Hardly a month goes by without another book or article on whether this century will be Chinese, American, or a free for all. It is a frustrating debate. These arguments all rely heavily on past performance and future projections—especially crude metrics like GDP growth and military spending. They often predict how other states will behave decades into the future when we know from history that intentions can change both from the bottom up and top down.
There is a pre-season mentality to much of this debate. In the pre-season, sports fans and pundits look at past performance and recent trades to predict who will win the Superbowl or the World Series. It’s an entertaining exercise but the favorites usually lose. The season is too long, too contingent upon performance, tactics, and strategy, to be determined by a few basic metrics. One thing is certain: it would be a foolish manager who accepted the pre-season noise as truth.
Accurate long-term predictions about geopolitics are impossible. We have no idea if the 21st century will see the continuation of the American era, a Chinese century, or a multipolar balance of power. All of these scenarios are plausible but it is a mistake to argue that they are inevitable or even likely. The 20th century is proof that geopolitics is inherently surprising. Its outcome was contingent upon strategic decisions, ideas, accidents, and personalities. In 1912, it was not obvious that the next eight decades would be an age of extremes, dominated by ideological movements, punctuated by vast industrial wars, and ultimately constrained by the threat of complete and mutual destruction. Nor was it obvious that the United States, a growing power whose people had little desire to seek global hegemony, would make the century American. There is no reason to believe that the human capacity for foresight has improved over time.