The next 40 years will be the most important in human history
Don't underestimate the significance of China's rise. We are living through the biggest shift in wealth, power, and prestige since the Industrial Revolution catapulted Western Europe to global dominance 200 years ago.
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But that said, there was much that 19th-century Easterners could have done to manage the rise of the West. Rejecting Britain’s great free-trade embassy in 1793 was a disaster for China. Failing to fortify the Pearl and Yangtze deltas against British warships in 1840 was even worse. And Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941 was the worst of all. At any of these points, and at plenty of others, better decisions would have paid huge dividends for the East.Skip to next paragraph
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How the West can manage the East's rise
Similarly, there is much that 21st-century Westerners can do to manage the rise of the East.
Paying off the West’s huge debts is one obvious instance. The recent experiences of the Euro zone show how painful this will be, but America’s pusillanimity threatens much worse to come.
Encouraging immigration to balance the West’s aging populations is another. Unless more is done, Europe in particular faces demographic disaster by the 2020s.
Freeing ourselves from oil and gas is a third requirement. East-West competition over resources in the “Arc of Instability” that stretches from Africa through the Middle East to central Asia spells trouble, particularly as global warming and nuclear proliferation further destabilize the region.
Using America’s military might to guarantee the international order is equally important. This is an expensive burden, but it is US arms that have kept the peace over Taiwan and Korea for nearly 60 years, and it will be US arms that keep China’s rise peaceful in the 21st century – if anything does.
Last but not least, consistent pressure on China to open its society can only bring benefits. The 18 governments that joined China in boycotting the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony two weeks ago included many of the usual West-bashers, from Iran to Venezuela. But the fact that Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia all chose China’s friendship over America’s is worrying indeed.
In the long run, the inexorable forces of technological change and globalization may render today’s anxieties over the rise of the East irrelevant. A hundred years from now, “East” and “West” may not mean much any more.
But in the short and medium run, as we try to solve increasingly global problems within the framework of nation-states created in the 19th and 20th centuries, the risks are great. In a world full of weapons of mass destruction, failure to manage them is not an option. The next 40 years will be the most important in human history.
Ian Morris, professor of classics and history at Stanford University, is the author of the just-published “Why the West Rules – For Now: The Patterns of History, and What they Reveal About the Future.”