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China is not the only candidate for a 21st century superpower

US, Europe, even tech companies can all claim to set global norms

| China

Jacques Attali is a writer and the President of Positive Planet. He served as a counselor to French President Francois Mitterrand and was the first head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

The pandemic has led to an accelerated discussion about who will be the world's leading power tomorrow. Given current developments, many argue that China will replace the U.S. as the world's superpower.

This hypothesis makes sense. China is already a major military power, and in five years' time will be as militarily powerful in the Western Pacific as the U.S. is in the Eastern. It is a major economic power and its gross domestic product, in purchasing power terms, is expected to be 40% higher than the U.S.'s in 2020 by the International Monetary Fund.

It has world-class companies; it is the world leader in many of the technologies of the future, including artificial intelligence. It has the world's largest reserves of many strategic materials. It has considerable financial reserves. Its currency is beginning to gain international importance, particularly in oil transactions, and it is even in the process of creating a digital currency, with the ambition of making it a world currency.

Its international network, built around the New Silk Roads, is skilfully done. It has remarkably, it seems, managed the pandemic, which is said to have caused few deaths.

The U.S., on the other hand, is in chaos. The pandemic is not yet under control. The economic crisis will set American wealth back at least five years. Unemployment is at an all-time high: more than a quarter of the American working population has filed for unemployment benefit since March. Many of them will have no social protection or health care financing, while the most indecent fortunes continue to flourish there.

Urban protests, fueled by unemployment and anxiety, are a reminder that inequalities are deep, that racial problems there are as acute as they were 50 years ago. Moreover, President Donald Trump is only the spokesman for a U.S. isolationist movement that could establish itself permanently in power.

A demonstrator stands in front of a police barricade during a protest against racial inequality in Boston on June 7: racial problems are as acute as they were 50 years ago.   © Reuters

The crisis is driving most of the world away from the American way of life, which will no longer be seen as the model to be envied, imitated, copied and surpassed.

However, China's rise cannot be taken for granted. First, China is far from being a superpower in the sense that the Dutch republic, Great Britain and the U.S. were in their time, meaning a military power, a financial power, an economic power, a legal power, a cultural power, capable of imposing its rules in all these fields.

China's military power is still very weak compared to that of the U.S. It has only two aircraft carriers, as opposed to 20 in commission for the U.S., which has land bases in almost 40 countries, as opposed to only three for China. China's nuclear power is relatively insignificant although its digital warfare capability is rivaled only by that of Russia. It does not have the agricultural land needed to feed its population nor the social system to protect an aging population. Finally, dictatorship is a brake on innovation.

The U.S. remains the world's leading financial power and is capable of imposing its laws on a large part of the world. U.S. tech companies remain masters of data. Beyond this president, who will eventually leave the White House, there is no shortage of talent in the American political class to manage this country decently and democratically.

In fact, for me, the U.S. and China will be very great powers in the 21st century, but neither of them will be master of the world. China suffers from a dictatorship that forced it to lie to itself at the beginning of the pandemic, even before lying to the world. History shows that no nation is truly a superpower if it is not, at least among its ruling elites, capable of withstanding criticism.

The U.S., whoever its president may be, will have too many internal problems to deal with the world and to be a model for it. China and the U.S. have too much to do at home to govern the world.

Then who? Why not Europe? It has the highest standard of living in the world, the best welfare system. Its institutions are emerging stronger from the current crisis. It is even in the process of becoming a federal nation by assuming collective debt. Of course, Europe still has neither a real government nor an army. Even if France is an autonomous, credible and powerful nuclear power, Europe has a long way to go before it becomes a real superpower, and the forces like Brexit, which aim to break up the EU, have not yet said their last words.

Otherwise, if no nation can impose its rule on the world, it could be a few companies. After all, some of them already have nation-like influence. They are preparing to create their own currencies and to monitor human behavior on their own behalf, not on behalf of a government.

Finally, the true master of the world could be nature. It has shown us, in the pandemic, that a man only appears to rule. The climate threat shows us even more that humans must obey laws that are beyond them if they want to survive as a species. This is also true of the management of production, the use of raw materials, biodiversity, the oceans and so many other little-known laws that we must respect.

If humanity wants to survive, it must understand that its future requires an awareness of the uniqueness of its destiny and its self-interest in being altruistic. It is a formidable adventure we must continue.

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