Possibly the most fashionable theme in current discussions of the future is whether China will replace the United States as the leading world power. That it will do so seems to be taken for granted in pop-historical circles, as well as among economic forecasters or futurists (who currently have a record that does not inspire confidence). A Goldman Sachs analysis declares that China will replace the United States as the largest economy in the world by 2027. But the largest economy is not automatically the leading nation. And ruling the world is more of a problem than one thinks, as Washington is discovering.

“When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order” by Martin Jacques is one of a number of recent books on this theme. But why should China rule the world if the United States cannot do so despite the best efforts of Republicans and of the Democratic Party hawks who currently have the ear of Barack Obama?

The poverty of this argument is very striking. It assumes that the country with the largest industrial production rules the globe, and it disregards nearly all that contributes to the human capacity to lead, which is to say, to create a dominant civilization. China and its rival India possess a theoretical potential for mass industrial production largely because they are the two most populous countries in the world, and, in a globalized market economy, they have been able to supply the leading industrial countries with cheap, skilled and, until now, docile labor. Foreign industrial countries therefore have, in a globalized economy, been able to exploit this labor. Before globalization, they manufactured their goods at home. But neither China nor India created their modern industries: They received them from the West.

These are largely the creations of foreign investment, meant to produce goods for foreign markets. This obviously is not a situation that will continue indefinitely; the Indian and Chinese labor markets are already vulnerable to the available labor in poorer and less sophisticated societies. China and India will have profited from this experience, and their own industries will be left in a position to profit from it in their own process of further development, which nonetheless will for many years remain inferior to those of societies able to continue to outperform them in innovation, scientific progress and overall sophistication.

Quality of civilization is what counts. Europe dominated the world from the Renaissance until the terrible European civil wars of the 20th century because the Europeans explored the world, learned from what they found, created modern science and technology, organized their own societies in ways never before known with unprecedented systems of administration and power, and provided a quality of life for their populations that maintained the allegiance of their societies. They did not simply out-produce everyone else in manufacture and agriculture; they revolutionized medieval methods of material production and feudal farming.

They also produced the ideas that dominated the age�scientific ideas, ideologies of progress and governance, theories of human society and of the future. The world still lives on the intellectual legacy of Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe, as well as upon the political and philosophical legacy of Greece and Judeo-Christian religion.

The United States developed from this Europe and extended the power and influence of the West with its innovative democratic society and federal institutions, democratization of culture and industry, and, since 1945, its promulgation of its own ideas and ambitions to the world at large, as well as its creation of a globalized industrial market, globalized communications and much more.

Obviously China in its great age was an immense civilization with innovative science and technology, whose moral as well as cultural influence shaped what we know now as the Far East. India was not a powerful centralized state, but it created a religious civilization whose influence endures. To compare them with the West is not to denigrate them, and China in particular may indeed become a major world power in the next half-century. It may acquire global military ambitions, although speaking historically, that would be uncharacteristic. But will it, or India, or any other of the second-ranking economic powers of the present day, see an original development of civilization able to dominate science and seize the imaginations of the rest of the world?

Will Americans and Europeans in the coming century emulate and admire Chinese and Indian civilizations, learn from them, find themselves reduced to the status of satellites of Asia? Will China indeed rule the world? None of us are likely to be here to see the answer.

– William Pffaf