From its birth in the 18th century, the United States has transformed from a struggling confederation to the world’s greatest superpower. The success narrative of the U.S. is formulated in its history of authority and expansion with the Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny, and the somewhat misinterpreted notion of American individualistic liberty. (1) Since the world wars and the Soviet Union’s collapse, the U.S has been mythologized as a land of prosperity, embodied in the image of the American Dream. (2) To some extent, this lioinization is legitimate as the U.S. boasts a regional hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, acquired through the world’s highest defense budget and economic productivity. (3) However, as all empires rise and fall in due time, the U.S.’s decline in global supremacy has become a contested issue and the international community is increasingly alarmed by how the great power’s once-glorified presentation is waning. Meanwhile, China ascends to a status soon-to-be equal to that of the US, as the rising power is predicted to “overtake in some aggregate measures of international power.” (4)
With escalating domestic hostilities, controversial foreign policies, and China’s rapid ascension, the United States’ status as the world’s sole hyperpower will most likely erode by 2050. However, instead of replacing the current superpower, China will most likely be locked into a bipolar international structure due to the United States’ extent of hard power, influence, and cultural globalization.
The Domestic Decline
Since the Founding Era, separation of power has been a core value in the American government. (5) However, since before the ratification of the Constitution, this concept of separation has been applied towards political parties that have bisected the U.S. A two-party system resulted from the country’s course of history, with issues such as states’ and civil rights that have continually split Americans. The current rigid division between the Republican and Democratic parties has bypassed healthy standards of debate for effective governance, transforming the democratic value of discourse into a harmful environment of affective partisan polarization. (6) Ultimately, such polarization contributes to the devaluation of the U.S.’ status and power.
A primary issue that arises from this partisan gridlock is how it has limited cooperative, efficient decision-making within the government. American politicians are increasingly unable to compromise even with demands for swift legislation. For example, while the Trump administration is to blame for late engagement, Congress, where polarization is most apparent, has shown disappointing efforts in passing COVID-19 legislation, such as relief and stimulus packages, due to partisan disagreements. This fracture in government, with bisected public behaviors towards COVID-19 guidelines, has resulted in the U.S. globally leading in record numbers of cases. (7)
This is alarming for a superpower previously ranked first in John Hopkins University’s 2019 Global Health Security Index, which analyzed states best prepared for a global pandemic. (8) In response to this unexpected mishandling of COVID-19, key allies of the U.S. have expressed disapproval through record low percentages in public shares of favorable views towards the U.S. In the United Kingdom particularly, only 41% of the public expressed positive views of the U.S., a rating that is the “lowest in any Pew Research Center survey there.” (9) Moreover, South Korea reported that 93% of its population believed the U.S. handled the pandemic “very/somewhat badly.” (10) Essentially, American exceptionalism has plummeted with the disclosure of political failures by COVID-19.
Meanwhile, the American public also contributes to the U.S.’ gradual decline. The collective national identity of the U.S. is undermined by the pressure of internal segregation from ideological polarization. The highly controversial events of 2020, including the U.S. presidential election and protests following the death of George Floyd, demonstrated the effects of this social segregation. While some may blame the overall negative societal trends of 2020, political violence and affective partisanship has been a steady blight on the U.S.’ presentation of international leadership. Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 reflect past movements that have brought light to America’s internal ugliness, such as the 1965 Watts riots and 1968 Chicago riots, which were both provoked by violence against African Americans and discontent in American leadership. (11, 12)
Although these protests exemplified America’s global impact through the subsequent spread of the movement worldwide, it has also embodied how the world is becoming disillusioned with the American Dream, witnessing instead the American vulnerability. While Washington had consistently retained its position in global leadership, its resilience is currently questioned as issues of COVID-19 and low levels of social trust build upon continual problems of gun violence, police brutality, child poverty, and more. (13) Ultimately, with the domestic norm of gridlock and politicians’ overt faith in American supremacy, these controversies are not being efficiently handled by American leaders, leaving the country to be progressively split into racial and political enclaves. (14)
The international community’s dwindling faith in American exceptionalism stems from their viewpoint on the explosive domestic affairs of America. Consequently, the loss of such respect could have dire consequences for the U.S.’ global status and internal strength. With the aforementioned national concerns accumulating negative foreign perspectives onto the U.S., the superpower loses its appeal as the modern and financial center of the world. Decreasing confidence in the U.S. would mean the loss of foreign-derived brain power as the American Dream fails to attract high-skilled immigrants. Losing such workers reduces the U.S.’ scientific and technological progress, immigrant population, and national GDP — a decline of latent power. (15) Moreover, foreign investment would decrease, costing jobs, wages, and the country’s service economy. A trend of urban decay is correspondingly likely to proliferate nationally as most of its “systematic economic advantages” will be under threat of collapse. (16) The final decline of the hyperpower would be in the consequential loss of capital for both the country and the dollar, introducing the U.S.’ reduced “effectiveness as a country.” (17)
A Decline in International Legitimacy
The United States’ predicted decline in power is also prevalent in the realm of foreign affairs due to its “disproportionate share of global security burdens,” emphasis on liberal hegemony, and recent political isolationism. (18)
With the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the U.S. found itself in a position of supremacy within the global balance of power. As opportunities presented itself to the newly “unipolar” state, the U.S. embarked on the path of liberal hegemony, which entrusted the fate of global democracy and liberal policies in America’s hands. (19) Hence, the U.S. did not focus on maintaining a favorable status-quo but rather became ambitious, aggressively striving for a democratic world order pioneered by America. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama committed to this foreign policy and thus deeply engaged the U.S. in leading international institutions, wars against terrorism, security alliances, and others’ domestic affairs. By 2016, the U.S. was committed to the defense arrangements of at least sixty-six countries and the annual spending of billions to these causes — for example, the U.S. State Department allocates more than $1 billion annually to strengthening political parties. (20)
However, it was the limited success of liberal hegemony that caused the U.S.’ status to gradually diminish. Instead of a new liberal world order that the U.S. hoped to establish, the international community witnessed the retreat of liberal democracy, the rise in weapons of mass destruction, and the prevalence of violent conflicts in regions like the Middle East. (21) Additionally, the U.S. had been unable to prevent the rise of a potential peer competitor: China, a state that, although deeply engaged with the U.S. economically, poses a serious threat to U.S. power.
Thus, the American exceptionalism that enabled the U.S. to act as an international policing power is ultimately fading with the contracting faith in the U.S.’ military reputation. For example, the U.S.’ guise of invincible world power was punctured by the unsuccessful campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. spent $6.4 trillion and continues to occupy. Specifically, the Bush administration’s endeavors to engineer these countries into liberal democracies exemplifies the failure of liberal hegemony. (22) Similarly, U.S. interventions in Ba’athist Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya were unsuccessful in that after U.S. intervention, both became breeding grounds for extreme violence. (23) Although the U.S. undoubtedly presents the world’s most capable military and advanced arsenal, its success in leading and executing international defense commitments is debatable. Meanwhile, appeals of democracy have similarly dwindled, emphasizing the U.S.’ failures in shaping the international community in its own interests. The 2018 Freedom House’s annual report on Freedom in the World delineates that over a 12-year period, 113 countries saw a net decline in political rights and civil liberties. Even the United States has been demoted in rank to a “flawed” democracy according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index. (24)
U.S. foreign policy transformed with the election of President Donald J. Trump, who isolated the U.S. by pulling out of key agreements and institutions, thus abdicating international leadership in principal issues such as climate change and global health. This diminishes the U.S.’ political influence, especially with its allies. In a 2020 13-country survey by the Pew Research Center of the U.S.’ most prominent allies, only one-third of the respondents expressed positive views of the U.S. (25) President Trump even received a lower confidence rating than rival leaders of China and Russia. However, with President-elect Joe Biden promising the U.S.’ return to international platforms such as the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Accord, American international leadership may be revived. (26)
The Rise of China and Bipolarity
While the U.S. flounders, a new potential peer competitor has risen from the East. Since its drastic 1978 economic reforms, China has made significant gains in traditional aspects of material power while broadening political influence. Chinese President Xi Jinping has declared that China aims to “become a global leader in terms of comprehensive national power and international influence.” (27) While China currently lacks the power to be a peer regional hegemon to the U.S., China will most likely challenge the U.S. as its rival by 2050, prompting a bipolar international power system.
Since 1978, China saw phenomenal economic growth, averaging nearly a 10% annual increase in GDP. (28) Currently, China prevails in GDP purchasing power parity (PPP), which compares economic productivity and standards of living, by $6 trillion. (29) In 2020, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported China as the largest overall economy. (30) Moreover, the IMF projects that China will further surpass the U.S. regarding nominal GDP by 2030. (31)
Due to their exceptional growth, China has become the world’s largest commercial trading state, creditor, and holder of foreign exchange reserves. (32) Chinese economic strength is exemplified in its Belt and Road Initiative, which involves an influx of Chinese investment into Asia and Africa. (33) Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to build up astounding levels of national debt, reaching $27 trillion in 2020 (with China owning $1.06 trillion) as China’s peaks at $6 trillion. (34) As China surpasses the U.S. in economic metrics, it also builds global influence and latent power, threatening the U.S.’ hold on global leadership. The COVID-19 pandemic exemplified this reshaping of politics: with China being the only major economy to grow in 2020 while the U.S. shrinks by 4.3%, its influence has augmented at the expense of the U.S.’ (35) Moreover, China is developing its own international institutions —the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (2016) currently consists of 102 members, including U.S. allies like the United Kingdom and Israel. (36)
While China may effectively compete against the U.S. in total economy, the state must undergo major reforms in centralization, foreign business regulations, and social and environmental balances for quality alongside quantity in its attempts at world leadership. The World Bank reports that China’s institutional development has lagged behind economic growth, leading to possible instability. (37)
Firstly, in regards to such instability, chronic corruption continues to plague China’s centralized government with high levels of graft, inconsistent regulations, misuse of energy resources, and illegal land seizures. (38, 39) Although President Xi Jin Ping had declared his anti-graft campaign in 2013, corruption is still rampant within the government with obscure practices by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the Communist Party’s most powerful anti-corruption body. (40) While corruption has yet to impede on China’s economic growth, it has also worsened with increased regulations on the media and critics of China’s sole governing party. This potential instability caused by an unreliable government could be further prompted by the erosion of presidential term limits, allowing President Xi (and future presidents) to stay in office for an indefinite span of years.
While the United States openly encounters domestic turmoil, its resiliency in regional hegemony holds through its strong foundational institutions. China, on the other hand, continues to repress its population, which may eventually undo the Communist Party’s legitimacy, especially once China’s economic growth plateaus. Secondly: another primary issue in China’s growth is environmental degradation, which has posed a serious challenge as climate change prospects worsen alongside the country’s ecological stress. With the fast-paced growth of the nation, “land and water shortage, deforestation, and desertification” are impacting both the Chinese people and their environment. (41) Moreover, the Chinese people themselves are contributing to the critical ecological situation with pollution arising from quick, dense, and widespread urbanization. China’s role as the world’s largest manufacturer has also cost the country its environmental sustainability and it is now the world’s largest fossil fuel consumer. Thirdly, GDP per capita in the U.S.is at $65,297.5 while China remains far behind at $10,261.7, indicating that China’s rapid growth is not efficiently translating to domestic progress and that economic inequality is rising alongside the state’s economy. (42) To counteract these weaknesses and strive towards stable prosperity, the Made in China 2025 Plan has been active since 2015. This “high profile initiative,” along with others, looks to upgrade China’s key manufacturing sectors and decrease the nation’s reliance on foreign technology and export-oriented economic practices to stabilize its position as a global trading partner. (43)
It is especially critical that China shifts away from its economic reliance on manufactured exports: the onset of rising costs of Chinese labor is pushing manufacturers to shift towards new offshore opportunities. (44) Rising costs of labor partly is due to a concern of China’s dwindling labor force, which ultimately stems from China’s aging population. China’s demographics have shifted towards decreased births and deaths with its development into higher levels of education and life quality. However, this decline in population is ultimately a decline in power as China faces a smaller labor force and military potential. (45) Even with such campaigns, the prospect for widespread instability lingers over China’s state of incredible growth — potentially hindering China’s ability to rival the U.S. as a peer hegemon by 2050.
Although economic strength holds credibility, a “state’s effective power is ultimately a function of its military forces” and China’s military arsenal and capabilities, although bordering the U.S.’ by 2050, will most likely be inadequate for its own territorial objectives. (46)
With future capabilities, China hopes to push the U.S. out of the Indo-Pacific in its pursuit of regional hegemony. By obtaining the position of Asia’s regional hegemon, China can settle the last of its territorial disagreements, such as with Taiwan, the Line of Actual Control (India), and the South China Sea. (47) This path is similar to the American approach towards regional hegemony, in which both countries would be able to utilize their accumulated power to expand into their desired territories using force and political influence. However, the ability to aggressively coerce such bargains requires a power takeover of Asia — likewise to the U.S. political takeover of the Western Hemisphere. The power that it takes to execute this feat will likely provoke proxy wars between the projected rivals: with America fearing the rise of a peer superpower, the current global leader will do its utmost to limit China in the Pacific. Thus, China’s material power must overcome that of the U.S. and allied neighbors.
From 2015 onward, President Xi’s wide-scale modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has enabled China to unilaterally expand into the Pacific, especially the South China Sea. (48) Moreover, China has significantly progressed in military might — especially in missile mechanization— with its national strategy of “military-civil fusion,” which emphasizes U.S.-like “synergies between defense and commercial developments, particularly in technologies such as artificial intelligence and biotechnology.” (49) China’s defense budget is likewise escalating, increasing approximately 6-7% annually. In 2019, Beijing reported the military budget to be $178 billion (but is suspected to have truly been $261 billion). (50)
Although China improves its military capabilities, it is unlikely to replace the U.S.’ hard power by 2050. Contrarily, the U.S. spent approximately $719 billion in 2019, which is at least three times greater than China. (51) Moreover, American military capabilities are more substantial; for instance, America’s 5,800 nuclear warheads outnumber China’s 320. (52) Hence, with the extent of America’s hard power and defense arrangements situated globally, China is limited in military growth and hegemonic potential. However, its technological and economic growth has enabled greater advancement to challenge the international power balance, causing the U.S. to accept increased costs and risks to secure the Pacific. (53)
Diplomatic/ Political Influence
In order to build authority fitting of a superpower, a state must bind its “subordinates” through benefits and credible promises to not exploit others. (54) Through this method, the U.S. built trust and influence through foreign aid, notably: the Marshall Plan enacted 1948, and promoted an exemplary, altruistic appearance which justified its aggressive actions overseas in the name of liberal morality.
China, on the other hand, lacks the appropriate capabilities needed to drive a global influence similar to that of the U.S.’ at its height. While the state has been engaged in foreign aid, it is unlikely that China can build the necessary trust within the international community to effectively overtake the declining U.S by 2050.
First, there is the case of mistrust within the Pacific as China’s neighbors grow increasingly wary of the state’s ascension. While Beijing had asserted a peaceful rise with no intentions of building regional hegemony, China’s interests in territorial disputes and veto powers on neighboring foreign policies counteract such statements. (55) While harmful to any anti-China balancing coalition, even the coercive threat of cutting economic ties does not necessarily equate political influence — for example, although China is Australia and Singapore’s top trading partner, both states remain within the U.S.’ list of security allies, relying on the U.S. to counter if China is to ever expand. (56) The United States therefore retains a robust alliance system with China’s neighboring countries — the Quadrilateral Initiative (Quad) in particular, which consists of Japan, India, Australia, and the United States. (57) Conversely, China has yet to establish strong alliances, but holds congenial relations with few countries such as Pakistan.
Second, China does not exhibit the same virtuous appearance that the U.S. once did, nor does its cultural impact in globalization near that of the Western domination. The U.S. achieved its exceptionalism through its effective heroic appearance in contrast to fascist Axis powers and the Communist USSR — its astounding military and socioeconomic power integrated with the impression of benevolence gave the U.S. leeway for many blunders and flaws. China’s awe-striking growth is unlikely to have such impact on the international community especially as it rises with a domestic situation of increasing authoritarianism and oppression of its Uyghur minority. (58) China therefore contrasts the current hopes for a liberal world order and appears as a rogue state rather than an alternative to U.S. leadership. Moreover, China’s Confucious and community-driven culture will have difficulty competing with the appeal of Western globalization. Since the 20th century, Western culture has permeated globally, introducing a popular culture centered around the United States’ entertainment industry and establishing English as the world’s lingua franca (the standard language for a variety of fields, especially within science and higher education). For example, the international popularity of Hollywood has garnered much influence for the United States — Avengers: Endgame, the largest-grossing movie of all time earning 69.3% of its $2.78 billion overseas, especially in China. (59)
In summation, the international system in 2050 may diverge from current projections due to unexpected modifications in either potential rivals or the world order, a U.S.-China bipolarity system is now emerging. By 2050, the U.S. will decline and China will rise, locking into a severely restricted bipolar power struggle due to a prevalent nuclear power struggle that teeters on the edge of devastating warfare. How this balance will appear and what impacts it may have on subordinate states are questions that have yet to be fully answered, but are inquiries that prompt apprehension, or excitement, for the changing times.
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