Updated: 9 April 2015


Throughout history only few empires have reached true global dominance. The Greeks and Romans might have dominated the world during their time, but already in the middle ages a multi-polar world emerged. Much of the 19th and early 20th century saw vigorous fights between European empires. With World War I and II the fight for dominance in Europe (between the United Kingdom, France, Austria, Germany, Russia and later the United States of America) and Asia (Japan, China) reached new levels in political ambition, geographical scope and destructive power. 
In the second half of the 20th century two regional powers emerged: the United States of America and Western Europe on one side, and the USSR and Red China on the other. This bi-polar power balance between the “capitalist” West and the “communist” East characterized the global scene for several decades. The split between China and Russia may have introduced a new element of complication in the global power balance, when Mao's China became the champion of a few seclusive third-world nations, such as North Korea and Albania under Enver Hoxha. However, the basic confrontation between East and West, which included various  proxy wars, remained the dominating principle.
But then the USSR began to disintegrate, China opened up to capitalism and Eastern Europe switched sides, joining Western Europe. For the last two decades of the 20th century the only remaining superpower was the United States of America. With Europe segregated into some 30 nation states, China absorbed in its battle to get out of poverty, and Russia struggling with the social and economic devastation of 50 years of communism, only the USA could concentrate on expanding its economic and political strengths. 
At the beginning of the 21st century there was little doubt that the United States of America was dominating the World. Its military power was unmatched; its economic muscle was shaping the global economy; politically, they had won the ideological fight with communism; and their social fabric was strong enough to assimilate an incredibly diverse, multiracial mix of people – attracting the brightest and most ambitious from every corner of the world. Smart (immigrant) American "kids" started some of the most profitable businesses ever (Google, Facebook, Twitter), reshaped the Internet and created a worldwide technological and social revolution. Billions of people around the world, even in China and Russia, used software, infrastructure and content "Made in the USA". It seemed that the world was on track to convert to the "American way" (1).
China also appeared to have succumbed to American style capitalism. A private economic sector had appeared with Deng Xiaoping's reforms within this tightly controlled communist system and virtually exploded with productivity. Within a few years the old state-run industries, with their abysmally inefficient command and control structure, where wiped out - incapable to compete with the new private-sector. China attracted billions in foreign direct investments and became the world's manufacturing center. By the turn of the century Chinese workers assembled many of the electronic devices that drove the Internet - from PCs and servers to smart phones and TV sets. In 2014, the People’s Republic of China exported electronic equipment, machines, furniture, clothing, medical equipment, plastics, vehicles, precious metals, gems, and iron and steel products that amounted to US$2.343 trillion (6).
China's increasing economic strength also boosted its geostrategic position in East Asia, South America, and, especially, in Africa. The initial intention was to secure natural resources and land for agriculture. Huge areas outside of China, mostly in South America, are now used to produce feed crops for China's domestic meet production. Without much attention from the US or Europe, China also secured extraction rights for minerals and ores in Africa and other parts of the world - unconcerned that this often stabilized dictatorial regimes of corrupt autocrats. Europe and the US looked away and concentrated on doing business with China.
But the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001 had already changed everything. All of a sudden it became clear to everyone that the US and the "Western world" was facing a new enemy – a coalition of radical Muslim terrorists and rogue states, which hate Western civilization and all it stands for - particularly America. Suddenly, the global clash of civilizations was no longer an academic concept, but a bloody reality (3, 4).
Initially, the conflict was framed as a "war on terror" - as if it was a problem that could be solved by hunting down and punishing a few "bad guys" hiding in caves. But when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on and new "bad guys" seemed to pop up everywhere, it soon became clear that something more fundamental was happening: the emergence of a truly multi-polar world, crowded with numerous highly lethal non-state threats (Jihadists), powerful nation states (United States, China, India) and more or less integrated country groups (European Union) (5).
The United States and Europe, and even China, are now involved in, or affected by, a wide range of political, religious and cultural conflicts in the world - particularly in the Near East and Northern Africa - but increasingly also in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Various Jihadist groups are now fighting "Western values" (such as Boko Haram in Nigeria), the governments in their own countries, other ethnic and religious groups, and each other, in Mali, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, Sudan, Kenya, Algeria, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Indonesia, or Thailand. Sunni militants, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, have outlined a new world order: Their "Islamic State" or caliphate would stretch from Spain (which was ruled by Muslims for 700 years) to India - including all of the Maghreb, all the rest of Northern Africa, the complete Arabic peninsula, Greece, Turkey and all of Western Asia. This idea may be ignored as the madness of megalomaniacs - if they would not be able to make significant territorial gains in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Lebanon.
With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq the United States had entered this clash of civilizations. European and American intellectuals had initially denounced this conflict as wars for oil (2) or driven by power politics – but in reality these conflicts were part of a much deeper, worldwide collision for cultural, economic and political hegemony among a multitude of rivals.
Europe, which was long "standing on the sideline" of geopolitics is facing an unprecedented humanitarian, economic and demographic problem on its Southern borders. Ten-thousands of refugees and migrants are risking their lives to escape over the Mediterranean Sea from the violent chaos of the Middle East and Northern Africa. It slowly dawns on European politicians that an even greater demographic, economic and political crisis might follow in the near future. Millions, perhaps even hundreds of millions, of impoverished people from sub-Saharan Africa might try to enter the "aging continent" of Europe in search for a better life. Explosive population growth during decades of entirely insufficient economic development, government failure, corruption and environmental crises has created an explosive situation in many parts of Africa. Will Europe be able to cope with these new challenges?
China has long restrained itself to get involved in a clash of civilizations and geopolitical conflicts - apparently to build up economic strength, which is only possible in good relations with Europe and the United States. But the Middle Kingdom has its own cultural, religious and political conflicts in Tibet and Xinjiang. They also consider Taiwan as their 34th province, which could easily lead to a confrontation with the United States. But China's most ruthless attempt to play geopolitical "hardball" is their one-sided expansion of territorial waters in the South China sea - clearly motivated to secure rich reserves of oil and gas for their own exploration (7). Will China in the 21st century become an aggressive Asian superpower - willing to risk conflicts for territorial gains with Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines or Indonesia?
With all these new conflicts in a multi-polar world the question is now: will the still existing global dominance of the United States survive the first half of the 21st century - in a climate of widespread opposition and hatred, and despite China, the emerging superpower in Asia? Will the relative stability of world order after WWII shatter into a chaos of global terrorism, religious wars and cultural clashes? Will the expanded European Union become economically and politically strong enough to compete at the global stage? Will Europe be able to absorb the wave of refugees and migrants form the chaos of conflicts in the Near East and Africa? Will China gain so much economic and political muscle that it can transform its regional hegemony into global dominance? Will China take on political responsibility for global security - or will they just exploit geopolitical opportunities to secure their economic development?
We also have to ask: who will have the political, economic, and social concepts and visions that will dominate the world – not only through military suppression, but based on persuasion and respect? Will religious fundamentalism incite people around the world to turn back to ancient forms of patriarchal, autocratic societies or will a new enlightenment spread rational thought, liberal social life and scientific endeavor? Will the leading nations compete in a space-race to Mars or in an intelligence-race to control their own population? Are we heading into a new "dark age" with paranoid leading nations that are absorbed in drone wars, special forces operations, state-terrorism, propaganda wars and widening intelligence activities - or will a global security regime emerge that is based on economic strength, attractive social and cultural values and political rationality and negotiations? These are some of the questions we want to analyze. We will use statistics from many different sectors, but in the end we want to answer one simple question. We want to know: who will win the global race? 


(1) Henry R. Luce (1999) The American Century. Life Magazine. Reprinted in Diplomatic History, Vol. 23, No. 2 (The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations) Blackwell Publishers. Link to pdf

(2) David S. Painter (2012) Oil and the American Century. Journal of American History, Vol. 99, Issue 1, 24-39 Link to online version

(3) Samuel P. Huntington (1993) The Clash of Civilizations. Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 3, 22-49

(4) William E. Odom (2005) America’s Inadvertent Empire. New Haven: Yale University Press.

(5) Colin S. Gray (2009) After Iraq: The search for a sustainable national security strategy. Strategic Studies Institute.  Link to pdf

(6) International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database (GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity). Accessed on March 23, 2015

(7) Athan Meick (2014) China's First Airstrip in the Spratly Islands Likely at Fiery Cross Reef. U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Staff Report. Link to pdf


Creative Commons License "China-Europe-USA" by Gerhard K. Heilig is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Published: 2004; Revised: 2015