Like the world today, Europe in the 19th century witnessed major shifts in the balance of power, with new technologies changing how life was lived. Otto von Bismarck, a Prussian, saw opportunities in that chaos. He unified the warring German principalities in 1870 via an unexpected war on France. He modernised Germany so that it was the industrial powerhouse of Europe at the start of the 20th century.
He achieved his aims by lying, cajoling, threatening, invading, persuading, networking, and analysing. He modestly said of his own achievements:
“The statesman’s task is to hear God’s footsteps marching through history, and to try and catch on to His coattails as He marches past.”
How would someone like Bismarck have viewed God’s major strides in our time, the rise of China?
The rise of China will inevitably lead to the emergence of two competing power blocks in world politics. On the one hand there will be China and its allies, on the other the West and its allies. Some countries will initially try to stay neutral or play the two major blocks off each other, but the smaller ones will be easy prey for the two power blocks to force into a choice, so they either unite in a third alliance or pick a side.
The rise of China raises obvious questions about alliances and less obvious ones about emotions.
The alliance questions are obvious: India would naturally fall in the camp of the West, so how would we prevent it slipping away? Korea and Russia could go either way, so what would sway them and what role could they be offered in the West? Should we try to delay countries who naturally belong into the China block, like Vietnam, from switching? Would three blocks be more stable than two? Can we keep the conflict relatively cordial or is some kind of low-level proxy-war inevitable? This is the obvious power-play stuff and the relevant scenarios will occupy thousands of analysts in both the West and China right this moment.
Bismarck excelled in power-play but thought deeper and considered the dynamics of group emotions. The one I think we should watch out for is the grief that the Americans have to go through in order to come to terms with their smaller role. The West has not considered this issue yet, but I think it will dictate much of geopolitical life this century.
Consider the many ways in which the Americans will feel pain. Their military bases will be closed in the countries that switch to China, and their culture will be humiliated. Their cherished truths, pushed by their media, will no longer be the truths that others buy into as their grandeur fades. Their banks will be challenged such that the world financial system will not be dominated by them. Their internet companies will be taxed by allies and their technological inventions copied shamelessly without payment. Their corporate and political leaders will feel their power and influence reduce.
Americans as individuals will notice this when they travel abroad and taken less seriously. Their culture will be less admired and copied, which will mean the rest of the world will feel stranger to them, less welcoming. American tourists will have to watch their step more, and the brain drain to the US will reduce as American education will be downgraded in status.
The Americans are a very proud people, who have enjoyed a 100 years of being at the top of the world political tree, and 200 years of bossing around other countries in their own backyard. That is a long period of dominance to lose. They will feel intense pain and, after that, intense anger.
Britain and France have shown us that grief over a lost position of pre-eminence can last longer than 100 years and can motivate elites to do really stupid things.
France was pre-eminent around 1800 and since then has been in continuous relative decline. Its wounded pride motivated it to seed the second world war by inflicting the humiliating treaty of Versailles on the Germans, one of the worst political mistakes ever made. The grief of the French enabled the rise of Hitler and cost the world 60 million lives.
Britain resented its loss of influence enough to bottle up Germany in the early 20th century, a major factor in the outbreak of WWI. Its reluctance to accept historical shifts gave us unnecessary disasters like the Suez crisis. Even now, a century after it lost its pre-eminence, many Brits delude themselves that Britain will regain some of its former stature if it breaks with the European Union.
So if we owe devastating wars and disruptions to the British and French elites pining for lost glory, what can we expect the grief of the Americans to cost?
We face a century of American grieving over its lost position. We have only just entered the denial stage. What is yet to come is pain, followed by anger. Only after that anger can there be acceptance and bargaining.
What can we do to minimise the cost of American grief?