The dirty secret about international relations is that although everyone agrees about the importance of power, no one can agree on how to define or measure it. There are occasional moments when a consensus exists about the distribution of power: think of U.S. hegemony a generation ago. There are more moments when the relative strength and influence of the great powers remains unclear: think of the last decade of international politics, which was shaped by multiple competing narratives about the rise of China and the decline of the United States. And there are moments when the entire question of international power is put to the test: think of times when major wars break out, such as the one currently being fought between Russia and Ukraine.
People commonly think of power as a country’s ability to force others to do what that country wants. Experts usually measure it by looking at military might or GDP. But these are at best partial—and at worst biased—views. And they reveal very little about how a state may or may not act. Left out in such accountings of power is a crucial factor: expectations about the future and whether state leaders believe in an optimistic or a pessimistic destiny for their country. If leaders believe the future looks unfavorable, they will be tempted to take risky actions in the present to forestall further decline, which can lead to arms races and brinkmanship during crises. In contrast, optimistic leaders foresee a brighter future ahead for their country and thus favor strategic patience, which tends to produce investments in global governance.
The United States and its allies and partners have been pleasantly surprised by the trajectory of the war in Ukraine, which many believed Russia would win easily and quickly. Unfortunately, however, this sense of optimism might prove fleeting—and, needless to say, it is hardly shared by Moscow and Beijing. Indeed, it is possible to envision a scenario in which the conflict in Ukraine makes the whole world even more pessimistic about the future, which could mean a much greater likelihood of great-power war.
Power is the currency of world politics, but there is little agreement in either scholarly or policy circles about how to define it. An easy way to illustrate this is to list all the adjectives applied to the term, such as “soft,” “sharp,” “social,” “structural”—and those are just the modifiers that start with the letter s. From issue to issue, actor to actor, the definition of power applied varies.
One reason for these conflicting perspectives is that foreign policy leaders make different assumptions about the future, and those assumptions, in turn, determine which dimensions of power matter. Some forms of influence are valuable in the here and now, including military force and economic coercion. But although they are essential in a crisis, these forms of power often create counterproductive security dilemmas. When a great power increases its military budget, even for defensive purposes, challengers feel compelled to respond in kind.
Other forms of influence work more slowly. Economic networks and security frameworks are not created overnight. Building global governance structures, such as the Bretton Woods institutions and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, is a painstaking task that can take years. Soft power—that is, the ability of one country to persuade other countries to want similar ends—can take generations to develop and exercise. But these forms of power have their advantages. They are self-reinforcing; once they are established, it is difficult for a challenger to create alternatives. A leader who does not think too far into the future will not care about these means of influence, because the rewards from investments in them are not immediate enough to matter right away. A leader who does think about the future, by contrast, will be willing to absorb short-term costs to invest in the tools of power that will prove valuable in the long run.
Whether foreign policy leaders take a short-term or a long-term view of power depends on a number of factors. If leaders believe the world they inhabit is a Hobbesian one, in which life is “poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” they cannot afford the luxury of a long-term perspective. An international system rife with disaster, plague, limited economic growth, and violence is one that forces greater attention on the short run. In other words, for most of the history of international relations, a short-term perspective made complete sense.
Power is the currency of world politics, but there is little agreement about how to define it.
More recently, however, better global conditions have made it possible for leaders to see a more favorable future. The end of the Malthusian trap—the belief that human population growth was limited by agricultural output—and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution heralded an era in which people could legitimately believe that better days lay ahead. Average human life expectancy increased from under 30 years in 1800 to more than 70 years in 2015. Over roughly the same time period, the child mortality rate plummeted by a factor of ten. A world in which everyone was becoming healthier and wealthier suggested a brighter future.
These trends have been nearly universal. Individual countries, however, vary in their relative optimism or pessimism about their future power. Policymakers in countries with robust and sustainable birthrates and minimal outward migration could interpret those indicators as a sign that their state is on the upswing. Below-replacement birthrates and elevated outward migration might signal the opposite. Similarly, countries that experience either rapid economic growth or sustained stagnation could project those same patterns into the future. In general, one would expect states with strong growth trends relative to their peer competitors to be optimistic about the future. Significant policy outcomes, whether positive or negative, could also affect expectations about the future. Countries that win wars are likely to be confident about their future ability to confront traditional security threats. Countries that lose wars have little choice but to commit to building short-term military power, fearing further setbacks on the battlefield.
Observable information can inform countries’ temporal expectations: a booming economy is usually a good omen. Nonetheless, in most contexts, the future is uncertain. Even supposedly objective information can provide contradictory or confusing signals. The real significance of China’s economic growth rate or the importance of the U.S. dollar to global trade, for instance, remains hotly contested. Put another way, material metrics can go only so far toward reducing uncertainty about what lies ahead.
Foreign policy elites cope with this uncertainty by fashioning coherent narratives about whether the future is favorable or unfavorable to their country’s interests. Ideologies such as Marxism and liberal internationalism, for instance, rest on visions of progress based on certain actors inexorably rising to power and prosperity. More pessimistic narratives include historical cycles of rising and falling or of terminal decline, violence, and rebirth.
Strategic narratives about the future vary, but they tend to take one of two rough forms. Actors with positive expectations believe that the future distribution of power will be better for their country than the present distribution. In other words, the future is favorable, and events will reward strategic patience. Actors with negative expectations, by contrast, believe that the future distribution of power will be worse for their country than the present distribution. These actors see an unfavorable future and may feel the need to take immediate action to forestall decline.
THE LONG VIEW
Pessimistic governments cannot focus too much on the distant future because they believe they must act in the present to avoid a more dangerous world. Under these circumstances, what matters are so-called kinetic capabilities—instruments of statecraft that can be used immediately to change the facts on the ground as quickly as possible. Leaders of these states will therefore focus most of their attention on existing military and economic resources and active efforts to increase them. Initiatives by other countries to augment their soft power or develop alternative networks or institutions might get noticed by these leaders, but they will provoke less concern. Leaders focused on the here and now will not prioritize such long-term threats.
By contrast, governments with positive expectations about the future have confidence in their continued national ascent. This enables a longer time horizon, allowing policymakers to invest in forms of power that take more time to pay off: global governance, cultural diplomacy, long-standing alliances and partnerships, pie-in-the-sky technological innovations, and so forth. These forms of power require substantial investment and time to develop, but the rewards are significant. Optimistic expectations also mean that these states can apply an ambitious definition of power in assessing others’ capabilities. They will notice what other great powers are doing across many dimensions of power, not just military might. As the sociologist Steven Lukes has explained, “The wider the scope of what, in the view of one’s conceptual framework, is going to count as power, the more power in the world one will be able to see.”
The extent to which great powers are optimistic or pessimistic about the future has profound effects on their present-day strategies. A world of great powers that are optimistic about the future will have arenas of confrontation but little war. These confident great powers will invest in resources designed to attract as well as coerce, suggesting a contested but relatively pacific world. A world of pessimistic great powers, however, will lead to an emphasis on military capabilities and a temptation to engage in preventive action. Militarized disputes are far more likely in a pessimistic world, where the role of force matters the most.
Consider the dynamic between a rising power and an established one. For both actors, the belief that better days are coming will alter their threat perceptions. For the rising power, such optimism makes it seem unnecessary to immediately invest in military capabilities, which could run the risk of triggering an unnecessary conflict. Anything that provokes a preemptive response from established powers is undesirable. And why risk upending a tolerable status quo if revisionist steps would be even easier in the future, when the distribution of power is more favorable?
Optimism would also make an established power less likely to use force when confronting a revisionist rival, whose efforts to challenge the existing security order would appear more like acts of self-sabotage than genuine threats. As such, optimistic hegemons take some precautionary measures to ensure that revisionist powers cannot threaten their core security interests, but they focus primarily on inducing smaller states to accept the existing rules of the game. Established powers with long time horizons pay greater attention to rising powers that invest in nonmilitary capabilities, such as soft power, which might pose real risks in the far future.
The 1990s offered a good example of these dynamics. U.S. policymakers imbibed the political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, which posited that there were no longer any universal ideological challengers to liberal, free-market democracy. The international relations theorist Joseph Nye’s argument that the United States possessed an abundance of soft power further brightened the outlook. Faith in democratization and the so-called Washington consensus regarding neoliberal economic development bolstered U.S. confidence, as well. Owing to this optimism, it is not surprising that the United States chose to engage, rather than confront, potential rivals such as China.
Nor is it surprising that China welcomed this engagement. By embracing globalization, China saw its economy grow at an extraordinary clip. Beijing’s expectations for the future were also positive, represented by the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s cautious advice for the country: “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” China had good reasons to refrain from pursuing explicitly revisionist aims during this period, as Beijing expected a rosy future. It was not in China’s interests to directly challenge the liberal international order, since that could mean being cut off from its benefits. Both Beijing and Washington therefore invested more in long-term global governance and soft power. Military power was always present, but it was not the policy option of first resort for either great power.
A world in which great powers have pessimistic expectations of the future is far more dangerous. In that instance, actors pay attention to military capabilities above all else. Unlike other forms of power, after all, military force can be quickly deployed during a crisis. A rising power, fearing a limited window for ascent, could choose to acquire military resources to maximize its temporary advantage and prevent it from once again falling behind. An established hegemon, also fearing a diminished future, might react negatively and precipitate a military dispute out of a belief that its power will only decrease as time goes on. For two pessimistic states, delay increases the risk of catastrophe.
The classic example of this dynamic at work is the prelude to World War I. On the eve of that conflict, the United Kingdom was the most powerful country in the world. British policymakers, however, were extremely concerned about Wilhelmine Germany’s rapid rise, particularly its naval expansion. Berlin, in turn, held negative expectations about the future given Russia’s even more rapid accumulation of power. By 1912, the Prussian General Staff had come to fear that in less than five years, Russian capabilities would be too great to counter. This led German strategists to advocate launching a preventive war before Germany’s window of opportunity to dominate continental Europe closed. In short, Europe was consumed by pessimism. All the great powers engaged in furious rearmament strategies, and most of them engaged in trade wars. This environment resembled an overgrown forest cluttered with kindling and parched by drought. All it took was a random spark—the assassination of an archduke—to set it afire.
THE AGE OF PESSIMISM
During the first two decades of the twenty-first century, China continued to act as an optimistic great power. The Chinese economy was growing rapidly, Beijing’s security environment was improving, and the country’s citizens were becoming more educated than ever before. (Even today, public opinion polling suggests that the Chinese are more optimistic about the future and more confident that their country is headed in the right direction than are the people in any other major economy.) This self-assurance fostered strategic patience and a focus on the long term. Beijing sponsored Confucius Institutes abroad to bolster its image and soft power. It invested in a long-term diplomatic strategy to reduce Taiwan’s international recognition. It developed wedge issues to play the United States and the European Union off each other, all while generating goodwill in the “global South.” China began creating global governance structures that could potentially challenge the liberal international order, including the New Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the Belt and Road Initiative.
Over the same period, U.S. expectations darkened. The 9/11 terrorist attacks, the disastrous Iraq war, and the 2008 financial crisis all challenged Americans’ faith in the future. According to Gallup polling data, the last time a majority of U.S. respondents believed that their country was headed in the right direction was January 2004. A quick review of recent presidential inaugural addresses hints at this escalating pessimism. In 2009, amid an economic crisis and war, U.S. President Barack Obama stressed the need to “begin again the work of remaking America.” President Donald Trump’s rhetoric in 2017 was more hyperbolic, decrying the “American carnage” of the previous eight years and promising to “protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.” In his inaugural address in 2021, President Joe Biden acknowledged that “few periods in our nation’s history have been more challenging or difficult than the one we’re in now.”
Despite growing U.S. pessimism, China largely managed to avoid confrontation. By acceding to the U.S.-led “war on terror,” China was able to rise while the United States stayed focused on more immediate dangers. China was also patient enough to invest in global governance structures that few U.S. officials viewed as imminent threats. Beijing’s future looked bright, so it felt no need to immediately challenge U.S. hegemony. China needed only to bide its time.
Militarized disputes are far more likely in a pessimistic world.
As Chinese leader Xi Jinping consolidated his grip on power, however, Beijing’s optimism began to wane. China has had below-replacement birthrates for 30 years, and recent government efforts to boost these numbers have fizzled. China’s population just recorded its slowest annual growth rate in decades, and its migrant worker population fell in 2020 for the first time since data collection began. Compared with the United States, China faces a severe demographic crunch. It now seems likely that the country will grow old before it grows rich. At the same time, China’s draconian zero-COVID policies have soured public opinion in urban areas such as Beijing and Shanghai.
China’s economic outlook has also become more bearish in recent years. Although the country’s growth between 2000 and 2010 was extraordinary, its slowdown over the past decade has been equally sharp. China’s GDP growth has fallen from a peak of 14 percent in 2007 to something closer to two percent in 2020. China’s total productivity growth has decreased by half since the 2008 financial crisis, prompting the political scientist Denny Roy to describe China as a “low productivity superpower.” China’s debt-to-GDP ratio, moreover, is nearly three times that of the United States. The country’s future economic growth looks even less promising given Xi’s failed reform efforts. As the economist Daniel Rosen observed in these pages in 2021, “An honest assessment of recent setbacks suggests that time is running out. . . . There are at most a few years [for China] to act before growth runs out.”
These trends are a cause for concern. Relations between countries are most unstable when all the leading powers have pessimistic expectations—a situation that threatens to characterize the coming decade of great-power politics. China and the United States have adopted negative worldviews, and there is reason to fear that their outlooks could darken even further. Both countries are getting older. Immigration to the United States, the traditional source of demographic strength for the country, has dried up, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By one estimate, there are currently 1.8 million fewer working-age immigrants in the United States today than there would have been if pre-2020 immigration trends had continued. Even more disconcerting, ongoing systemic shocks—the COVID-19 pandemic, financial turmoil, global supply chain bottlenecks, political polarization—will only feed a crisis mentality that invites short-term thinking.
look on the bright side
Pessimism is also a major contributing factor to the war in Ukraine. For all his talk about restoring Russian greatness, Russian President Vladimir Putin has a pessimistic worldview, and this explains his decision to invade. Russia’s 2014 interventions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine backfired badly. Instead of returning to the Russian fold, Ukraine responded by bolstering its military capabilities and drawing closer to NATO and the European Union. As Ukraine’s westward drift accelerated, Putin felt he had to act quickly—and with military force—before Kyiv completely escaped Russia’s sphere of influence. As an anonymous Western intelligence official explained to the BBC, Putin “felt like he had a closing window of opportunity.”
The surprising course of the war has likely further fed Putin’s pessimism—and encouraged pessimism in Beijing, as well. Chinese officials probably expected a fractured and ineffectual Western response to Russia’s war. Little wonder that Xi agreed to a “friendship without limits” with Putin in the run-up to the invasion. After months of war, however, China’s position looks much more vulnerable. Beijing’s support for Russia has left its Asian neighbors more wary of Chinese intentions. To assist Ukraine, moreover, the United States and its allies have unleashed an array of economic, military, and intelligence measures that have severely limited Russian capabilities. It is impossible for Chinese officials to look at the difficulty Russia is having subduing its neighbor without considering the parallels with Taiwan. If Xi fears that his window of opportunity is closing for forced unification, he could act preventively.
Relations between countries are most unstable when leading powers are pessimistic.
The key question is whether the conflict in Ukraine will lead the United States to adopt more positive expectations about its future. Over the past two decades, terrorist attacks, financial crises, and political polarization have eviscerated American optimism. Rising inflation and goods shortages threaten to further exacerbate U.S. pessimism. If policymakers fear that the country’s power and influence are on the wane, then the potential for great-power war will rise considerably.
Successful U.S. support for Ukraine could be a game-changer, however. For the first time in years, the United States has demonstrated policy competence during a global crisis. Ukraine’s stout resistance and its identification with Europe and the United States have reminded everyone, including Americans, that U.S. soft power and structural power persist. After decades of rhetoric about American decline and a democratic recession, U.S. policymakers can now speak of restored alliances and a determination to strengthen the liberal international order. Perceptions of U.S. hegemony might be starting to shift in a more favorable direction.
If American officials believe that the future will be more favorable than the present, then perhaps they can focus on reinforcing the liberal international order that has advanced U.S. interests for decades. Less concerned about immediate threats, Washington might be able to reemphasize long-term objectives, such as reversing democratic backsliding and building a resilient set of rules for the twenty-first-century global economy. Despite rising Chinese pessimism, a strong United States, confident in its future and its role in the world, could retake its historic position within the international system. An optimistic United States will fortify international institutions and offer a bridge to countries in the global South—including China—that are interested in joining the order as responsible stakeholders. If, however, the great powers succumb to pessimism, then all bets are off, and the world will face a dangerous decade.