Since 1945 the United States has been the world’s dominant power. Even during the Cold War its economy was far more advanced than, and more than twice as large as, that of the Soviet Union, while its military capability and technological sophistication were much superior. Following the Second World War, the US was the prime mover in the creation of a range of multinational and global institutions, such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and NATO, which were testament to its new-found global power and authority. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 greatly enhanced America’s pre-eminent position, eliminating its main adversary and resulting in the territories and countries of the former Soviet bloc opening their markets and turning in many cases to the US for aid and support.
Never before, not even in the heyday of the British Empire, had a nation’s power enjoyed such a wide reach. The dollar became the world’s preferred currency, with most trade being conducted in it and most reserves held in it. The US dominated all the key global institutions bar the UN, and enjoyed a military presence in every part of the world. Its global position seemed unassailable, and at the turn of the millennium terms like “hyperpower” and “unipolarity” were coined to describe what appeared to be a new and unique form of power.
The baton of pre-eminence, before being passed to the United States, had been held by Europe, especially the major European nations like Britain, France and Germany, and previously, to a much lesser extent, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. From the beginning of Britain’s Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century until the mid twentieth century, Europe was to shape global history in a most profound manner. The engine of Europe’s dynamism was industrialization and its mode of expansion colonial conquest. Even as Europe’s position began to decline after the First the changing of the guard
World War, and precipitously after 1945, the fact that America, the new rising power, was a product of European civilization served as a source of empathy and affinity between the Old World and the New World, giving rise to ties which found expression in the idea of the West while serving to mitigate the effects of latent imperial rivalry between Britain and the United States. For over two centuries the West, first in the form of Europe and subsequently the United States, has dominated the world.
We are now witnessing an historic change which, though still relatively in its infancy, is destined to transform the world. The developed world – which for over a century has meant the West (namely, the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand) plus Japan – is rapidly being overhauled in terms of economic size by the developing world.
In 2001 the developed countries accounted for just over half the world’s GDP, compared with around 60 per cent in 1973. It will be a long time, of course, before even the most advanced of the developing countries acquires the economic and technological sophistication of the developed, but because they collectively account for the overwhelming majority of the world’s population and their economic growth rate has been rather greater than that of the developed world, their rise has already resulted in a significant shift in the balance of global economic power.
There have been several contemporary illustrations of this realignment. After declining for over two decades, commodity prices began to increase around the turn of the century, driven by buoyant economic growth in the developing world, above all from China, until the onset of a global recession reversed this trend, at least in the short run.
Meanwhile, the stellar economic performance of the East Asian economies, with their resulting huge trade surpluses, has enormously swollen their foreign exchange reserves. A proportion of these have been invested, notably in the case of China and Singapore, in state-controlled sovereign wealth funds whose purpose is to seek profitable investments in other countries, including the West. Commodity-producing countries, notably the oil-rich states in the Middle East, have similarly invested part of their newly expanded income in such funds.
Sovereign wealth funds acquired powerful new leverage as a result of the credit crunch, commanding resources which the major Western financial institutions palpably lacked. The meltdown of some of Wall Street’s largest financial institutions in September 2008 underlined the shift in economic power from the West, with some of the fallen giants seeking support from sovereign wealth funds and the US government stepping in to save the mortgage titans Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae partly in order to reassure countries like China, which had invested huge sums of money in them: if they had withdrawn these, it would almost certainly have precipitated a collapse in the value of the dollar. The financial crisis has graphically illustrated the disparity between an East Asia cash-rich from decades of surpluses and a United States cash-poor following many years of deficits.
According to projections by Goldman Sachs, the three largest economies in the world by 2050 will be China, followed by a closely matched America and India some way behind, and then Brazil, Mexico, Russia and Indonesia. Only two European countries feature in the top ten, namely the UK and Germany in ninth and tenth place respectively. Of the present G7, only four appear in the top ten. In similar forecasts, PricewaterhouseCoopers suggest that the Brazilian economy could be larger than Japan’s, and that the Russian, Mexican and Indonesian economies could each be bigger than the German, French and UK economies by 2050. If these projections, or something similar, are borne out in practice, then during the next four decades the world will come to look like a very different place indeed.