Why China Won’t Overtake the United States
The Once and Future SuperpowerBy Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth
After two and a half decades, is the United States’ run as the world’s sole superpower coming to an end? Many say yes, seeing a rising China ready to catch up to or even surpass the United States in the near future. By many measures, after all, China’s economy is on track to become the world’s biggest, and even if its growth slows, it will still outpace that of the United States for many years. Its coffers overflowing, Beijing has used its new wealth to attract friends, deter enemies, modernize its military, and aggressively assert sovereignty claims in its periphery. For many, therefore, the question is not whether China will become a superpower but just how soon.
But this is wishful, or fearful, thinking. Economic growth no longer translates as directly into military power as it did in the past, which means that it is now harder than ever for rising powers to rise and established ones to fall. And China—the only country with the raw potential to become a true global peer of the United States—also faces a more daunting challenge than previous rising states because of how far it lags behind technologically. Even though the United States’ economic dominance has eroded from its peak, the country’s military superiority is not going anywhere, nor is the globe-spanning alliance structure that constitutes the core of the existing liberal international order (unless Washington unwisely decides to throw it away). Rather than expecting a power transition in international politics, everyone should start getting used to a world in which the United States remains the sole superpower for decades to come.
Lasting preeminence will help the United States ward off the greatest traditional international danger, war between the world’s major powers. And it will give Washington options for dealing with nonstate threats such as terrorism and transnational challenges such as climate change. But it will also impose burdens of leadership and force choices among competing priorities, particularly as finances grow more straitened. With great power comes great responsibility, as the saying goes, and playing its leading role successfully will require Washington to display a maturity that U.S. foreign policy has all too often lacked.