Lessons From The AIIB Episode: Why World Superpowers Will Cease to Exist

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Jonathan Chang's picture

On October 2014, China helped establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) following years of America’s refusal to reform the Bretton Woods institutions [1]. Despite America’s proclamation of a “pivot” towards Asia in terms of foreign policy, it has perceived the AIIB as a political threat. It would effectively give China the power it deserved; power that it was denied through smaller voting rights in the Asian Development Bank (ADB), a subordinate of the World Bank. There are several reasons why America may be against the creation of the AIIB while still rebalancing its strategy to improve “more interest, more engagement, and more quality assets” in the region. However, China suspects that the pivot was actually meant as a containment of China, thus explaining the US’s seemingly conflicting actions [2].

When the UK, France, Germany, and Italy announced their move to join the AIIB, the United States’ validity as a world leader in social initiatives became questioned [3]. The US appears to have violated its own morals by advocating its support of development in Asia yet actively criticizing the AIIB. Many have considered this case as a shift of world power towards China [4]. Although there is certainly a redistribution of power, the AIIB episode is a better indicator that the prominence of world powers are diminishing. The world is moving to a period where the prominence of Superpowers will end.

The term Superpower has generally been used loosely – it is a nation with a strong economy, overpowering military, immense international political power, and a strong national ideology [5]. Historians have identified Ancient Egypt, the Persian Empire, the Greek Empire, the Roman Empire, the Mongol Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Portuguese Empire, the Spanish Empire, and the First French Empire of Napoleon as entities which held the ability to largely influence the mechanics of the world at the time of their reign [6]. Recently, the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and the United States have been acknowledged as Superpowers of the 20th century [5]. Despite the prominence of Superpowers in history, the future holds a smaller likelihood for Superpowers to exist based on the premise of increasingly socially-conscious citizens, comparable weaponry power, and country self-sufficiency.



In a global survey of 30,000 correspondents, 55% of online customers across 60 countries reported they would be willing to pay more when faced with a company committed to social and environmental responsibility. When products and services come from companies committed to social responsibility, consumers globally are willing to pay more because of the increased value proposition [7]. Expectations stemming from citizens have been reflected in their government’s actions. Governmental transparency has increased as a result of public demand. For instance, a tech-savvy advocacy group Oakland developed an application called “Open Disclosure”, which makes obscure and complex campaign financial data intelligible for the average person [8]. Applications like “Open Disclosure” help to illustrate the empowerment of average citizens through modern advancements in technology. As a result, governments have become more liable for their actions [9].

Past Superpowers had a strong sense of nationalism or pride. However, citizens are now able to criticize their own governments and are capable of comparing their country to others with more readily available metrics such as social-consciousness and happiness [10]. Such rhetoric is a far cry from individuals in past Superpowers who believed their viewpoint or leader was superior; Superpowers who commanded an immensely loyal following of people. Social media and the Internet has enabled minority critics to expose their governments on many imperfections. It has become difficult for an individual to take pride in their own country when it is hardly the quintessential of its time [11].



A common characteristic of Superpowers is their overpowering military and the capability to leverage those resources for international political power. Historically, countries have been able to exert influence from access to larger military or greater weapon technology [6]. For instance, following World War II, the United States was certainly viewed as superior for having developed the first nuclear bomb, arguably the most deadly weapon in the world, through their Manhattan Project [12]. In fact, the descriptive term is called Atomic Diplomacy which refers to the use of nuclear warfare to achieve diplomatic goals. The United States’ acknowledges that use of the bombs in Japan helped play a factor in postwar relations with the Soviet Union [13]. In 2014, 9 countries had a total of 16,400 nuclear warheads [14]. Advancements have evened the playing field on a military level, thus rendering military diplomacy increasingly less useful as more countries gain access to nuclear weapons. The Cold War is a prime example of two opposing Superpowers who viewed each other as a threat significant enough to suggest war. However, it resulted in inaction due to a mutual understanding of the profound unethicality and humanitarian implications of using nuclear weaponry [15].

Currently, military diplomacy is used more so for “security” and “defence.” In spite of military diplomacy appearing as a great way to soothe tensions, in reality, actions in this manner induce a false complacency that problems are being managed and create little benefit. Oftentimes militaries happily claim they keep their country safe while there is little fighting required. Increasingly, governments have seen clear difficulties linking small steps of military action aggregating out to larger gains. They have acknowledged that although defence or military diplomacy may still have its use, there are limits of its use in political campaigns [16]. Comparatively, historic empires, such as the British or Roman Empire, were able to capitalize upon their military strength to give themselves an unfair advantage. Following this trend, with decreasing use of military power, powerful nations will find it difficult to exert political dominance. Furthermore, given the lessons from WWI and WWII, a hypothetical WWIII is unlikely [17]. No longer will military diplomacy be of use because of the extreme consequences of advanced weaponry, as well as a level playing field when it comes to trading benefits with implications.



Other countries have regularly required support from a Superpower, thus bolstering the given Superpower’s influence. However, countries have been moving to counteract this trend by opting to become more self-sufficient. An exemplary incident is brought about from the nosedive of oil prices in 2014. In the years leading up to 2014, production and consumption levels had misbalanced largely as a result of a buildup of strategic petroleum reserves (SPR). Countries such as China, and India who are net importers of oil built these reserves as a method to hedge against oil pricing risk as well as being able to obtain self-sufficiency in the event of a trade embargo [18]. Moreover, the development of gas pipelines on a global level are beginning to allow countries more flexibility when it comes to purchasing options for energy. In recent news, Europe may finally end its dependence on Russia for energy. In March 2015, Azerbaijan, a Western-friendly nation, built the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) which could bring gas to Europe. Coupled with United States’ recent boom in in Shale gas, Europe will no longer have to rely on Russia as much [19]. With nations being able to access energy sources in greater variety, the prominence of political power attached to energy dependence will decrease.

Another incident of political power being obtained through country interdependence can be seen through the Bretton Woods institutions – particularly the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Developing countries who rely on outstanding foreign debt are falling prey to political influence. However, with developing countries finally becoming developed themselves, they will obtain the capability to go against the grain without risking harsher loan terms. The IMF has multiple loans outstanding as well as credit lines extended to countries in Africa, Southern America, and Europe [20]. Considering the IMF and the World Bank are 51% owned by the United States Treasury, the United States has been able to exert itself as a global Superpower due to these other countries’ dependence [21].

Initiatives such as the AIIB will definitely take political power away from the United States and redistribute it to China, however at the same time, it is empowering the developing nations through increased flexibility. With more developed countries having political power, the distribution of such power will be seen in a more equal manner. A greater analogy to use is a comparison between the developments of a human with that of a country. Countries are like children in their development stage and hardly have the capability to make decisions in an independent manner. As they accumulate the maturity to deal with their own economy, politics, and social issues, they proceed through adolescence. Once they become adults or developed, the other developed countries will no longer be able to “boss” them around as often. Superpowers were the nations that gained an advantage by maturing at a quicker rate. However, once the rest of its competition has caught up, these advantages will dissipate. Along with these advantages, Superpowers will cease to exist in world moving towards social and ethical equality.


[1] http://www.i24news.tv/en/opinion/68831-150424-israel-us-china-and-the-asian-infrastructure-development-bank

[2] http://thediplomat.com/2013/05/americas-pivot-to-asia-a-report-card/

[3] http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/france-germany-italy-join-china-led-aiib-following-britain-1492229

[4] http://www.pewglobal.org/2011/07/13/china-seen-overtaking-us-as-global-superpower/

[5] http://www.novelguide.com/reportessay/history/world-war-i-ii/world-war-ii-rise-superpowers

[6] http://www.localhistories.org/world.html

[7] http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/press-room/2014/global-consumers-are-willing-to-put-their-money-where-their-heart-is.html

[8] http://www.cleveland.com/opinion/index.ssf/2015/04/more_local_government_transpar.html

[9] http://enterpriseinnovation.net/article/social-media-government-strategy-increased-transparency-and-public-participation-1984029935

[10] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2603709/British-national-pride-falls-time-low-economic-downturn-Iraq-war-fallout-hit-morale.html

[11] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/talking_point/4311574.stm

[12] http://www.globalresearch.ca/nuclear-weapons-present-a-real-and-present-danger-to-humanity-and-life-on-earth/18359

[13] https://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/atomic

[14] http://www.icanw.org/the-facts/nuclear-arsenals/

[15] http://www.johndclare.net/cold_war1_redruth.htm

[16] http://ips.cap.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/COG%20%2317%20Web.pdf

[17] http://theweek.com/articles/449783/dont-worry-world-war-iii-almost-certainly-never-happen

[18] http://profit.ndtv.com/news/industries/article-india-makes-first-crude-oil-purchase-for-strategic-reserve-report-750904

[19] http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/energy-environment/239815-the-end-of-european-dependence-on-russian-energy

[20] http://www.imf.org/external/np/exr/map/lending/

[21] http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2011/07/19/solution-to-world-poverty-abolish-the-world-bank-and-the-imf/