Peter M Howard ::

Superpowers, or Empires?

08Jan2024 [myth]

In which I wonder how we describe hegemony now, and for the next few decades, and how Australia fits amongst global players

Overheard a random American accent saying something vaguely like “China will be the next superpower within 50 years”, which struck me both as absurd and as something I’ve been hearing from young white Americans (and related hegemonists) for nearly 30 years now.

And I realised that the actual problem here isn’t their grasp of the relative power of the US and/or China, but actually the concept of a Superpower at all.

I think this idea of Superpower nations really is an invention of the States, as a way of diverting attention from Empire, and their Empire in particular. Like clearly, the American Empire suffered its first losses in Vietnam, and its failure to recognise that loss has led to decades of subsequent failures. But at the same time their cultural and market power has lasted a lot longer, so the core imperial middle class hasn’t really noticed the decline until the most recent years, and even that is the source of internal conflict. Meanwhile though, the US Empire had to explain its global position somehow, and was invested in not describing itself as Empire — so it invented Superpower nations, initially about the US and the USSR in some sort of good-vs-evil struggle, more recently about the US and China, though Putin still plays his role as a wannabe Superpower. So much Cold War nuclear-apocalypse angst comes from this source, but is built on nonsense, so it’s weird to see it still play out now in any cultural memory.

All that said, I’ll grant that the current Chinese government, especially as led by Xi, sees itself as an Imperial power, and that is dangerous. But that is now, not decades away after some future American decline, and it is not a global superpower. The idea that the globe can handle just one or two superpowers at a given time is an invented nonsense; we may easily see a number of competing Empires, or power vaccuums where there are none that have any meaningful power outside their ‘national’ borders.

Realistically now the US and Russia are both dwindling Empires, dying out in slightly different ways but still thrashing their dicks power about to the detriment of people abroad and at home. China is a powerful Empire, but it’s limited by a vision of ethnic purity — it’s been awful against the Uyghurs, but any of their colonisation in Africa or the Pacific, for example, isn’t sustainable without mass emigration which they don’t actually have the numbers for. The messiest conflicts in the coming decades are going to be from the wannabe Empires — Modi in India, the Sauds, some of the pan-European fascist movements — none of whom have any compelling ‘glue’ to make an Empire work, but still have violent ambitions beyond their borders...

I don’t have a conclusion here, but back in Australia it’s a clear explainer of so much of our international politics. As a small country we’re kinda destined to be a vassal state, unless we can find a compelling economic reason to retain some independence. For a long time we’ve been a vassal to the American Empire, but as it becomes clear the US is shrinking its borders and its sphere of influence, we’ll have to step back from that. So the question becomes whether we ally with China as an awkward trade partner and supporter of its abuses (we seem to have no problem voting with the US against most of the rest of the world, so there aren’t actual moral qualms here), or try become an independent South Pacific economy, like an old imagined pirate tradepost.

For all the darkness here, there’s a positive view for this country too — Australia is so full of renewable energy potential, both in terms of minerals and sunlight, that in a climate-positive future we really could become an independent powerhouse. That’s gonna require giving up a lot of our existing hangups though — moving away from the US Empire’s dependence on fossil fuels, reskilling our existing population, and letting in a lot of non-white folks who can help with that transition at all levels.

I want to believe that we can do this!

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