East vs West global powers – A decade in review pt2

In Part I of this article, we covered a review of economic-related data for four centers of power for the past decade. In Part II, we cover changes to military power, political orientations, and backward progress for gender equality.   

Military Power

There were only minimal changes in military rankings. According to Global Firepower, the top three military spots were maintained throughout the decade: The United States was #1, Russia #2, and China #3. France, the UK and Germany stayed in the top ten and so did Turkey. Iran raised its position to #14 while Saudi Arabia stayed steady at #25. Spending on military provides data masked in the rankings. Over the past decade annual military spending is up 117% in China and in Saudi Arabia 50%. The United States has reduced spending by 7%. Others have had changes of 5% or less. Military spending in 2019 in the United States and was about 50% higher than all of the above countries combined. Military spending of all transatlantic alliance members (NATO) was more than 200% higher than the other three centers of power combined.   

It’s amazing how much the actual use of military influences perceptions of power. According to the 2019 US News and World Report, Russia, the world’s 11th largest economy, was perceived to be the second most powerful nation. Since the 18th century, Russia has always projected massive power through its military and not its economy. This past decade was no exception. In 2014, Russian military was very active on the Crimean Peninsula and in eastern Ukraine. Russia was also very involved in the Syrian War. All of this created a lot of military-related headlines and the perception of a growing global power. Military involvement also increased perceptions of power for Saudi Arabia and Iran about ten spots more than economic data would dictate. These two were making lots of headlines fighting or supporting opposite sides in the devastating civil wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and a number of proxy conflicts battled by militants.  

Politics and Freedom

Politically the most significant shift of the decade was away from democratic freedoms.  According to Freedom House, the United States and EU nations stayed true to protecting liberal democracies. In the terminology of Freedom House, they are considered free nations. The United States and France did lose a few points. China remained very unfree. Russia was unfree when the decade began and took a pretty serious tumble to become as unfree as China. Unfree Iran also took a tumble and so did Saudi Arabia. The latter having the highest score possible for an unfree nation. Turkey took the biggest tumble of it all; it went from partially free to unfree. 

Over the years, debates have raged about whether democracies or autocracies are better for economic growth. A study in 2019 provides convincing support for free democratic rule. There are, though, plenty of exceptions. Unfree China has thus far fared pretty well economically.

Gender Inequality 

It makes sense that a bad decade for democracy would be a bad omen for gender inequality and it was. World Economic Forum annually measures the gap between men and women in four areas: education, economic opportunities, political empowerment, and health and survival. In 2010, China was ranked 61st. In 2020, it ranked 106th. Russia plunged from 45th to 81st. Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia were at the bottom of the rankings in 2010 and they are still there in 2020. The EU dominated the top of the ranking with 7 of the top 10 spots in 2010 and again in 2020. The United States plummeted from 19th to 53rd mostly due to the limited progress for political representation for women. This may be about to change. The Reykjavik Index for Leadership listed the United States as one of three wealthy nations surveyed where more than 50% were comfortable with a female head of state. The UK scored higher, but other global powers scored much lower. In Russia, 11% were comfortable. They didn’t bother to ask this question in China. In Saudi Arabia and Iran, it would have similarly been silly to ask the question. How can women lead when they are legally subordinate to men?

McKinsey forecasts that if women had the same economic opportunities as men, global GDP would increase by $12 trillion. It seems reasonable that any center of power serious about resuming or maintaining a position of global supremacy would focus on closing rather than increasing the male to female equality gap. Anyone want to wager if Erdogan, Putin, Rouhani, Salman, Trump, or Xi are going to see women as key to global supremacy and become champions for gender equality?

What’s Next

The coming decades will see more changes in the centers of global power. China’s growth will continue to slow. Growth in 2019 was 6.1% and it’s a lot harder to double $14 trillion than $5 trillion. Populations are already or are expected to decline this decade in the EU, China, and Russia. Peak oil? Whenever that arrives, if other industries aren’t developed, that can have a jumbo impact on economies that rely on oil, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia. Significant progress on gender equality could increase economic growth and alter politics and the entire competition. The leading inventors and producers of technology can catapult economic growth. Cyberwars can wreak economic and military havoc on cyber belligerents. Increases in military power can be a useful deterrent or a powder keg that really rocks the centers of global power. (French power was decimated after the Napoleonic Wars. The first Opium War ignited a Century of Humiliation for China while cementing the British as the leading global power. After the two world wars, the United States rose to the top, Germany cratered, and Islamic powers plummeted. After the Cold War, Russia’s position plunged, and power in the west strengthened.) 

Stay tuned. In the 21st century, the competition between west and east, Christian and Muslim nations, and autocracies and democracies is sure to make tons of headlines.  

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