In the first place, there were the European colonial empires, larger and smaller. Spain and Portugal took the lead in the sixteenth century, conquering the indigenous empires and nations of the “New World”, and establishing the basis for the first structures of a capitalist world-economy, in which the peripheral regions provided forced and cheap labor, raw materials, and markets for surplus goods. Benefitting from the Iberian conquest, Holland was a financial center during the seventeenth century, but its territorial control was limited. During the geographical expansion of the capitalist world-economy during the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, England and France, which also had benefitted from the Iberian conquest, conquered vast regions of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, again in pursuit of forced and cheap labor, raw materials, and markets. Germany and Italy, late in their unification as nation-states, had smaller colonial empires, as did Belgium.
In the forging of a world-system on a foundation of competing colonial empires, the Japanese, Russian, and American empires were special cases. The Japanese and the Russian empires were both of regional scope, to a considerable extent confining their domination to their geographical regions, although both did confront American expansionism in the Pacific. In the case of the American Empire, there were considerable ideological constraints to expansionism beyond the North American continent, such that the United States was oriented to economic and financial penetration, buttressed by military occupation, with indirect political rule, supporting client states in the peripheral zones. This form of imperialism served the United States well during the twentieth century, because it was well suited to the global transition to neocolonialism.
The Chinese Empire was a particular case. The Chinese Empire was forged in ancient times by conquest and domination, providing the foundation for an advanced Chinese civilization. However, the dynasties of ancient China extended their reach not by military domination or political control, but through commerce; and China did not participate in the forging of the modern world-system as one of several competing imperialisms. To the contrary, China was invaded by the expansionist European empires, and it was compelled to make damaging economic concessions to the European powers and to Japan. Such that during the course of the nineteenth century, China had become an underdeveloped country, and one of the poorest nations of the world. The Chinese socialist revolution was forged in reaction to this national loss of honor and international prestige. Its triumph in 1949 made possible the establishment of the definitive independence of China, on a socialist foundation, during the period 1949 to 1978. From 1978 to the present, China, continuing on a socialist foundation, has reinserted itself into the capitalist world-economy with terms much more advantageous to the economic development of the nation, thus facilitating its ascent.
All cases of ascent in the modern world-system have their unique characteristics. But the recent ascent of China departs in fundamental ways from the norm, because it is not based on military domination, direct or indirect political control, or the superexploitation of peripheral regions. As it ascends, China seeks to redefine the rules of the world-system and the rules of ascent. Its foreign policy recognizes that the neocolonial world-system is not sustainable, and that human economic and social development can no longer proceed on a foundation of conquest, domination, and superexploitation, but on a foundation of cooperation and mutually beneficial trade. China thus is forging alliance with the Third World governments and regional groups of nations, such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. It is reaffirming the basic principles and concepts of the New International Economic Order, developed by the Non-Aligned Movement, and endorsed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1974, with the support of the socialist nations of the era (see the categories Third World, South-South Cooperation, and China).
Russia also has been moving toward cooperation with the Third World, most clearly indicated by its participating in BRICS with China and by its policies and relations with respect to Syria, Iran, and Cuba.
Thus, throughout its history, the modern world-system has been characterized by competing imperialisms, with shifting alliances among the empires. During the territorial expansion and spectacular ascent of the United States, it forged what came to be known as the American Empire. During the U.S. westward expansion of the nineteenth century, the emerging American Empire was in conflict and competition principally with the English, French, and Spanish empires, attaining territories that all had claimed. During the course of the twentieth century, with the reach of the European and American empires global in scope, American imperialism was for the most part allied with English and French imperialisms, while on the other hand, it entered into alternating moments of alliance and conflict with the German, Russian (Soviet), and Japanese empires. At the present time, in the context of the sustained structural crisis of the world-system, the major competing imperialisms are the American, German, British, and French, with Russia also present, but tending to ally with the new actor, China, which is seeking to ascend without imperialist policies.
Into this scenario enters Donald Trump. He took the presidency at a time in which the United States of America had declined from its hegemonic position of the 1950s. Its overspending for military and consumer goods in relation to its actual productive and commercial capacity stimulated its relative decline. It continues to be the world’s largest economy, but it no longer is the most competitive economy, and its international prestige has suffered enormous erosion since 1965. In response to this relative economic decline and erosion of international prestige, and taking a political slogan that dates to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, Trump arrived to power on a promise of making America great again.
Part of the Trump plan for a restoration of national greatness is a realignment of the competing imperialisms, a changing of the alliances and axes of opposition among the imperialisms. The Trump realignment plan identifies China as the emerging threat to what remains of U.S. hegemony. There is no sign that the Trump administration discerns that China is a double threat. Not only is China seeking to capture a higher percentage of the world’s production, commerce, and influence. It also seeks structural change in the world-system itself, seeking to establish new international norms of cooperation and mutual respect. This represents a serious threat for the United States, because the Chinese project of ascent implies a mode of international relations for which the USA is ill prepared, having invested considerable resources in the preservation of its military domination, in order to preserve its advantage in the neocolonial world-system, in accordance with the established rules.
The Trump administration appears to perceive China as a threat in the established form of competing empires, even though China was not among the competing imperialisms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Trump strategy appears to be the forging of an alliance among the major imperialisms against China, retarding its economic ascent. For the moment, the strategy appears to be keeping the UK and Japan on board in an American-led anti-Chinese alliance, and trying to coopt Russia into the project.
The current tension with Germany and France reflects their overly competitive economic position vis-à-vis the United States, and their interest in a European-led anti-Chinese alliance. However, in spite of this competition for a dominant position, the elites of both the United States and Western Europe assume a common interest in preserving the US-European centered neocolonial world-system, and in blocking the ascent of China, especially as a potential hegemon in an alternative world-system. This common European-American interest has been evident since the onset of the sustained structural crisis of the world-system in the 1970s. Since that time, the European Union and the UK, like the United States, have demonstrated their commitment to the preservation of the core-peripheral relation of the North with the vast regions of the Third World, and to the established neocolonial world-system, imposing draconian neoliberal measures in pursuit of this goal. They have brushed aside persistent Third World calls for a more just and sustainable world order as unworkable and/or unimportant.
So the question really is whether the USA, the UK, and the European Union can overcome their competitive differences and can coopt Japan and Russia into an alliance that would commercially isolate China and brake its ascent, before China can forge with the Third World and Russia (and possibly Japan) an alternative, more just and sustainable world-system, based on cooperation. Both Japan and Russia, with historical trajectories of regional rather than global imperialisms, which at important historic moments were excluded from power in the European-centered world-economy, will hear calls for cooperation with China and the Third World in their national debates.
The global realignment sought by Trump, in conjunction with his economic nationalism and xenophobic pronouncements, has provoked as strong reaction among certain sectors of the elite. There appears to be a civil war within the U.S. power elite, with some sectors of the major news media virulently criticizing the President. One would think that the military-industrial complex, which is the strongest part of the U.S. economy, would be in the President’s camp, given his escalation of the military budget and his ideological identification of enemies, such as China, foreign terrorists, and immigrants. On the other hand, a sector of the U.S. elite is comfortable with the global neoliberal order that has been evolving since 1980, even though it has resulted in a continued decline in the U.S. economy, its international prestige, and the standard of living for those in the bottom half.