America's Place in the World
This post is an attempt to show America in scale compared to the rest of the world. The world is a big place—but not so big that it cannot be summarized. The US has 5% of the world population. If there were 20 random people in a room, probably one of them would be American.
Most of the world is Asia
First, let’s debunk a nakedly Eurocentric way of summarizing the world’s population. Continents. The two most populous continents by far—Asia and Africa—are the least dominated by White people. The other four continents include Europe and societies dominated by European settlers (North America, South America, and Australia). Pretending Europe is a distinct continent from Asia is particularly bold since it’s one landmass, especially in view of the diversity contained within Asia. Most of the world lives in Asia.
Next, please spend a moment to visit the World Population History map. Watch the video, where each yellow dot represents a million people. Below are screenshots from the years 0 AD, 1000, 1500, and 2000. China and India have always been home to most of the world and produced most of the world’s wealth for most of history, as late as the 1800s.
European colonialism was huge
An old joke goes, “The sun never set on the British Empire…because God didn’t trust them in the dark.” In the 400 years from Columbus discovering America to WWI, European countries conquered all but about 10 of today’s roughly 200 countries. Note that Eastern Asia—China, Korea, and Japan—was the largest region never colonized, in keeping with their historical powerhouse status.
Interestingly, the whole time Europeans were invading the rest of the world, they were also invading each other. Wars to conquer each other’s territory were a constant in European history. Finally, with WWI and WWII, the Europeans cracked up. A house divided cannot stand. They completely devastated each other and lost the ability and will to subdue their colonies.
It’s worth asking why Europeans wanted to take over the world, since that’s related to why colonialism stopped. One simple motivation was to steal stuff like gold and jewels. But a deeper motivation was trade. It’s very hard to get rich without trading partners, since countries are usually only good at producing a few things. By conquering other places, Europe could turn them into trading partners. For example, British folks could produce more wool blankets than they could use. By expanding into America, colonists there could start producing items Britons valued and buying items Britons produced. Almost magically, Britain could go on producing lots of wool blankets, but start consuming a much broader variety of items more easily produced elsewhere like cotton, tea, silk, etc.
After WWII, not only was Europe in tatters; their colonies were sufficiently transformed so they would remain trading partners without European domination. Europe had spread its production technology throughout the world, remaking the world’s economies in its image. Thus, colonialism prepared the ground for modern trade between independent countries, which has the same benefits without so much cruelty.
Pax Americana and the US Role in Colonialism
The early history of the US was expansionist, steadily conquering more territory until we reached the Pacific Ocean. The goals and effect were pretty much the same as colonialism, just over a connected area. Tomayto, tomahto. (Russia grew to its current size the same way, via expansionism rather than colonialism.) With nowhere to keep expanding, the US started taking colonies in the 1890s (Phillipines, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, etc.), but it was no longer a good economic strategy. Having trading partners was just as good and less messy. In 1899, the US pushed Europe to not colonize China (which would have shut the US out) but to instead require it to trade with everybody. Similarly, in 1853, the US threatened Japan to force them into trading rather than try to colonize Japan outright.
WWII left Europe and China as smoking ruins, with the US temporarily accounting for 50% of the world’s GDP. Europe could no longer subdue its colonies so new independent countries spawned all over the world. To keep getting richer, the U.S. needed to maintain a system of international trade, which had earlier been promoted by European colonialism. So the U.S. military started acting as world police – a “hegemon.” By tamping down wars of conquest and favoring preferred political systems, the U.S. has maintained a relatively friendly environment for international trade over the past 70 years. By one count, 35% of the world’s population live in American “client states,” which depend on the U.S. military for their political stability.
This Pax Americana has bolstered economic growth with a lighter touch than the old system of colonialism. Notice the stark change in world GDP growth that happened in 1950 in the chart below.1 Nations regained their self-determination. China and India, the old stalwarts, are coming back.
Paradoxically, Pax Americana meant a relinquishing of control not only by Europe but also by America. Free trade benefits both parties and technological innovations in rich countries quickly spread to poorer countries. In economic theory, this type of level playing field tends to produce faster growth in poor countries than in rich countries, allowing the poorer countries to catch up over time (with some caveats). Since 1960, the economic importance of Europe has fallen off a cliff while the importance of Asia has skyrocketed. The Americas held their own until 2000, after which we followed Europe’s path.
In 1945, America was a self-consciously White society, grounded in ideas of White supremacy. So its an interesting legacy that the height of American power, Pax Americana, has shepherded the end of White domination both around the world and in our own country.
America’s role as World Police is under strain with the past 3 Presidents – Obama, Trump, and Biden – all attempting to notch it down. The conditions that allowed it—America having 50% of world GDP—have changed. The only way for America to continually make itself richer is by enabling its rivals to catch up via foreign trade. And arguably the conditions that required Pax Americana have also changed—a spate of new countries and trading partners vulnerable and struggling to be free. It’s said, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”
The European powers kept the benefit of trading even after they let go of their colonies. Will America keep the benefits of free trade if its military withdraws?
One could argue that Europe held on to control for too long, until it blew up in the form of WWI and WWII. Can America move gracefully past Pax Americana without a catastrophe?
The chart is on a log scale, equivalent to showing percentage growth rate. ↩