Without a doubt, the distance between the United States and its closest competitors has shrunk in the last couple of decades. After the Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago we switched from a “bipolar” world in which the United States and the U.S.S.R. stood as the two centers of power to a “unipolar” one with the United States far ahead of all rivals.
Today, the world is changing at a rapid pace. Several centers of power are emerging, in what political scientists have dubbed the “multipolar” world.
We don’t know precisely where those “poles” will have their center of gravity. I expect we will see an American-led Western Center, anchored by the United States and its European allies. Beijing will steer the China Center. Thirdly, Moscow, as Vladimir Putin has just asserted, will seek to reinvigorate a Eurasian alliance made up of mostly of the former Soviet Republics. We may also see a fourth center of power in the Middle East, possibly an Islamist bloc led by Turkey or perhaps Egypt, and encompassing the post-revolutionary democracies of the Arab uprisings, likely to be governed by Islamic parties.
Another tier of countries will choose their alliances carefully. Strong emerging economies such as Brazil, India, Malaysia and others will become the prize that the main blocs will seek to further their economic ambitions and political influence.
But which bloc will cast the largest shadow on the global stage? I believe the United States and Europe, with all their problems, will remain the most powerful, the most philosophically and socially influential, and probably the most prosperous of all.
There is no question that Western economies have seen better days. And no one can argue with the fact that China’s GDP, its total economic output, is expanding at a rate seldom seen in history.
Beijing presides over the world’s second largest economy. At the current rate, according to the International Monetary Fund, China’s economy will become larger than America’s in less than five years.
Still, it’s worth noting that even then the average Chinese will have a much lower standard of living than the average American. The IMF ranked China at number 91 on per capita income last year, with the average annual income at $5,184, with the United States at number 15, with annual per capita income of more than $48,000.
Even with the unfavorable trends, it will take a long time before China, or any other major country, overtakes the United States and its European allies on living standards. The same is true for military might.
But the more important question is which bloc will exercise more influence by the force of its ideals. These four “empires” will not conquer the world at the point of a sword the way great powers did in previous centuries.
Their influence will be felt in trade, in communications and, most of all, in ideas.
The ideas of the U.S.-led bloc remain the most powerful and inspiring.
The ideologies of freedom of the press, freedom of thought, freedom of religion, rule of law, entrepreneurial spirit and creativity, are the most magnetic on earth, with all others far behind.
China may be conquering markets, but its pseudo-communist ideology does not even survive in China. Moscow has no ideology, not even of the pseudo variety. Islamic countries, even those trying to model themselves on Turkey’s free market, democratic ideology, have limited appeal to the non-Islamic rest of the world.
The only ideology, the only way of life that has widespread, powerful appeal beyond its borders is the one that has grown roots, flaws and all, in the United States. It is already replicated, with variations, in all corners of the globe. Only the Western alliance has the proven ability to develop strong ideological links across the globe.
It is an adaptable system with established credentials among all ethnic groups and religions in all geographical areas.
Consider that some of America and the West’s closest friends are not even in the Western hemisphere. Some of America’s best allies, Australia, South Korea, Israel and Colombia, are nowhere near the United States. America faces serious problems and major challenges. But there is every reason to expect it will remain the most influential nation on Earth for many years to come.
Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.