It’s always been one of the themes of history that I have found most interesting; that moment when the primary power in the world sees its position usurped. History is replete with turning points where one massive power is surpassed by a rival. The causes can be varied from natural disasters to simple economics. As often as not wars are involved but rarely is suicide the reason but that could just be the case with the decision of President Trump to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement.
Ever since China surged from a series of Five Year Plans and a number of economic reforms in the mid to late 20th Century, it was inevitable that China would eventually become the dominant global power at least for a time. Has this week’s decision however brought this day ever closer?
It is hard to always make a judgment call as events unfold contrasted to the advantages of future historians being able to see how events actually unfolded. Often changes in the balance of power aren’t always as obvious as they might be. The Turkish Ottomans were a fearsome bunch but after their defeat at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, they were never quite the same. It took centuries for them to collapse and from time to time they discovered their old glories but the overriding theme was one of decline and withdrawal.
The Battle of Ayn Jalut finally saw The Mongols lose their mojo in 1260, not that you’d want to face them in battle in 1261 but they never again were entirely indefatigable.
Other powers have seen their powers wane more slowly, Portugal to Spain. France to Britain. Britain’s fall from grace is one of the closest to suicide possible when under the weight of WW1, it was clear to all that embarking on WW2 would be the end for the glory days but it did so anyway for a greater good.
The passing of power from Great Britain to the United States is one of the few times when such a transfer happened peacefully, assisted by a common language, history and culture. It’s long been a worry how the world might journey from one of American hegemony to Chinese. Nuclear War would be the worst option and if escaping that is a relief, inheriting a dying planet is something of a phyric victory for the rest of us.
For several decades, most of the world has followed American leadership on a wide variety of issues but this has been less so since the Obama presidency and the arrival of President Trump is seemingly alienating all such nations, whilst alarming opponents. This could be just the opportunity that China has been waiting for, the opportunity to take a global lead in a cause that almost the entire planet supports and in an area that is entirely peaceful and on the surface without any downsides.
Whilst there are many reasons why many of us would rather live in an America of old than a China of today and that alone will ensure in terms of soft power that China won’t ever have its own way in everything, nevertheless, in other ways it can only improve relations between China and other states and allow it to move into prominence in other ways too.
Could it be even that President Trump will do to the United States what President Putin did or re-enforced with Russia? Making it a rogue state, feared only for its military but in every other way something of a pariah. A country we laugh at for the very reasons Trump says we won’t. A people who we feel sorry for in the same way we do for those in other rogue states?
It will take a long time for the repercussions to become clear and it would be hard to imagine that Europe for one would jump into bed with Russia though it could in theory find a way to do business with China as many African nations have. Perhaps something of this can be seen by the joint press conference in Brussels yesterday with the EU and China standing up for putting the planet first over any one nation.
The decision doesn’t even make economic sense in the United States, regardless of the environmental costs. More American jobs are tied into renewable energies and new industries rather than those like coal mining. Last week, President Trump was once again putting America first by complaining about German cars and how there are barely any American cars in Germany. Aside from Fords, there are barely any American cars in France or the U.K. either. The reason being is due to the supremacy of German (and other) cars in terms of quality, appearance and practicality. Practicality in a large way ties into size and fuel inefficiency that make American cars all but a non-starter in Europe not just in terms of cost of fuel but the terrible cost to the environment that barely anyone could contemplate supporting by purchasing such a car. It’s clear to everyone to see except those few climate change deniers in the USA and in the end, their opinion almost becomes irrelevant as if 95% of the planet thinks otherwise then simple economics will bring about change in many other areas of life, not just car manufacturing.
There comes a point when it is time to stop cutting off your nose to spite your face and if America doesn’t soon then it will become more like Russia, a slightly crazed country that everyone else has to keep under control rather than a normal and friendly state.
To keep the position of primacy, the United States should be maintaining the most important relationships around the world and address what the citizens of allies consider their most important problems such as economic growth and the environment but instead rather like a spoilt child who is unhappy how the sports game is turning out, they’ve taken their ball and gone home. Which is fine but it leaves everyone to get on with a new game and with their own rules.
That sentiment was evident on Thursday in Berlin. Just hours before Mr. Trump spoke, China’s premier, Li Keqiang, stood alongside Angela Merkel, and used careful words as he described China as a champion of the accord. China believed that fighting climate change was an “international responsibility,” Mr. Li said, the kind of declaration that American diplomats have made for years when making the case to combat terrorism or nuclear proliferation.
China has long viewed the possibility of a partnership with Europe as a balancing strategy against the United States. Now, with Mr. Trump questioning the basis of NATO, the Chinese are hoping that their partnership with Europe on the climate accord may allow that relationship to come to fruition faster than their grand strategy imagined.
Naturally, the Chinese are using the biggest weapon at their disposal, namely money. Their plan, known as “One Belt, One Road,” is meant to buy China influence from Africa to Britain, from Malaysia to Hungary, all the while refashioning the global economic order.
Mr. Xi announced the sweeping initiative last month, envisioning spending $1 trillion on huge infrastructure projects across Africa, Asia and Europe. It is a plan with echoes of the Marshall Plan and other American efforts at aid and investment, but on a scale with little precedent in modern history. And the clear subtext is that it is past time to toss out the rules of ageing, American-dominated international institutions, and to conduct commerce on China’s terms. What China didn’t expect was that the USA would so quickly and so willingly leave them an open goal.
Like those who witnessed the Battle of Ayn Jalut 750 years ago, it might not seem quite as pivotal today as it does in decades to come and there might be the odd final flourish for more internationally minded Presidents but it would be hard to deny that this week finally saw China take its place at the top of the world leaderboard. That it was something that the USA brought upon itself and in what traditionally would be seen as such an inconsequential policy area is just one of those many quirks that make history so interesting…. or scary if you happen to be tasked with living through it.