The rise of China in the wake of the slow relative decline of the United States has been the overarching narrative of global studies since the beginning of this century. Is this narrative correct? China’s growth is slowing as it reaches middle income status and the United States is still overwhelmingly more wealthy and powerful than China. If China will someday “overtake” the United States, it will not happen for decades or centuries, depending what is meant by overtaking. But even this more guarded account of US decline is colored by an outdated, state-centric view of human society. The twenty-first century world-system is centered on the United States but not contained within it; individuals all over the world participate in hierarchies of distinction that are fundamentally American in ideology and orientation. Whether or not they agree with US policy, support the US president, or are even able to enter the United States, success-oriented individuals choose to live in an American world—or accept global social exclusion. This is just as true in China as anywhere else, and perhaps even more true for Chinese individuals than for anyone else.

It is important for statesmen and policymakers to study and understand history, but the use of historical analogies to inform policy is fraught with dangers. The United States and its allies discovered that the “lessons of Munich” of 1930s Europe, for example, were not easily translatable to wars on the Korean peninsula and later in Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 60s.

History does not repeat itself. Every historical event occurs in its own time and circumstances. That is not to say that policymakers cannot learn important lessons from history, but their precise application to current or future events is at best problematic and at worst a recipe for disaster.

Discussions on the so-called “rise” of China at some point tend to cycle ’round to the question as to whether these developments are new or instead herald a return to a status quo ante, a consideration which depends in no small part as what that status quo actually was. That China was dominant in East Asia at least until the 19th century is subject to hardly any debate; there is less consensus as to what that dominance consisted of and whence it derived.