Thucydides famously attributed the Peloponnesian War to the rise in power of Athens and the fear it created in Sparta. A century ago, Germany's rise and the fear it created in Britain helped cause World War I. Now, it's become a new conventional wisdom in some circles that China's rise and the fear it is creating in the United States -- where recent polls show 60 percent believe the country is in decline -- could doom the 21st century to a similar fate. As scholar John Mearsheimer has put it, China's rise cannot be peaceful.
One should be skeptical about such dire projections. Americans go through cycles of declinism every decade or so, but that tells us more about America's psychology than its power resources. Not only is the United States likely to remain the most powerful country in the first half of this century, but China still has a long way to go to catch up in military, economic, and soft power.
In contrast, Germany had already surpassed Britain in industrial power by 1900, and the kaiser was pursuing an adventurous, globally oriented foreign and military policy that was bound to bring about a clash. But China today has focused its policies primarily on its region and its own economic development. China's "market-Leninist" economic model is attractive in authoritarian countries, but this so-called Beijing Consensus has the opposite effect in most democracies.
And even if China's GDP passes U.S. GDP around 2027 (as Goldman Sachs now projects), the two economies would be equivalent in size, not equal in composition. China would still face massive rural poverty and enormous inequality, and it will begin to encounter demographic problems from the delayed effects of its one-child policy. Moreover, as countries develop, there is a natural tendency for growth rates to slow. By my calculations, if China's annual growth goes down to 6 percent and the U.S. economy grows at 2 percent per year after 2030, China will not equal the United States in per capita income until decades later. So China is a long way from posing the kind of challenge to America that the kaiser's Germany posed to Britain in 1900.
None of this means the dangers of conflict can be completely ruled out in Asia, as China's recent disputes over various contested island chains remind us. But given shared global challenges like financial stability, cybercrime, nuclear proliferation, and climate change, China and the United States also have much to gain from working together. Unfortunately, faulty projections that create hubris among some Chinese and unnecessary fear of decline among some Americans could make it difficult to ensure this future.
Not every power's rise leads to war -- witness America's peaceful overtaking of Britain at the end of the 19th century. So remembering Thucydides's advice, it is important to prevent exaggerated fears from leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or, to paraphrase Franklin D. Roosevelt, we can make ourselves safer by being wary of fear itself.
Joseph S. Nye Jr. is University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard University and author of The Future of Power.
China is a great power in every sense of the word. It is the most populous country in the world. The Middle Kingdom has weathered the Great Recession better than the West. It is developing a blue-water navy to rival the United States in the Pacific. In 2010, China surpassed Japan as the world's second-largest economy. For many Americans, however, this is not enough. Politicians, commentators, and the public believe China has already supplanted the United States to achieve primacy in world politics. This is not only wrong -- it is dangerously wrong.
According to a November 2009 Pew Research Center survey, 44 percent of Americans believe that China is "the world's leading economic power," compared with 27 percent who name the United States. Elites have fed this mass perception. After a midterm election cycle that featured anti-China ad after anti-China ad, President Barack Obama warned, "Other countries like China aren't standing still, so we can't stand still either." With public perception and political rhetoric like this, it is little wonder that Forbes magazine recently named Chinese President Hu Jintao the world's most powerful individual.
It's time to make a few things clear. If one measures power strictly according to GDP at market exchange rates, then the United States is roughly 250 percent more powerful than China. If one uses a combination of metrics -- as does, for example, the U.S. National Intelligence Council's 2025 project -- then China possesses a little less than half of America's relative power. Even on the financial side, the U.S. still reigns, and, hype notwithstanding, the dollar is not going anywhere as the world's reserve currency. The renminbi could be an alternative in the far future -- but after the 2008 financial crisis, China is loath to open up its capital markets. Even by the less tangible metrics of soft power, the United States still outperforms China handily in new public opinion surveys from the Pacific Rim by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Right now, the United States is vastly more powerful than the People's Republic of China. Anyone telling you otherwise is selling you something.
Why the massive misperception? In part, people are looking at the wrong measures. China has the world's largest currency reserves, leading many to conclude that Beijing now has the ability to dictate terms to the United States and everyone else. But that just ain't so. The "balance of financial terror" constrains China as well as the United States because China needs American consumers at least as much as the United States needs China to buy its debt.
No doubt, China amassed more power while American might ebbed over the last decade, and Beijing is now throwing its weight around. But the United States still has a huge lead. As for China's recent bout of belligerence, it has yielded Beijing little beyond Japan releasing a fishing-boat captain -- while pushing South Asia and the Pacific Rim closer to the United States.
Exaggerating Chinese power has consequences. Inside the Beltway, attitudes about American hegemony have shifted from complacency to panic. Fearful politicians representing scared voters have an incentive to scapegoat or lash out against a rising power -- to the detriment of all. Hysteria about Chinese power also provokes confusion and anger in China as Beijing is being asked to accept a burden it is not yet prepared to shoulder. China, after all, ranks 89th in the 2010 U.N. Human Development Index, just behind Turkmenistan and the Dominican Republic (the United States is fourth). Treating Beijing as more powerful than it is feeds Chinese bravado and insecurity at the same time. That is almost as dangerous a political cocktail as fear and panic.
Daniel W. Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, blogs at ForeignPolicy.com.