidence. We’d be the last to disagree that geopolitical power is tilting eastwards, but we’ll reserve judgement on whether it will do so as completely as Ferguson posits until we’ve seen the book.
He is correct in noting the self-confidence of the country’s younger generation of policymaking elite, and their telepathic ability, Ferguson would have you believe, to conjure up the phrase “We are the masters now” in and above the minds of their Western counterparts. China as No. 1 and the eclipse of the American century is as fashionable handwringing in the West as Japan as No. 1 was three decades ago (and China’s self-confident policymakers could teach nothing on that score to the young blades of the MoF, MITI as it then was, and the Gaimusho of the 1980s). Japan’s global strutting was fired up by fast economic growth and huge export-driven current-account surpluses, neither of which were sustainable for demographic reasons as much as anything. China finds itself in a similar position to Ichiban Japan in those regards, but we think its fast growth rates and current account surpluses will last longer and diminish slower.
However, we are also struck by Ferguson’s suggestion that China is pursing “a strategy not so much for world domination on the model of Western imperialism as for reestablishing China as the Middle Kingdom—the dominant tributary state in the Asia-Pacific region”. China’s leaders are nothing if not students of history. That may be a strategy to avoid both Japan’s decline and stagnation and the imperial overreach that ended European colonialism and may do the same for America. Yet that world of suzerainty imploded once before when China suddenly turned in on itself (as America seems to be doing politically now).
Whether it does so again may well depend on how the established ruling elite handles the demands for political participation from the parvenu wealthy classes that get created by industrial revolutions. Ferguson identifies the rule of law and representative government as one of six factors critical to the West’s predominance over the past 500 years. He says it is the “optimal system of social and political order…based on property rights and the representation of property owners in elected legislatures”. China will be the test of that thesis, and that the test of Ferguson’s.