The history of empires is a repetitive tale of overweening ambition, followed sooner or later by crushing defeat.
Understanding this process is the work of our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Alfred McCoy, chair of the history department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change.
McCoy examines the trendlines of empires over the past 700 years. By viewing this history through the lens of environmental science he has developed a method of “predicting” the fall of the greatest imperial powers.
What this tells him about the future “world order” is not hopeful.
He envisions US world domination at an end — the result of a bipartisan failure of competence and vision. In the power vacuum that follows, he sees China rising to become the next world hegemon, but only briefly. Soon, he predicts, China will be laid low by the devastation of climate catastrophe, leaving, for example, all of Shanghai underwater.
McCoy spells out what he sees as a growing climate-driven global refugee crisis, water wars, and geopolitical discord, leading to devastating violence that can only be averted by what he imagines as a truly new world order, with the UN at its heart.
It’s certainly a dystopian vision, but one we best consider.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. In all of our personal lives, we know that we have made thousands of decisions and taken thousands of steps that lead us to where we are today. The same is true for nations around the globe. Hundreds of years of geopolitics have led us to where we are today, on the precipice of climate catastrophe, witnessing the slow death of American democracy, the real litigation of racial issues never resolved, and the decline of the American empire. It is said that if we don’t learn from history, we are condemned to repeat it.
The fact is that even if we study history, human nature, human frailty, and the portfolio theory of decision making will condemn us to repeat mistakes over and over again. The key factor seems to be the degree to which the mistakes and the state of the world converge at any given moment. To help us better understand this, I’m joined today by our guest professor Alfred McCoy.
Alfred McCoy holds the Harrington chair in history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison where he heads the university’s history department. He is author of the previous books, The Politics of Heroin and In the Shadows of the American Century. It is my pleasure to welcome Alfred McCoy here to talk about his newest work To Govern the Globe: World Orders, and Catastrophic Change. Professor McCoy, thanks so much for joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.
Alfred: Thank you for having me.
Jeff: Well, it’s a delight to have you here. Should we be surprised at the degree to which the historical decisions that have been made for hundreds of years, 700 years in the case of what you write about, have a direct impact on the problems and issues that we’re facing today?
Alfred: Should we be surprised? No. The question is not to be surprised, to express outrage or condemnation in my case. There’s much to be outraged about and much to condemn, but the effort that I’m trying to make in the book, To Govern the Globe is to try and tease out the key historical trends over the past 700 years, understand how they made our present, and how they’re likely to shape our future. And historians are really good at figuring out the story when it’s all over. Any historian worth his or her salt when it’s all over can tell you not only what happened, but they can tell you with magisterial certainty, almost incontrovertible certainty, why it happened just that way and no other.
But when it comes to the future, we are all dwarfed. We are all at the feet of our muse Clio rendered virtually powerless. All of our analytic paradigms break down. So, what I was able to do in this book, which does track the succession of empires, global hegemons, and their world orders over the past 700 years, was to try and use not historical science but environmental science. In environmental science, if you read the detailed reports, and they’re very difficult and quite technical, in journals like Nature, the one thing that separates environmental science from almost any other form of social scientific or pure scientific inquiry is that environmental science is all about the future.
It’s a science of prediction. And when you read their reports, they predict that like economists, like what’s going to happen in the current administration over the next year, two, or three years, they’re trying to figure out what’s going to happen over the next 80 or 100 years. All their projections go right to the end of 21st century. And they all have these lines on high probability, medium probability, low probability, and all kinds of statistical computation.
So what I did to figure out the shape of the present and the way that present is leading us into a very troubled future was to simply overlay the historical patterns of empires and world orders on top of these quite scientific environmental projections, and then see what the convergence of the two brings. And what I say, basically, is the following. First, Washington’s world order is coming to an end. And there are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, it’s been in power for about 70 years, which is pretty long for any kind of global system. But more particularly, American decline has been something of a bipartisan project in Washington DC.
Back in 2001, elites in both Republican and Democratic parties decided that American power was so overwhelming, was so overweening, that the future was ours. It was the end of history. All the world was going to be swept away into a single pattern of liberal democracy and global capitalism with open borders and free world trade. That was the future of all humankind. It was preordained. We were so powerful. We won the Cold War. We were the sole superpower. We were the most powerful global hegemon in the history of the planet.
And so we figured, we’ll admit China into the World Trade Organization and make them an equal in the international economy with all the privileges that accrue. And China, which has 20 percent of the world’s population, they’re going to play by American rules. They’re going to become a nice democracy and a capitalist economy. They’re going to follow our rules. And by 2014, a couple of things happened. First of all, China’s economic progress was absolutely unprecedented. During America’s rise to global power from 1900 and 1950, we increased our share of the global economy at the rate of 2 percent a decade.
China has increased since 2001 its share of the world economy at an extraordinary, unprecedented 5 percent per decade. So, by 2014, China had $4 trillion in foreign exchange reserves. And about that time, President Xi Jinping announced something called the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, which was an attempt to link the whole of the vast Eurasian landmass from the Atlantic all the way to the Pacific by a grid of pipelines, rails, and roads that would create an integrated market, although they never said it. And as if by natural law, commerce, profit, and ultimately, geopolitical power would flow through this infrastructure across the Eurasian landmass to Beijing and make them the new epicenter of world power.
And around about 2013-14, the Obama administration began to figure it out and began the process of trying to challenge China. The Trump administration followed with its trade war, and the Biden administration is, of course, continuing the confrontation. So that was the first thing we did.
The second thing we did, which is another bipartisan disaster was we, again, at this apex of our power, we invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks and we took a war of choice. We invaded Iraq and we tried to insert ourselves, this was a neoconservative project, into the greater Middle East, build an imperial capital and the Green Zone in Baghdad and transform the Arab world. And the economic logic for this is we would get a permanent hold on the world’s oil reserves. And so, in effect, we invested about $8 trillion in inserting ourselves into the Middle East and gaining control of oil just at the point when oil was joining cordwood and coal in the dustbin of history. A gross geostrategic miscalculation.
Meanwhile, China with its $4 trillion was laying down that grid of infrastructure across the Eurasian landmass, road, rails, and oil and gas pipelines, and building 40 modern ports around the rim of Eurasia, expanding its military, cutting the circles of steel that Washington had laid down around Eurasia to dominate that critical epicenter of global politics during the Cold War. In effect, China was well on its way to becoming the world’s great global hegemon. So by 2030, all the sources indicate, and these are short-term projections — they’re therefore reasonably accurate.
Back in 2012, the National Intelligence Council said that by 2030, China would be the world’s largest economy by far. The international accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers published a report that says by 2030, China’s economy will be 50 percent, at least 50 percent larger than the US economy. And since China and the United States spend roughly 2 percent and 3 percent, respectively, of their gross domestic product in the military, that means that China’s military procurements will grow ever larger than America’s. They’re already ahead in a number of critical areas like satellite communication, security, and anti-missile defenses.
And by 2030, it’s clear that China’s economy will be larger than ours. They’ll have moved ahead in critical areas like artificial intelligence, they’ll be a military peer overall, and in a number of critical technological areas where China’s emphasizing. Military, they’ll be ahead of us. In short, it’ll be over for American global hegemony. The only question of course will be whether the American liberal world order survives.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about the nexus then between what you were just saying vis-à-vis China and this first idea that you discussed in terms of laying out climate, and particularly environmental history over what we’re seeing today.
Alfred: Sure. What I found most was by surveying the past 600 years of human history is there have been 90 empires, large and small, but there have been only three world orders. The Iberian, that’s to say Spanish and Portuguese, the British, the American, and now in the germ, just over the horizon, China. And empires are fixed. They’re palpable, they’re tangible, they have borders, they have armies, they have own terms, they have treaties, et cetera. World orders are far more diffused yet they’re much more pervasive and persistent.
To wind back, if empires embody power, world orders very often embody principle. And they govern the languages people speak, the laws that they observe, the way that they worship, and even the way that they play. And so, to uproot something so deeply entrenched in Washington’s world order embodied in the UN, the World Trade Organization, all the rest, it’s very deeply entrenched, and it’s in a rule of law. And most importantly, it’s suffused with a spirit of cooperation. Well, climate change is already starting to hammer that spirit of cooperation by unleashing climate change refugees.
Between 2016 and 2018, we saw in Europe, the rise of Britain’s Brexit because of the refugees, the rise of ultranationalist parties across the whole of Europe. In the United States, we saw the election of Donald Trump under the mantra, ‘Build the Wall’. And so when you add up the Middle Easterners coming to the Southern Border of the European Union, the Africans crossing the Mediterranean, and the Central Americans coming north through Mexico to the Southern border of the United States, you add them all up, these three groups, you come up with just 2 million people between 2016 and 2018.
Now, projections by the World Bank, the United Nations, say that by 2050, and it’s going to be progressive year by year, there will be at least 200 million climate change refugees. The latest estimate is that it will be 1.2 billion climate change refugees, which is about one in every seven human beings are going to be uprooted from their precarious purchase on seashores that are pounded by storms, at desert fringes, where the deserts extend and render agriculture unsustainable.
And so, these people are going to be moving, not by economic choice, but they’re just going to be seeking refuge, struggling desperately to survive. And what this means is that, as we saw between 2016 and 2018, that the cooperation that infuses Washington’s world order, is going to give away to a Chinese world order, which has a much more nationalistic, kind of exchange ethos. I give you and you give me, it’s a rational exchange system of global economy. And so, what I see is that China’s economic lines coinciding with the accelerating pressures of climate change, and their damaged international cooperation, are going to bring an end around 2030, to not only US global hegemony, but to Washington’s world order as well.
Now, tracking that trajectory further, those lines that the environmental sign is further, what they tell us is that in all likelihood, if China does succeed the United States as a global hegemon and build a very different kind of world order, then China’s era of global dominance is probably going to last about 20 or 30 years because, and the environmental science is very clear on this now, by 2050, there is going be a significant sea-level rise, and that most of Shanghai, which is a city of nearly 18 million people, even its downtown is going to be underwater. China’s premier city was dredged from sea and swamp starting in the 15th century, and to the water it will return.
The second thing that’s going to happen to China is a phase of global warming that is not an idle phase. And for the North China Plain, that’s to say the region between Shanghai and Beijing, which is, in many ways, the agricultural and industrial heartland of China, now home to 400 million people, more than the population of the entire United States, that this will become, by 2050 — No, actually, 2050, it’ll start warming badly. By 2060, they’re going to have hundreds of extreme weather events.
And after 2060, they’re going to start a period in which they are — It’s projected they’ll have at least five periods of what’s called 35 degrees centigrade wet-bulb temperature. Now, what’s that mean? What it means is that the balance of heat and humidity at 35 degrees wet-bulb temperature is such that the human body can’t sweat. And a healthy adult, sitting at rest, not moving, no physical effort whatsoever, in 35-degree wet-bulb temperature is dead within six hours. And that is going to be the North China Plain.
So as these environmental disasters sweep China, and China, by the way is digging its own environmental grave right now as we speak, by bringing on more coal-fired electrical plants. And under that Belt and Road Initiative that I talked about earlier, a $1 trillion development effort, there are dozens of power plants that are in draft and that are under construction funded by Chinese aid, with Chinese technology, and indeed industrial equipment.
The head of the UN, António Guterres, has said that if these coal-fired plants that are now on the drawing boards come online, it’ll effectively neutralize any gains that we’ve made toward reducing carbon emissions. So, China’s literally digging its own environmental grave.
Jeff: And to what degree do you think that China is aware of that? You talked a lot about China taking a long view, consistent with that long view is understanding certainly what’s going to happen within the next 30 years.
Alfred: Yes. China is a command economy. President Xi Jinping has strengthened the Communist Party’s hold on the country. China has ample resources and more than enough political power to mandate an accelerated shift. Look, but it’s not happening, ok? Let’s take the recent COP26 as it’s called, UN Conference in Glasgow. And there was a historic joint decoration by the United States and China about climate change.
And this is very important because between the two of them, China and the United States account for 44 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions that are going up into the atmosphere and starting climate change. China accounts for 30 percent of them, nearly a third by itself. And we account for about 14 percent, minute changes from year to year, but 44 percent, nearly half. So the two powers got together and this was very skillful on the part of our ambassador, John Kerry. He worked assiduously to get this agreement with China.
And it’s a historic declaration about their mutual commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And when you look at the document though, and you read the fine print, it says that China will introduce carbon-neutral measures in its next five-year plan. And it’s actually, they said 5-to-15-year-plan, if I have that right. And when does that start? That doesn’t start until 2025.
2025, that’s four years from now. The clock is ticking on environmental disaster. They’re not even going to start for five years, and then it’s going to be a very weak effort. China has committed itself to being carbon neutral by 2060. Well, by 2050, Shanghai is already underwater. They’re just not reading the environmental science, which is published, peer-reviewed in the very top scientific journals, like Nature — it’s incontrovertible.
And China may be bad, but India, which is fast emerging — India now is just 7 percent of global greenhouse emissions. But India’s economy is coming on stream very, very fast. Projections are that by 2050, India’s going to have the world’s second-largest economy. Well, India announced at Glasgow, at that UN Conference, that they were going to be carbon neutral by 2070.
By 2070, that’s when the literature says that north China is going to have 35-degree wet-bulb temperature. And by the way, the North Gangetic Plain is going to have it as well. Not quite as bad as China, but the research said they are going to be the second most affected region on the planet. So these two major powers, India and China, emerging to become the economic titans of the 21st century, they are postponing climate change to the point where it’s going to be way too late, way, way too late.
Jeff: What are the efforts, or does this take into account any efforts, that mitigate the degree to which those greenhouse gases go into the air? Whether it’s carbon sequestration, whether it’s changing from some of these coal-fired plants, the degree to which there’s any mitigation, does that push the data out furthering your view?
Alfred: António Guterres, he’s a thoughtful man. He’s the UN Secretary-General. He’s presiding over this international effort. He’s devoted much of his term at the head of the UN to climate change, for all kinds of reasons. It’s clearly the UN’s top priority right at this time. He said that, as I said earlier, that if the coal-fired plants not only burn woods that are being funded and some of them are actually under construction, if these come online, that will effectively neutralize all the gains made. Much of the world is trying. The European Union is going carbon neutral very fast. The United States is actually in the midst of some historic shifts.
To give them credit, the major corporations, except for the oil majors, and some of them are improving, but the major corporations like the automobile manufacturers, which are the source of metro emissions, are going into electric vehicle production. And the Biden Infrastructure Program provides many billions of dollars for construction of charging stations across the United States.
Once, General Motors had said that they are going to go out of production for gas-run motor vehicles by 2035. I think it’s going to be faster than that. I think by the end of this decade, we will see a systematic conversion of the US transport fleet, including major trucks, and American light trucks, and American passenger vehicles are all going to convert, I think, to electricity.
Then the critical question to the United States, of course, is converting the grid, the electrical grid, so that our source of electricity is from renewable energy. And that has to be from three sources: solar, wind, and in order to have a reliable source, we’re going to have to reconsider nuclear. And I think nuclear power, which was condemned by the environmental movement — and the environmental movement has gotten quiet about nuclear power. But France generates 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power without any actions whatsoever. And there’s a possibility, in fact, they’re already being designed and in production. You don’t have to build giant reactors like Three Mile Island or Chernobyl.
Now, the Russians have designed and actually are starting to use, and an American engineer has them, mini nuclear reactors, which have lots of advantages. One, you don’t have to have the same high-tension lines to carry electricity, and two, in that rare event that there’s an accident, it’s a much smaller accident, it’s manageable, it’s containable. And also, as these units go into production, as with all engineering, the more you produce them, the longer you produce it, the more secure and stable the technology becomes.
So I think through these three methods, I think we have now developed the technological capacity, the corporate buy-in, and the capital investment, which by the way, was very significant at Glasgow. The major financial firms from around the world committed themselves to pulling away from dirty energy, like coal and oil, and investing in renewable energy. And so some of these, the private sector can move us forward. But again, China and India have got to come to the part.
Jeff: Given China’s technological prowess and the money that they have to do this, why aren’t they doing it faster do you believe?
Alfred: China’s drive for industrialization has been coal-fired from the very start. They built a systematic national infrastructure involving provincial coal mines with heavy employment like we have in the United States, where coal miners are among the key lobbyists, and Joe Manchin, who’s a major investor in coal, and the Democratic senator from West Virginia. Now he’s our barrier in this society to moving forward on carbon-neutral energy. Well, China’s got that as well.
Moreover, their power plants and their power lines, a huge investment in coal-fired energy, and they’re trying to do two things. They’re trying to sustain a rapid economic growth built on coal-fired electricity, and then also begin, in 2025, to shift to renewable energy. So it’s a major shift for China, just like shifting from gasoline-powered transportation in the United States to solar-or battery-powered transportation. It’s going to be a huge shift in the American infrastructure.
Jeff: Given China’s abilities, it is surprising, I suppose, on a certain level, that they haven’t advanced nuclear technology faster than they have.
Alfred: Yes. They’ve gone for solar and wind. And they work very hard to capture the inputs for storage batteries, like cobalt from Congo, et cetera. They built up fairly sophisticated technologies in both arenas. They are probably the world’s leading producer of solar panels. They’re one of the world’s major producers of wind turbines. So they’ve gone that route rather than nuclear, and I think, for them, that makes sense.
The technological investment in nuclear energy is a fairly heavy one. Mind you, of course, they’re increasing their nuclear weapons capacity. It’s believed that China will have about 1,000 nuclear warheads by the end of the decade in order to neutralize the US nuclear threat. And it’s possible that they may follow the US pattern of investing first in nuclear weapons, developing a cadre of nuclear engineers, and then extending that into the civilian uses of energy that back in the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration called the peaceful atom. China might go that route.
Jeff: Given the route that China and India are going, and given the state of the world as you’ve just described it, what, if anything, can or should the West do at this point?
Alfred: Well, it’s not just the West, it’s the entire world. I think climate change, first of all, is happening far more quickly than any of us could have imagined. The news from scientific research every day indicates that it is accelerating. The UN has said that by the end of the century, the world will face very serious climate adversity, if not climate disaster if the world temperature rises by 2 degrees centigrade.
Well, the planet doesn’t warm evenly. The Arctic is already at 2 degrees centigrade. Siberia last summer experienced a record temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit north of the Arctic Circle. The polar ice caps are melting with incredible speed. The Thwaites Glacier, we just learned this week, is on the brink of collapse. The kind of ice board that is holding that massive glacier the size of Florida back is collapsing. And if the Thwaites Glacier, eventually, and it will, wind up in the ocean melting, that could raise the sea level by 2 or 3 feet by itself.
With rising seas, accelerating storms, like those disastrous hurricanes, cyclones that swept Kentucky, the heartland of America, with all the forest fires in California, the forest fires in Australia, on and on. As these disasters accelerate, the world is very quickly waking up to the threat of climate change. And as the refugees are uprooted from their precarious perch, the ecological margins of the world, and begin their march for safety and survival and the world recoils, we’re going to discover that we’re faced not with a new world order and China, but with something arguably even worse, global disorder.
Vicious and violent localized conflicts breaking out all over the world, water wars, for example, wars over refugee resettlement, pushing back money with gas and gunfire, shoving boats, refugees back into the sea to drown. The alternative to this unimaginable level of disorder is a new kind of world order like the world has never seen. And for this to happen, let’s assume that it’s the UN that would be the vehicle for this.
First of all, the UN needs one fundamental reform, the Security Council, which was born as an imperialist club with five permanent members, needs to have rotating membership and to end the veto, that the great powers like Russia, the United States, China, Britain, and France have. That needs to change so that the UN becomes genuinely representative of the international community. And a reformed UN needs to gain a very small slice of national sovereignty, but a very significant slice of that sovereignty at three critical areas.
First of all, the UN needs to have power to sanction effectively any nation that engages in greenhouse gas emissions, and that isn’t making a fast transition to renewable energy. Regarding perhaps greenhouse gas emissions as tantamount to violations of national sovereignty, sending an army to invade another country. Second thing is a reformed and empowered UN High Commissioner for Refugees or some successor body needs to move beyond voluntary resettlement of refugees to mandatory resettlement on the basis of space, climate, and available resources.
And third, and finally, the process that we saw in Glasgow in the COP26 UN Conference, where the wealthy temperate nations, who, by the way, are going to weather this climate change more effectively than in the tropics. There’s a narrow band of the earth in the Northern hemisphere that will remain habitable even under the most disastrous projections.
These wealthy nations have got to begin transferring, not on a voluntary, but on a mandatory basis, capital and resources to the poor tropical nations, to first of all, allow them to feed their population, slow the refugee flows, and adapt environmentally so that the population that can remain will remain and survive.
And through these three small but significant reforms, we can build a new kind of world order that will avert the unimaginable violence that will come with global disorder.
Jeff: Given the global experience that is still ongoing vis-à-vis this current pandemic, it’s hard to imagine anything like that operating effectively.
Alfred: In the 19th century, when there were the first conferences on international law and banning war, something like the UN seemed almost unimaginable. It seemed impossible that the world could ever create such a body that would have such powers. And in fact, the UN really does have very considerable powers.
To cite one, when Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia ravaged that country, and then the country descended into civil war with the United States backing, actually, Pol Pot along with China, and it was just slaughter. About two million out of Cambodia’s seven million population died. The international community got tired of it and they created something called the UN Transitional Authority for Cambodia. And they just came in and they established a sovereign government in Cambodia under UN authority.
And they took control of the country, they rebuilt the institutions, they had a transitory army and police, and they made Cambodia into — It’s an authoritarian state, but it’s a relatively stable country. So the UN has real power, and that power is exercised in many, many ways. And so it’s possible to extend those powers over these three critical areas.
Jeff: The problem, I suppose, is that some of the problems that are leading up to anything catastrophic, some of the issues that we face today with respect to immigration, refugees, and the early impact of climate change is such that it is fermenting a stronger form of nationalism in places like the US and China.
Alfred: That has been the first reaction. But think about where we are in this debate. Only 10 years ago, we were debating whether or not climate change was real. There were very influential climate change deniers. Donald Trump actually stood up in Davos as president of the United States and mocked the whole environmental movement, denounced it. Well, that rhetoric has disappeared pretty quickly.
Not even Trump says that sort of stuff anymore. Not even Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, who was an adamant critic of climate science, even he’s gone a little bit silent on that issue. The same with the Prime Minister of Australia. The foremost vocal antagonists of climate science have gone silent. And so that’s a real change. Nobody is denying climate change anymore. It’s just gone. Yes, there are a few flat earthers out there. But nobody who’s in any place close to authority denies it.
So the question now is simply — Climate science is established. It’s not only established scientifically beyond a doubt, but it’s also now accepted by world leaders in almost every country worldwide. In a certain sense, and this is a terrible thing to say, in a certain sense, those horrible disasters we’ve witnessed in California and the West Coast in Australia and the Amazon, which came much earlier than anybody could imagine, in many ways, they are a gift because we were able to see it early.
It would have been much worse. Imagine if it had stemmed up silently and we hadn’t had those disasters until 2040 or 2050. We got them early. We could see the face of the future and the terror that it represented. And we’ve been given a gift. And the question is, how will we use that gift? And people, by the way, around the world have paid, and I’m not minimizing it, a terrible price for that gift. But out of that suffering, there needs to come change in a better future.
Jeff: Alfred McCoy, his book is To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change. I thank you so much for spending time with us here today on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Alfred: Jeff, thank you.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.