Is the U.S. Ready To Be Number Two?

By Kishore Mahbubani

Long before anyone did, former US president Bill Clinton saw that America would have to prepare for the time when it would no longer be the number one power in the world. In his 2003 Yale University address on "Global Challenges," he said:

If you believe that maintaining power and control and absolute freedom of movement and sovereignty is important to your country's future, there's nothing inconsistent in that [the US continuing to behaving unilaterally]. [The US is] the biggest, most powerful country in the world now. . . . But if you believe that we should be trying to create a world with rules and partnerships and habits of behavior that we would like to live in when we're no longer the military political economic superpower in the world, then you wouldn't do that. It just depends on what you believe.

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Long before 2003, Clinton wanted to begin preparing Americans for this new world. "Clinton believed [...] what we had in the wake of the cold war was a multilateral moment - an opportunity to shape the world through our active leadership of the institutions Clinton admired and [Charles] Krauthammer disdained," writes Strobe Talbott, former deputy secretary of state in his book The Great Experiment: The Story of Ancient Empires, Modern States, and the Quest for a Global Nation. "But Clinton kept that belief largely to himself while he was in office.... political instincts told him it would be inviting trouble to suggest that the sun would someday set on American preeminence."

Sadly, few Americans have heeded Clinton's wisdom. Few dare to mention that America could well be number two. I discovered this when I chaired a panel on "the future of American power" at the 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos. After citing projections that America would have the second largest economy in just a few years, I asked the American panelists - two senators, a congresswoman and a former deputy national security advisor - whether Americans are ready to become number two. To my shock, none could acknowledge publically this possibility.

America may well become number two faster than anyone has anticipated. According to the most recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) projections, China will have larger share of global GDP than the United States by 2017. In 1980, in PPP terms, the US share of the global economy was 25 percent, while China's was 2.2 percent. By 2017, the US share will decline to 17.9 percent, and China's will rise to 18.3 percent.

Even if America becomes number two, we will still have a better world. In many ways, the world is "converging" to American values and standards, as I explain in The Great Convergence. The global middle class is booming, interstate war is waning, and never before have people traveled and communicated across the world so easily. These changes are creating common values and norms across the world. Education and scientific reasoning, for example, are enabling people the world over to speak with a common language.

However, while humanity is well on its way to combating absolute poverty and interstate warfare, other problems are surfacing. Preventing and curtailing transnational issues like climate change, human and drug trafficking, and financial crises require cooperation among nation states, yet this is not happening. A simple analogy illustrates this. Before the era of modern globalization, humankind was like a flotilla of more than 100 separate boats in their separate countries. The world needed a set of rules then to ensure that the many boats did not collide and facilitate their cooperation on the high seas if they chose to do so. The 1945 rules-based order strived to do this, and despite some obvious failures, it succeeded in producing a relatively stable global order for more than 50 years.

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Kishore Mahbubani is dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS, and author of the forthcoming book The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World. © 2013 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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