Geopolitics didn’t return; it never went away. The arc of history bends toward delusion. Every hegemon thinks it is the last; all ages believe they will endure forever. In reality, of course, states rise, fall, and compete with one another along the way. And how they do so determines the world’s fate.
Now as ever, great-power politics will drive events, and international rivalries will be decided by the relative capacities of the competitors—their material and human capital and their ability to govern themselves and their foreign affairs effectively. That means the course of the coming century will largely be determined by how China and the United States manage their power resources and their relationship.
Just as the free-trading United Kingdom allowed its rival, imperial Germany, to grow strong, so the free-trading United States has done the same with China. It was not dangerous for the liberal hegemon to let authoritarian competitors gain ground, the logic ran, because challengers would necessarily face a stark choice: remain authoritarian and stagnate or liberalize to continue to grow. Either way, the hegemon would be fine. It didn’t end well the first time and is looking questionable this time, too.
China will soon have an economy substantially larger than that of the United States. It has not democratized yet, nor will it anytime soon, because communism’s institutional setup does not allow for successful democratization. But authoritarianism has not meant stagnation, because Chinese institutions have managed to mix meritocracy and corruption, competence and incompetence, and they have somehow kept the country moving onward and upward. It might slow down soon, and even implode from its myriad contradictions. But analysts have been predicting exactly that for decades, and they’ve been consistently wrong so far.
Meanwhile, as China has been powering forward largely against expectations, the United States and other advanced democracies have fallen into domestic dysfunction, calling their future power into question. Their elites steered generations of globalization successfully enough to enable
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