How does the knowledge of the past help us prepare for the challenges of the 21st century?

Jamie – Year 12 Student

Editor’s Note: Writing for the New College of Humanities annual essay competition, Jamie Y12 writes expertly on the disciplines of history, economics and politics, examining the geopolitical challenges of the clash between China and the United States of America. He delves into this case study whilst crafting a broader historical argument: how lessons from history can offer guidance for leaders navigating the dark waters of the 21st century. Anika Y9 has also examined this topic in her contribution to the GSAL Humanities Journal, which can be found here. This is Jamie’s second publication in The GSAL Journal; you can view all his contributions here. Mei – Chief Editor, Humanities Journal

The 21st century is awash with challenges. Climate change, over population, demographic time – bombs, nuclear proliferation, the strain on resources – the list goes on indefinitely. In this essay, I will focus on the primary geopolitical challenge facing the world: the upcoming clash between the United States and China, and its management in such a way that the detrimental effects on humanity are minimised. Through the prism of this single issue, I will illustrate the ways in which the lessons of the past can guide humanity through its 21st century challenges.

Since 1992 we have lived in a unipolar world, with the US enjoying hegemonic status globally. Yet this status is under threat from an upcoming power, China, the world’s second largest economy to its rival’s 1st [1] and the world’s most populous state to the US’ 3rd [2]. It is arguably inevitable that a clash will occur as China seeks to dethrone the US; it seems exceedingly likely that the two will fall into the Thucydides trap with potentially devastating consequences.

Parallels for such a situation are numerous (by BC 400 Thucydides had seen enough examples to form his theory) but global hegemons are a modern phenomenon, with the first being the UK in the 19th century. As with the US currently, Britain’s navy was unchallenged, her economy the largest in the world, and she had influence over events globally. British pre-eminence was challenged in 1870 when Germany unified, with the resulting world wars arguably a textbook case of two nations falling into the Thucydides trap. Yet Britain did not yield superpower status in defeat, but as a peaceful passing of the baton to an ally – the US. The US may have hastened this by beginning to encroach upon British colonial interests (the Destroyers for Bases deal essentially entailed Roosevelt taking advantage of British desperation for American arms to dismantle the British Empire and take strategic bases for American benefit) but the handover of power was largely amicable. Herein lies a lesson for 21st century China – by usurping America economically it may usurp her politically without recourse to direct conflict.

This was an extreme case; Britain had been bankrupted by WW2 and rendered economically dependent upon the US. In addition, the British were totally losing power whilst it seems likely that the US would, at worst, face a bipolar world: a unipolar world with the US relegated to the role of a power such as Russia today seems exceedingly unlikely given American military and economic strength.  

Indeed, China’s military expenditure is barely a third that of the US [3]. However, history tells us this is not how a power is unseated. The Spanish Empire fell when the Spanish economy collapsed, devastated by hyperinflation of its gold currency due to an influx of South American gold, the USSR fell as economic decline left Moscow unable to support its satellites, the US surpassed Britain economically. The pattern and lesson are clear: power derives from economic strength and the US will lose its position when economically surpassed. As the world has modernised this effect has intensified; in a world of technology and equipment, military strength increasingly derives from wealth, to the point in which the US defeated the USSR without firing a shot. From history, the 21st century sees how its main challenge will play out, and thus how to prepare for it.

Although hot war is unlikely (with the Cold War counselling that nuclear powers do not engage in direct military conflict due to the mutually assured destruction nuclear weapons provide), tensions have already manifested in a trade war. In today’s globalised economy, an all-out trade war between the world’s two largest economies could have devastating effects on global growth and prosperity: preventing this is a key challenge of the 21st century. Here the lessons of the past are clear to both nations: tariffs, anti-competitive practices and protectionism are only self-destructive. The US sought to protect its manufacturers in the 1920s and succeeded in creating the Great Depression once the domestic market was saturated. China was the world’s largest economy and most advanced society in the 15th century, but after the Ming and Qing dynasties walled off China and excluded foreign influence and trade until the 19th century, China found itself far less technologically advanced and much weaker than the internationalist European powers. By heeding their own history, both nations may act in an internationalist and pro-trade manner that will benefit themselves and other nations.

This essay thus far has made some assumptions: China will surpass the US economically, China will want to surpass the US geopolitically and the US will regard this as undesirable. That China will surpass the US economically is inevitable, with a population more than twice as large and at the least comparable raw resources, [4] it is clear that as the US loses its technological advantage and with the Chinese population educated to the degree of the American population, Chinese economic output will be able to exceed that of the US.

Politically, however, the picture is more ambiguous: it is far from clear that the burden of policing the world and maintaining a high military expenditure is one that a state will be loath to yield. The question of what power constitutes and whether nations always desire it is one many historians grapple with, but for the purposes of this essay, consideration power is to be defined as the ability to influence other nations and events. History suggests autocratic nations relentlessly pursue power; from Genghis Khan’s insatiable appetite for empire to Castro committing scarce Cuban resources to supporting Latin American revolutions and interventions in Angola, autocrats tend to maximise their nation’s global influence and by extension their own at all costs.

History also indicates that democracies do not necessarily have the same craving for power. While an autocrat almost by definition has an innate desire to wield power (people who don’t generally don’t commit their lives to the cause of gaining political power as a dictator), the electorate generally is interested in their national well-being, and desires international influence insofar as they see benefits to their nation. The Korean and Vietnamese wars constitute excellent case studies here. The containment of Communism made good geopolitical sense for the US, but it pulled out of both wars as its people were not willing to countenance human losses abroad for abstract ideological or geopolitical goals – the successes of Eisenhower and Nixon running on platforms of ending both wars tell us what will happen if the US and China clash. Unless the American people see a considerable benefit to seeing off the Chinese challenge, they are likely to favour yielding their power and responsibilities to focus on domestic challenges. Already this lesson has been ignored in the 21st century and already it has been vindicated. Donald Trump started a trade war, and has had to backtrack on his demands: an election year is looming and if tariffs are pushing up the cost of living for Americans then he will lose – Americans do not care enough about the rivalry with China to even countenance price rises. Within this lies hope for the 21st century; the clash of powers may never happen and there may be a peaceful transition as the US yields her throne.

Knowledge of the past can clearly help address 21st century challenges by predicting the outcome of events and allowing for actions to be taken that minimise their detrimental effects. Knowledge of the past informs actors what actions will maximise mutual benefit. Such knowledge both warns and provides hope: ultimately, awareness of the past helps to address 21st century challenges by providing an informed choice, by allowing leaders to see what the consequences of their choices will be. As such, historical knowledge lets us to large extent choose an outcome rather than an action, hugely reducing uncertainty as to results, as generally such policies have been tested before and such situations have occurred in the past. In the case study I have chosen in dealing with other issues as well, the past is better than any computer at simulating how scenarios will play out and at modelling the effects of certain courses of action.

Whether knowledge of the past will help to address 21st century problems depends on whether its advice is heeded, and here the picture is complicated: have we truly learnt from the holocaust if we fail to prevent the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides? I contend that the world will learn from history as the scale of 21st century challenges will focus minds in a manner that forces engagement with any possible precedent or information advantage. The lessons of the past are quickly learned when the stakes are high enough: WW2 has thus far dissuaded WW3 (or at least, the spectre of its nuclear conclusion has dissuaded any war between nuclear powers); on an economic level the West has sought desperately to maintain energy independence since OPEC increased prices in 1973. As such, the scale of challenges like climate change will force leaders to engage with the advantages they stand to gain from historical knowledge. Of course, this may be overly optimistic, as it can be argued it is the present nuclear calculus rather than knowledge of WW2 that prevents WW3, and the lessons the past can teach us may be ignored. For the sake of addressing humanity’s existential challenges, we can only hope not.

Jamie 738526


[1] . Accessed 18 January 2020.

[2] Accessed 18 January 2020.

[3] Accessed 18 January 2020.

[4] Accessed 19 January 2020.

Other sources utilized

Holsti, K. J. “The Concept of Power in the Study of International Relations.” Background, vol. 7, no. 4, 1964, pp. 179–194. JSTOR, Accessed 19 January 2020. Accessed 17 January 2020.

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