[OPE-L] Wallerstein: "Whose Century is the 21st Century?"

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Fri Jun 02 2006 - 09:03:10 EDT

Commentary No. 186, June 1, 2006

"Whose Century is the 21st Century?"

In 1941, Henry Luce proclaimed the twentieth century the American
century. And most analysts have agreed with him ever since. Of
course, the twentieth century was more than merely the American
century. It was the century of the decolonization of Asia and Africa.
It was the century of the flourishing of both fascism and communism
as political movements. And it was the century of both the Great
Depression and the incredible, unprecedented expansion of the
world-economy in the 25 years after the end of the Second World War.

But nonetheless, it was the American century. The United States
became the unquestioned hegemonic power in the period 1945-1970 and
shaped a world-system to its liking. The United States became the
premier economic producer, the dominant political force, and the
cultural center of the world-system. The United States, in short, ran
the show, at least for a while.

Now, the United States is in visible decline. More and more analysts
are willing to say this openly, even if the official line of the U.S.
establishment is to deny this vigorously, just as a certain portion
of the world left insists on the continued hegemony of the United
States. But clear-minded realists on all sides recognize that the
U.S. star is growing dimmer. The question that underlies all serious
prognostication is then, whose century is the twenty-first century?

Of course, it is only 2006, and a bit early to answer this question
with any sense of certainty. But nonetheless, political leaders
everywhere are making bets on the answer and shaping their policies
accordingly. If we rephrase the question to ask merely what may the
world look like in, for example, 2025, we may at least be able to say
something intelligent.

There are basically three sets of answers to the question of what the
world will look like in 2025. The first is that the United States
will enjoy one last fling, a revival of power, and will continue to
rule the roost in the absence of any serious military contender. The
second is that China will displace the United States as the world's
superpower. The third is that the world will become an arena of
anarchic and relatively unpredictable multi-polar disorder. Let us
examine the plausibility of each of these three predictions.

The United States on top? There are three reasons to doubt this. The
first, an economic reason, is the fragility of the U.S. dollar as the
sole reserve currency in the world-economy. The dollar is sustained
now by massive infusions of bond purchases by Japan, China, Korea,
and other countries. It is highly unlikely that this will continue.
When the dollar falls dramatically, it may momentarily increase the
sale of manufactured goods, but the United States will lose its
command on world wealth and its ability to expand the deficit without
serious immediate penalty. The standard of living will fall and there
will be an influx of new reserve currencies, including the euro and
the yen.

The second reason is military. Both Afghanistan and especially Iraq
have demonstrated in the last few years that it is not enough to have
airplanes, ships, and bombs. A nation must also have a very large
land force to overcome local resistance. The United States does not
have such a force, and will not have one, due to internal political
reasons. Hence, it is doomed to lose such wars.

The third reason is political. Nations throughout the world are
drawing the logical conclusion that they can now defy the United
States politically. Take the latest instance: The Shanghai
Cooperation Organization, which brings together Russia, China, and
four Central Asian republics, is about to expand to include India,
Pakistan, Mongolia, and Iran. Iran has been invited at the very
moment that the United States is trying to organize a worldwide
campaign against the regime. The Boston Globe has called this
correctly "an anti-Bush alliance" and a "tectonic shift in

Will China then emerge on top by 2025? To be sure, China is doing
quite well economically, is expanding its military force
considerably, and is even beginning to play a serious political role
in regions far from its borders. China will undoubtedly be much
stronger in 2025; however, China faces three problems that it must

The first problem is internal. China is not politically stabilized.
The one-party structure has the force of economic success and
nationalist sentiment in its favor. But it faces the discontent of
about half of the population that has been left behind, and the
discontent of the other half about the limits on their internal
political freedom.

China's second problem concerns the world-economy. The incredible
expansion of consumption in China (along with that of India) will
take its toll both on the world's ecology and on the possibilities of
capital accumulation. Too many consumers and too many producers will
have severe repercussions on worldwide profit levels.

The third problem lies with China's neighbors. Were China to
accomplish the reintegration of Taiwan, help arrange the
reunification of the Koreas, and come to terms (psychologically and
politically) with Japan, there might be an East Asian unified
geopolitical structure that could assume a hegemonic position.

All three of these problems can be overcome, but it will not be easy.
And the odds that China can overcome these difficulties by 2025 are

The last scenario is that of multi-polar anarchy and wild economic
fluctuations. Given the inability of maintaining an old hegemonic
power, the difficulty of establishing a new one, and the crisis in
worldwide capital accumulation, this third scenario appears the most

by Immanuel Wallerstein

[Copyright by Immanuel Wallerstein, distributed by Agence Global. For
rights and permissions, including translations and posting to
non-commercial sites, and contact: rights@...,
1.336.686.9002 or 1.336.286.6606. Permission is granted to download,
forward electronically, or e-mail to others, provided the essay
remains intact and the copyright note is displayed. To contact
author, write: immanuel.wallerstein@...

These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be
reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the
perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.]

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Fri Jun 30 2006 - 00:00:03 EDT