Every so often, a grand thesis captures the world’s imagination, at least until it is swept away by events or by a newer, more plausible thesis. The latest one to do so, in policy think tanks, universities, foreign ministries, corporate boardrooms, editorial offices, and international conference centers, is that America’s time of global dominance is finished, and that new powers, such as China, India, and Russia, are poised to take over. It’s an idea that has had as much currency within the United States as elsewhere.
All great empires set too much store by predictions of their imminent demise. Perhaps, as the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy suggested in his poem “Waiting for the Barbarians,” empires need the sense of peril to give them a reason to go on. Why spend so much money and effort if not to keep the barbarians at bay?
Still, the current economic growth of China—and also of India and Russia—is impressive. In “Rivals: How the Power Struggle Between China, India and Japan Will Shape Our Next Decade” (Harcourt; $26), the former Economist editor Bill Emmott refers to a World Bank analysis predicting that both China and India “could almost triple their economic output” in the next ten years or so. By the late twenty-twenties, China could overtake the United States as the world’s biggest economy. The spectacle of Chinese turbo-capitalism is inspiring Marco Polo-like awe in some Western commentators. Mark Leonard, the author of “What Does China Think?” (PublicAffairs; $22.95), reports, with more enthusiasm than plausibility, that “a town the size of London shoots up in the Pearl River Delta every year.” Parag Khanna, in “The Second World” (Random House; $29), informs us, rather gleefully, that “Asia is shaping the world’s destiny—and exposing the flaws of the grand narrative of Western civilization in the process. Because of the East, the West is no longer master of its own fate.”