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The international order is only assured when the great powers guarantee the provision of public goods on a global scale. The U.S. is still the hegemonic superpower that provides the key public goods of the current order.
The U.S. saw a challenge to its economic and technological hegemony in ascendant Japan at the same time that the first Cold War against Soviet power was intensifying. This double challenge marked the decades of the 1970s and 1980s. But Soviet power collapsed under the weight of socialism, an economic system that was unviable in the long term.
Japan saw its own position challenged by rising economic and technological competitors such as South Korea and China, while its rapid growth collided with a deep depression after which it resumed at a markedly slower pace. Finally, since the last decade of the 20th century, the U.S. regained technological leadership with the digital economy that emerged from the Internet.
Thus, the hegemony of the U.S. that began after World War II extended into the 21st century in which it was initially the sole superpower.
Whether we like it or not, American hegemony provides vital international public goods for the entire world, and they are paid for solely by American taxpayers. For example:
- American fleets of aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines guarantee freedom of the seas and the world’s oil supply.
- The American nuclear umbrella protects NATO and non-NATO member states.
- The global positioning satellite system benefits the entire world, but was paid for by American taxpayers.
- The United States will be a safe haven for capital and a lender of last resort as long as the dollar is the dominant currency in global international trade.
- The Internet was started in America and the IP addressing system is still dependent on Washington.
But American hegemony is being challenged in a new Cold War by the rising totalitarian imperialism of the new China. This is the greatest challenge the United States has ever faced as a hegemonic power.
After the collapse of Soviet power, the Chinese Communist Party seriously considered the problem of creating a more efficient economy than the Soviet one without compromising its totalitarian control. Under Deng Xiaoping, China adopted a limited and controlled economic reform, paradoxically similar to the German National Socialist economy. As Deng hoped, China’s economy became more robust than that of the Soviet Union and its military is much stronger than Japan’s was in the 1980s.
Under Xi Jinping, Beijing adopted aggressive imperialism that ideologically associates the totalitarian power of the Communist Party with the new economic success but also associates the model and person of XI with the history and legend of a former imperial China that saw itself as the center of the world.
Xi espouses a Beijing Consensus that attributes to authoritarianism stability with rapid economic growth, large private corporations closely associated with the single party, a growing middle class with purchasing power, and technological excellence under authoritarian auspices copied from the old American technocrats.
Beijing’s successes have made it an attractive model for authoritarian systems around the world, from Asia and Africa to Eastern Europe. China’s influence on various authoritarianism and on the Western left is its growing soft power supported by an economy whose weight in international trade is far greater than that of the Soviet Union.
But China still depends on the international public goods provided by American hegemony. Beijing desperately clings to the advantages of underdeveloped nations in the rules of international trade; this despite the fact that it is already the second-largest economy on the planet and projects its power globally as a superpower confronting the United States. The fact is that China acts under a model of imperial and non-hegemonic expansion. That is why Beijing is unwilling and unable to assume the costs of the international role to which it aspires. That is why it is trying to move towards a new order that is more imperial than hegemonic.
Guillermo Rodríguez is a professor of Political Economy in the extension area of the Faculty of Economic and Administrative Sciences at Universidad Monteávila, in Caracas. A researcher at the Juan de Mariana Center and author of several books // Guillermo es profesor de Economía Política en el área de extensión de la Facultad de Ciencias Económicas y Administrativas de la Universidad Monteávila, en Caracas, investigador en el Centro Juan de Mariana y autor de varios libros