Pinky: Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?
Brain: The same thing we do every night, Pinky—try to take over the world!
1) Wouldn’t it be great if you could start an empire? By that I don’t mean an Elon Musk-style multi-million dollar company with hundreds of thousands of employees, though that would be nice too. But let’s think really big.
How about dominating the world not only with your products and services, but with your ideas, your culture, your way of life?
Just imagine you could do all that because you’ve created a powerful bureaucracy and developed advanced military technology, which guarantee that you remain in control of what’s going on in your realm and can prevent anyone else from interfering with your goals. That’s what real power is about.
Throughout human history, there were several peoples who were smart, aggressive and hard-working enough to build up the potential needed to create and maintain an empire. In each and every case, this empire had its period of growth and a Golden Age. But at some point, it became weaker and ceased to be the determining power in world affairs.
2) In his essay about the changing world order, Ray Dalio calls these dynamics the Big Cycle of successes, excesses, and declines—which is a pretty elegant way to summarize an argument made by the long-forgotten German scholar Oswald Spengler at the beginning of the 20th century.
Sure enough, historical examples of how empires rose and fell can help understand the current situation and determine the direction in which the world economy is moving. This, in turn, might be useful to make the right macro-level investment decisions.
Quite plausibly, Ray Dalio focuses on US-China relations that have become crucial to the transformation the world is currently undergoing. His analysis offers great evidence that rounds off the argument the political scientist Graham Allison has made about the so-called Thucydides’s trap which China and the United States seem to have rushed into—with a multidimensional global conflict unfolding before our eyes and a real war possibly looming on the horizon.
There are, however, several points which could be added to this picture.
3) One such point is MAD. The mutually assured destruction through atomic bombs is a pretty novel phenomenon in world affairs. It has been around for about 70 years, and has drastically diminished, though not eliminated, the risk of a major hot war.
After nuclear weapons became part of the arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union in the late 1940s, conflicts between great powers have taken on a new quality. Throughout human history, wars have been a common way to determine who gets what. However, the prohibitive cost of a nuclear war forces governments to think twice before planning a direct attack on competitors who have atomic missiles at their disposal.
Currently, there are about ten countries that have nuclear weapons, with Russia and the United States remaining at the top of the list with their MAD potential. And while it’s true that a big hot war can never be ruled out completely, it’s hard to imagine the US sending war ships to attack China, Russia or India in order to enforce its trade policy like the British did during the Opium Wars in the 19th century.
Simplifying things a little bit, you could argue that without nuclear weapons we would likely be in the midst of another World War. But as it is, conflicts between great powers are fought out in other ways. Most of them are not entirely new. What is new is the relative importance of non-military spheres of conflict in comparison to the direct use of armed forces.
4) Over the last years, the US-China competition has become increasingly fierce, encompassing areas such as trade, technology, geopolitical influence, capital flows, culture, and the military buildup.
Apart from the economic dimension, there are at least two more elements of this conflict that deserve a closer examination. For one, the low probability of a direct military engagement means that there will be more indirect warfare. This might occur through cyber attacks that mess up manufacturing facilities and financial markets, wreaking havoc on global economic development.
Chemical and biological warfare is an even less pleasant perspective of what might come next. The COVID-19 pandemic might well be a natural disaster (though we’re unlikely to now for sure anytime soon). At any rate, it illustrates impressively the chaos that could arise if great powers decide to fight a war instead of competing in a less aggressive fashion.
Cultural influence is yet another area you need to bear in mind in this complex global game. The power of Hollywood and Netflix is an unparalleled competitive advantage for the United States. The Chinese—or anybody else for that matter—might be successful in introducing apps like TikTok, but they can’t compete with the appeal and pervasiveness of the US popular culture, and the paramount position of English as the world’s most important language.
This might change in the future, but it will take a long time, and when it finally happens, we might be living in a Matrix-like world ruled by supercomputers, converge towards the Singularity, be overtaken by aliens, or God knows what.
For the time being, American cultural industry will remain a hugely influential factor in world affairs, even though its importance is likely to decrease.
5) The current US-China rivalry helps explain many fundamentals that shape international politics and global economy. The crux is, though, that the current transformation is moving the world in a direction where middle-sized countries play an increasingly important role.
As opposed to the Cold War, when the conflict between the two superpowers determined most of what was going on the world stage, today regional actors can often play an independent role, and occasionally even set their own agenda that outweighs the great powers’ policies.
The game has become extremely complicated. If you want to have an accurate picture of what’s going on, it’s not enough to understand what the United States and China are up to—which is to say that in addition to the general framework determined by Washington and Beijing you need to develop “secondary frameworks” that help understand regional dynamics.
In this context, the existence of international organizations like the United Nations introduces an interesting nuance to global affairs. Although the establishment of the UN in 1945 didn’t create a peaceful world order, it helped build awareness that middle-sized and small countries have legitimate rights.
This doesn’t mean that these countries are safe from foreign intervention, as the United States, Russia, and to a lesser degree China and other regional powers, have shown on several occasions. Power remains power if you can get away with it.
On the other hand, a widely accepted forum where the small and weak can make themselves be heard gives them at least some leverage against the great powers. So, before we declare the United Nation to be useless, it might be a good idea to pause and reconsider.
On top of that, the veto power of the five permanent members of the UN security council (USA, Russia, China, UK, France) acts like a brake for plans that are clearly unacceptable to one of them. Though it’s a very deficient and unfair brake system, it’s still better than none.
6) Like the UN, the global order that arose after the World War II was far from perfect, but it had a clear set of rules, written and unwritten, that made interactions between countries manageable. Such a situation is, however, rather unusual in international politics.
After the demise of the Soviet Union, many bright people thought that the world was about to enter the liberal and capitalistic paradise. In the meantime, it has become evident that power cycles are much more durable than any Enlightenment-inspired scholar or politician would have it.
In history there’s no such thing as permanent winners and losers. And when the next season begins, nobody cares whether you won championships in previous years. The game goes on, and it will do so until some major environmental disaster will force us leave the planet Earth.
7) As nobody knows if and when the next Deluge is going to happen, it might make sense to remember that even though power cycles are inherent to global affairs, the way in which empires rise and fall has changed over time.
After the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century, most armed conflicts in Europe were rather short. Then World War I happened, and everybody who thought that splendid little wars were possible had to realize that modern times bring about circumstances that make warfare much more costly and destructive than anything humanity was used to until then.
Once the atomic bomb was invented this became even more obvious, which is why in 1947 George F. Kennan, in his famous Long Telegram from Moscow, advised the US government to prepare for the long run if they wanted to win the tug-of-war against the Soviet Union.
Today, being a marathon runner rather than a sprinter is even more important if you want to gain the upper hand in international competition. To keep your show on the road, armed guards are necessary but not sufficient, especially if the showrunner and the production team stick to an outdated script, in which the good guys are supposed to prevail over the bad ones.
It might work for a while, but unless you learn how to handle multi-layered non-linear narratives, sooner or later the audience will switch to another network, or get lost on social media and in the metaverse. They will be right to do so. After all, that’s the beauty of free competition.
You say you want to have an empire and are really serious about being great and influential? Then step up your game.