We now have a global political economy and it is dominated by the United States. However, since the end of the Cold War in 1989, one power has grown as the obvious challenger to American, and indeed Western, hegemony. That power - as much a culture as a nation-state - is China, and there are signs that this ancient behemoth may be making its move.
One of the most influential arguments about why the US saw off the Soviet challenge in the post-war years was the comprehensive character of US strength. The US was strong militarily, economically and ideologically - three critical areas - whereas the Soviet Union was only strong militarily. The US economy was always larger that the Soviet Union’s, and mostly grew faster. Ideologically, the US whittled away the revolutionary appeal of communism through the material affluence that accompanied economic growth and through positive representation of American values and life. In particular, American dominance of international media - print, movies, TV and music - was highly effective in this role. Militarily, alliances like NATO and the nuclear deterrent negated Soviet military power. It was probably the computer technology challenge to the Soviet military (explicit in Star Wars) that finally undercut the USSR’s only strength and ended the Cold War.
From one challenger to another: China has just completed the first peaceful transition of supreme power since communist rule began - President Hu Jintao, already state and party leader, is now also head of the military, giving him all round power. This follows the early retirement as military leader of Jiang Zemin and represents the consolidation of a new, relatively youthful generation of Chinese leaders.
Beijing will host the Olympic games in 2008, which will ensure global focus on the host nation and symbolise China’s rise (just as it was the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 that presaged the subsequent rise of Japan). Undoubtedly, the combination of publicity, tourism and communications infrastructural development associated with the Olympics is a powerful mix. Chinese movies are also showcasing Chinese culture: currently a Chinese film, Hero, is a hit at the US box office. It follows up the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a movie whose combination of spectacular action and special effects has greatly influenced Hollywood. Chinese action stars Jackie Chan and Jet Li already enjoy growing popularity.
These cultural developments raise the profile of China and Chinese culture and present them in a positive light. In the new post-literate age, such representation is very important in ideological terms. Pseudo-historical movies like Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon present a mythic construction of China in the same way westerns did when the US was becoming a global hegemony.
Finally, while China is nowhere near as militarily strong as the US yet, it is catching up rapidly. The Chinese have embraced the current revolution in military affairs in shifting emphasis from a vast low-tech military to a professional high-tech military. They have strong ties to the second most sophisticated arms producer, Russia, and are attempting to buy weapons from high-tech Europe. An area in which they have been very successful is stealing military secrets from the US.
Taking the lesson from the Soviet Union’s nuclear spies, the Chinese understand that information is at the core of modern weaponry, and information can be readily acquired by espionage. Indeed, the more the US develops its hyper-sophisticated weapons systems, the more prone it is to being leap-frogged by some power with the necessary information and productive capacity, but without the existing investment in old technology. The Taiwan situation ensures that the Chinese have a constant incentive to boost their military power.
And of course the Chinese increasingly have the basic economic capacity to pursue global power. Now the seventh largest economy, the projections are that it will become the largest sometime in the next two or three decades. In addition, the overseas Chinese, who dominate the economies of many south Asian countries, also form part of the greater Chinese economy, although their role is often complicated.
So China increasingly possesses the economic grunt, is mounting a sustained ideological campaign and is developing a potent military. To contrast, the US - now led by perhaps the most ideologically extreme administration in many years - is under pressure on all fronts.
Militarily, it is probably losing in Iraq, not winning the war on terrorism, about to deploy a highly suspect missile defence system, and undergoing a controversial shift in military posture involving ever-increasing reliance on high technology.
Economically, the American economy is fragile and uneven, with the US relying to a great extent on the now weaker position of the dollar as de facto global currency and on running huge external deficits.
Ideologically, the isolationism, national chauvinism and growing religious fundamentalism inherent in the Bush administration (and the Republican Party) does not go over well either in rich, sophisticated Europe, fast developing Asia, or anywhere else.
This is not to say that China will simply replace the US as a global hegemony. The US still has plenty of options, including military ones; however, those options grow ever more risky. But the whole notion of global supremacy is changing anyway. Globalisation, which has enormously benefited Chinese economic growth, does mean greater interdependence. The basic requirement for such sustained growth is global stability, so military aggression quickly becomes self-defeating.
Furthermore, the rapid rise of India, the potential resurgence of Russia, the possible rise of Brazil and the abiding wealth of Europe mean that the power situation could become much more complex. If the American leadership is inept and a viable global governance system does not emerge to manage the transformation, history suggests that this will be a dangerous time.
And finally, the world situation is now dramatically changing due to the emerging environmental crisis. To meet these challenges will require genuine cooperation on a global scale like never before, whoever provides the leadership.