Is China’s Rise Inevitable, Why Should America Help Ukraine, and More: Your Questions, Answered
You ask, I answer.
Note: This is the fourth installment of a five-part summer mailbag series responding to reader questions. You can find the first part here, the second part here, and the third part here. Some of the questions that follow have been slightly edited for clarity. If you have questions you want answered, ask them in the comments section below or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and look out for future AMAs.
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A "Chinese century" is far from a sure thing.Nicolas Asfouri - Pool/Getty Images
As the U.S. is losing influence in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, China is gaining. China is ahead of the U.S. in 5G technology and hypersonic missile systems. While the U.S. can accomplish almost nothing because of political division, China can accomplish almost everything it wants, from lockdowns to surveillance. How can the U.S. compete with China in the future? Is the rise of China as the next superpower inevitable? (Shahin H)
Not at all. Yes, the U.S. is terribly divided and politically dysfunctional, but it still has the most powerful military and the most dynamic economy in the world. And China also has massive domestic challenges: growth is slowing structurally because they no longer have a labor cost advantage and the world is moving against globalization; zero-Covid means continued rolling lockdowns, depressed consumption, and supply challenges for the foreseeable future; there’s tremendous financial stability risks that they keep kicking down the road but could eventually blow up; and they are looking at an unprecedented demographic cliff that seriously threatens long-term growth and therefore political stability. Put these things together and it’s plausible China doesn’t even overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy. The big uncertainty is whether China becomes dominant in core new technologies like AI, big data, 5G, quantum computing, etc. It’s possible, but given everything else they’re dealing with, it’s far from inevitable.
China has large advantages for renewable energy. Do you think that green energy could soon become another major source of geopolitical instability, alongside fossil fuels? (Oana C)
I see it more as a major source of great power competition… which is leading the United States to drive a lot more industrial policy than it used to. That’s not necessarily destabilizing, because green energy is more decentralized in production and even supply chains than fossil fuels.
How does the U.S. balance the geopolitical reality of needing to produce fossil fuels, especially natural gas, with the need to combat climate change due to greenhouse gases? (Jason M)
By nudging the private sector to drive the green transition. The United States will get there—the misnamed “Inflation Reduction Act” actually does a lot to this end.
What is a realistic best-case scenario for U.S.-China relations? Will it always be adversarial or can it be neutral at best? (Peter K)
Near term, the best-case scenario is managed competition. It can be constructive in positive-sum areas where cooperation is essential for both countries and the world—like climate change and the global economic commons—especially given the deep and broad economic interdependence that binds them… which is hardly going away because both countries have strong vested interests in maintaining it. But the relationship is devoid of trust, which means that unmanaged competition—my base case—is likely, with all the risks of accidents and miscalculation that entails. And active hostility is possible, too.
How concerned should we be about domestic unrest because of economic issues in China? Would that have any impact on political stability and the good functioning of the Chinese economy? (Daniele S)
Near term, this is more a problem for China’s global competitiveness and knock-on impacts of slowing growth than for political stability, because Chinese political power is very consolidated. Longer term, it’s plausible that this could also undermine political stability, although I wouldn’t bet on it. The question is whether a surveillance state in the age of AI and big data is politically stable irrespective of the economic conditions for the masses. It’s hard to even know what to wish for in that case…
One year from now, what will be the bigger problem: inflation or recession? (@Zuiderman)
Inflation, because it will have a bigger impact on poor people and poor countries. What we’ve just seen in Sri Lanka looks imminently likely in Pakistan and could end up hitting a large number of other developing countries.
Where do you think the UK will be economically and geopolitically a few years after having decoupled from the EU? (James M)
More isolated and poorer than it would have been otherwise. In a decade, it may not even be the United Kingdom anymore: I could plausibly see Scotland and—less likely but still possible—Northern Ireland seceding, rejoining the EU, and the UK ultimately being just England and Wales. Brexit is without a doubt the biggest own goal by a developed country in decades.
How would you describe what is next for the world order in a G-Zero world? (Joshua P)
I think we’ll see more crises pop up and fester because of the G-Zero—the growing vacuum of global leadership and coordination—but we’ll also have plenty of opportunities to use those crises to reform and rebuild institutions—in some cases successfully, in others less so. The EU is actually becoming politically more stable because of the G-Zero. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the United States.
Will super-polarization and multiculturalism lead to the breakup of the United States in the XXI century? Samuel P. Huntington argued that was a serious possibility, as happened to Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. (Fernando N)
No, but it’s possible that national governments will no longer be the principal global actors in another 50 years, and that includes the United States. There’s nothing essential about the Westphalian system. Technological change is outstripping the present capabilities of governments to govern, especially in the digital world. If that continues, we’ll see a very different global order—and a very different United States.
What’s the most underreported issue of the Ukraine war, U.S. foreign policy, or global politics in general? (Robert M)
One billion more Africans joining the planet with the full potential to participate in global development and thrive as human beings, but neither the infrastructure nor the investment to do so.
Why shouldn't the U.S. help Ukraine?Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images
Why should working-class Americans be pleased with the amount of money their federal government has spent to aid Ukraine? (@Mnemosnye)
Because it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what we spent in Afghanistan and it’s actually being used to uphold American/Western/human values? Because Democrats and Republicans both agree it’s the right thing to do? Because the Ukrainians are fighting for their lives and have done nothing wrong to earn this fate? Or maybe because we still have the capacity to do the right thing, even if we only use it sparingly. :)
Knowing what we know about the Ukraine war now, what should the West have done differently in early February 2022? (Ken K)
Not much. I was advising the Biden administration at the time, and I can tell you they were trying hard to avoid war (and they knew exactly what the Russians were planning). You’d have to go back years to reach a point where a change in policy could’ve made a realistic difference, and even then, I don’t buy the claim that things the West did or didn’t do two decades ago forced Putin to invade. That was Putin's decision.
At this stage of the war, what would be the biggest (realistic) victory for Russia politically? They lost on so many fronts, but what could count as the best-case scenario for them going forward? (Linas E)
The best-case scenario is the Russians accept a negotiated settlement whereby they withdraw to the pre-February 24 borders (and/or President Zelensky is willing to accept some marginal buffer zone or compromise over Luhansk) and Western sanctions eventually get rolled back. But that’s the absolute best case for Russia, and it’s extremely improbable. This whole thing was a spectacular misjudgment by Putin.
What do you want to be remembered for after your life ends? (Lia M)
Helping the world avoid World War III. And helping inspire young people around the world to carry that torch long after I’m gone.
Do you have a favorite quote? Or a line from a song that encompasses the current state of affairs? (Neline S)
“The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed,” by the brilliant American speculative fiction writer William Gibson. It’s funny, he follows me on Twitter but I don’t know if he knows that’s my favorite quote! William, if you’re reading this: big fan.
What is the one question you wish someone would ask you, and what is the answer? (Pam W)
—Why are you so awesome?
—Aw shucks, you clearly have bad judgment to ask me a question like that, but I appreciate you.
What do you think heaven is like? (Jenny K)
Like nothing we can imagine.
Worst-dressed current world leader? Best-dressed current world leader? (Vikram L)
Best: Christine Lagarde. Though I did once call her out on an outfit I’d seen her wear before. A small win for the style-challenged of the world.
Worst: Does it matter? Most of them are pretty blah.
Are you a COMMUNIST? (William S)
In the sense that I believe there are some basic things that every human being should have access to? Absolutely. The question is what those things are. Libertarians think it should be freedom from external constraints (other people, government, rules and obligations). Marxists think it should be as much as can be equally distributed to everyone. In the liberal (classic) and social-democratic tradition, everyone should have the means and opportunities to pursue their goals and realize their full potential. I don’t believe in a society where some people are considered to have no or less fundamental worth. I also don’t like labels. Especially with all-caps. Those are the worst kind of labels.
Let's say a celebrity runs for president in 2024. Who's your money on? (Brendan O)
Whoever is running against the celebrity.
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