We live in a confusing world.
Back in 2012, Professor Graham Allison coined the term “Thucydides Trap” for a situation where the risk of war increases when rising powers threaten the hegemony of an existing power. That is where we are today with the rise of China, the contraction of the American Empire, and the partial rejuvenation of Russia. To adapt Aristotle’s old saying, power abhors a vacuum.
Though the American establishment is loath to admit it, we have a multipolar world. The US’s unipolar moment after the collapse of the USSR has long passed. Now three great powers–the US, China and Russia–jostle for position.
Along with tectonic power shifts, great historical irony defines our times.
The richest irony: Communist China is the world’s preeminent example of state capitalism. Truly Communist regimes have no private sector; China has a private sector on steroids— a state-directed economy bearing a striking resemblance to those of the pre-World War II Fascist powers. What’s more, the Chinese Communist Party flogs the teachings of Confucius, a wee bit of a departure from the collectivist dronings of Mao, Marx and Lenin.
Also ironic is that Russia, the erstwhile center of world Communism that bankrolled leftist causes throughout the West and sought to extirpate religion within its borders (remember “Godless Communism?”), is now a conservative power, righteously nationalist, with the Russian Orthodox Church enjoying generous state support. President Putin has even chastised the US for its rigid political correctness, which reminds Russians of the old USSR.
The real stunner is the role reversal of the United States, which yours truly has seen firsthand. America was once the strident foe of Communism, tasked to “keep the world safe for democracy.” Now US elites have embraced the secular religion of Cultural Marxism, aka PC, and fashioned a welfare-warfare regime hostile to Christian religious expression and traditional family values. Cultural Marxism’s “long march through the institutions” marches on no matter the occupants of the White House and Congress. Representative government has been perverted to the point where it would be barely recognizable to the Founders of the Republic.
All this has spawned a spate of prognostication about today’s version of the Great Game. But one underlying factor is determinative: demography. “Demography is destiny.” Ignore that at your peril.
China is ascendant on the world stage. Its economy will be larger than the US’s very soon, and it is already the world’s largest adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity, (The IMF defines Purchasing Power Parity as ”The rate at which the currency of one country would have to be converted into that of another country to buy the same amount of goods and services in each country”). China’s Belt and Road Initiative is uniting Eurasia and Africa into a colossal trading block. The Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank rivals the World Bank in global influence. Chinese cash has muscled aside US clout in much of the world. While the US and China are economically interdependent, the balance has decidedly tilted to the East. If current trends continue, China will have its own unipolar moment before too long.
But maybe for only a moment. China is rapidly ageing. The official fertility rate stands at 1.3. The draconian one-child policy worked so well it became the new normal. China’s population is officially projected to begin declining in 2024. The Middle Kingdom is quickly approaching the “population death cross” where every year brings more deaths than births. A 2020 study in the medical journal The Lancet–“Fertility, mortality, migration, and population scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100”–projected that China’s population will peak in 2024 at 1.431 billion, and decrease by almost 50% to 732 million by 2100. China will struggle to support increasing numbers of elderly, losing the vigor of a youthful population, like Japan did.
As for the US, from the 1970s on immigration has boosted our population, but it has also brought us a big problem. America has become fragmented. We now have identity politics and ideological polarization, which precludes establishing a national consensus. US fertility has been below replacement level (2.1) since 1972 (currently 1.78), with the fertility of immigrants and their descendants now also below 2.1. The Lancet projects a US population increase from 330 million today, peaking at 364 million in 2062, then declining to 336 million by century’s end. So America is also ageing and the American Empire is way overextended. The fiscal situation is unsustainable – our debt exceeds our Gross Domestic Product. This will ultimately cause the dollar to lose out as the dominant world reserve currency, bringing on a world of hurt. So China’s birth dearth does not necessarily translate into an advantage for the US.
Then there is Russia. After seventy years of Communism followed by a decade of kleptocracy, massive efforts have been made to right the ship. While many things in Russia are looking up, Russia is still not a fully developed country and its fertility rate is a very poor 1.5. The Lancet projects Russia’s population to decline from today’s 147 million to 107 million in 2100. Also, given the fertility differential between Russia’s Christians and Muslims, the current Muslim percentage of Russia is almost 15% and is expected to almost double in the next ten years. That will have huge ramifications, especially for Russia’s outsized role in the Middle East.
Keep in mind that the above numbers are projections. Anything could change. China has the cash and the coercive capability to turn things around. In Russia the strength of the Russian Orthodox Church and robust Russian nationalism could possibly have an impact. US population growth will continue for decades, and the government will do nothing until the problem smacks them in the face.
Today’s big three – US, China and Russia – and the power dynamic among them will change significantly in the coming years. With reduced populations, fiscal constraints, and the Thucydides Trap’s ever-present specter of war, there is no telling what may unfold. The factors determining the outcome of today’s Great Game will be the size, cohesion and initiative of the players’ respective populations – as well as their leadership. To that Mother Nature will brook no dissent.