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Great Powers Decline But Persist

The G7 nations—the United States, Japan, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, and Canada—or “the Western powers,” formed in 1975 to share the interests of large capitalist economies. Here are four chapters on significant trends and events that continue to shape the future of the G7 nations—and the world order.

Chapter 1:  GDP and Global Economic Dominance

At the end of World War II, the U.S. GDP was measured at nearly 50 percent of the global total, though the U.S. population was only three percent of the world total. At the same moment, the U.S. led in forming the United Nations as a collaborative body to coordinate world discussions, and the U.S. dollar was made the central currency for world trade.

In postwar change, 140 new nations emerged through decolonization, and many nations experienced economic recovery. By 1980, the U.S. GDP had declined to 40 percent of the world total. Still, the new G7 group accounted for 63 percent of global GDP.

Declining big-power economic dominance

Today, GDP is growing everywhere, but the percentages are shifting to countries outside the G7. An updated measure of GDP shows that wealthy countries have been exaggerating their advantage over poor countries because prices are higher in wealthy countries. The revised GDP-PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) shows that the GDP of China has been higher than that of the U.S. since 2018.

Table 1. GDP by Nation, PPP vs. nominal. Source: IMF

The table above shows the decline in global percent of GDP-PPP for G7 nations, 1980–2022, and compares it to nominal GDP for 2022. (The nominal or current-price GDP measure is used in the U.S., partly because it rates the U.S. higher.)

Unequal trade relations

Since 1945, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has allocated quotas of Special Drawing Rights to nations, permitting nations to invest in growth. These quotas have been adjusted as new countries joined the IMF, but poor countries still get exceptionally small quotas. The rules of the IMF continue to give unfair advantages to wealthy countries in international trade.

The UN has functioned since 1945. Since 1970, the policy of the U.S. and other wealthy powers have been to marginalize the UN, forming parallel organizations outside the UN. These organizations have been dominated by rich countries, notably the G7 and G20. In trade relations, the G7’s World Trade Organization (WTO), founded in 1995, has almost entirely marginalized the UN’s original United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Thus, the G7 policy of weakening UN agencies is slowing the growth in global equality but is not halting it. The G7 as a proportion of world GDP will continue to decline, especially if trade relations become fairer.

Chapter 2:  World Affairs, a Devastating War, and the Power of the People

While the U.S.-led G7 seeks to displace the UN as the leading structure in world affairs, it’s important to remember that the great majority of nations vote for independent policies in the UN General Assembly—not by letting great powers make global decisions. So, the tension continues.

The UN Security Council is dominated by five permanent members with veto power—the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, and China. (The USSR cast most of the vetoes between 1945 and 1970, while the U.S. cast most of the vetoes since 1970—and prevented other powerful nations from joining the Security Council.)

The Israel-Hamas war threatens to shift the world order. After years of Israeli expulsion of Palestinians from their homes, Hamas launched attacks on civilians and seized captives in southern Israel on October 7, 2023. Israel responded with bombing and a ground invasion of Gaza, killing those suspected of Hamas affiliation plus many child and adult civilians. Israel sought to expel all from Gaza (asking other nations to accept Palestinian refugees) and sought to expel the UN from any role in Israel or Palestine.

Global protests have erupted, calling for an end to the current war in Gaza. Such demonstrations have forced many governments to support a ceasefire and even UN-led negotiations. Common people may not have access to the huge lobbying funds paid out by great corporations to sway government decisions, but their voice is nonetheless growing in influence.

Meanwhile, the U.S. declines to press for an end to the war. After a pause, Israel reopened the bombing of Gaza on December 1, after Pope Francis was revealed to have labeled the bombing as “terrorism” in a late October phone conversation with President Herzog of Israel.

Options in the current war in Gaza can be reduced to four:

  1. Israel successfully expels Palestinians and the UN from Gaza and perhaps the West Bank, yielding U.S.-backed control of Israeli-dominated Palestine. Most nations will oppose this. Palestine will disappear and the UN will be weakened greatly.
  2. Israel enters U.S.-led negotiations, promising a two-state solution in the distant future. Most nations will oppose. Palestine’s existence will be postponed; the UN will be weakened greatly.
  3. The UN leads in negotiations, through the Security Council. Israel and the U.S. change policy, cease the war, and enter negotiations for a rapid two-state solution. Most nations will support. Palestine will survive and the UN will be strengthened.
  4. A larger war, including multiple nations and potentially nuclear weapons, will completely change the situation. The UN will likely collapse or be recreated.

In the first three cases, the UN survives, as does Israel; in case 3, Palestine survives. The U.S. has already offered to oversee a postwar settlement (as described in case 2) but gained no support, as this is too close to colonialism. Public demonstrations in half the world’s nations have proven influential in pressing for peace.

War crimes

Charges of war crimes in Gaza have already been filed in the International Criminal Court (ICC) by South Africa, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Comoros, and Djibouti. The ICC Prosecutor has already been investigating these proposed charges, which include the direct commission of war crimes through killing of civilians in hospitals and expelling Palestinians from their lands. The ICC (created through the UN in 2002) prosecutes crimes against humanity and has 123 member states. (Major countries that are not members include the United States, China, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Israel, Iran, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, Angola, Mozambique, and Thailand.) Palestine has been a member of the ICC since 2015.

Palestine will likely add its own charges of war crimes against individuals and the states of Israel, as well as the United States. Claims against the U.S. might begin with providing weapons used in the commission of war crimes. The U.S. will deny the jurisdiction of the ICC but is likely to be isolated in world opinion. Trials will go on for years.

Perhaps the most farsighted policy for the U.S. would be to join the ICC, participate in the proceedings, present its case, and accept the court’s decision. Such an approach would strengthen the recognition of the ICC and the UN; it may also help resolve U.S. conflicts with other countries. It is not easy to estimate what policy Israel would follow in this situation. Still, the most farsighted option might be for Israel to participate in ICC proceedings.

Chapter 3:  Popular Culture, Sharing in Multiculturalism 

The world of economics and military power is very unequal, while the world of culture is more equal and shared. Despite bloodshed and economic inequality, global popular culture is thriving. World education, health, and communication have improved. For instance, there are 7 billion smartphones for 8 billion people in the world. In Palestine, adult literacy is at 96 percent—not far America’s 99 percent. Further, multicultural connections have grown in G7 countries through migration, but also worldwide. Musical stars such as BTS (Korea), Shakira (Colombia), and Ed Sheeran (UK) have each toured almost every continent.

Popular culture is also intertwined with society’s deepest problems, including social discrimination and disease. The killing of George Floyd led to demonstrations worldwide but also songs and concerts. The COVID-19 pandemic brought death and isolation but also Zoom connections—and highlighted the brave work of medical professionals. (The countries losing the most lives to COVID were India, USA, Russia, Mexico, Brazil, and Indonesia.)

These examples show that, while the G7 countries may lose dominance, they are great centers of popular culture. Thus, these countries will remain strong and influential among their neighbors if they share in popular culture. Yes, there are ethnic conflicts, some of them quite severe. But more commonly, there are exchanges in music, cuisine, sports, and public art, which bring the cultures of G7 nations to many other countries.

In sum, Western powers are not so different from the rest of the world—and that can be OK.

Chapter 4: Environmental Crisis Looms Large

The problem of environmental crisis cannot be overlooked. It is neglected in the struggles for economic and political dominance. Increasingly frequent catastrophic storms, floods, and other disasters await us. Famines and pandemics may be on the horizon, too, threatening life as we know it.

How do these potential hazards compare to the atrocities in Palestine and Israel—and the threat of wider war the conflict may bring? This is a puzzle that can only be solved by imagination at every level: in global popular culture, in the Western powers, and in all the other nations.

1 thought on “Great Powers Decline But Persist”

  1. Your point that the environmental crisis is overlooked when war is threatened is central. In fact, wars for land or plunder, in addition to mass migrations can be seen as an aspect of the environmental crisis. But so what? The fact is that the attitudes of powerful leaders infects others, and hence the world. The power for power’s sake (i.e., the undermining of the social contract) as the means to acquire power is the cause of virtually all our problems. Mean spiritedness. Furthermore, the fact that people are increasingly using their “spare” time being entertained by movies that employ violence to attract attention, make people less-able to take critical attitudes towards leaders who use immoral means to achieve and retain power. Netanyahu is a good example of this.

    But the multicultural sharing of artistic endeavors is a bright spot except insofar as it includes the dissemination of entertainment that relies on violent acts to generate their plots.

    It is maddening that the US (Biden) encourage Israelis to their genocidal war on Palestinians. It is like the German reprisals during WWII. They are crimes that dwarf that of Hamas, which itself may have been a reprisal to continued harsh treatment of Israelis and especially the settlers. Increasingly, it seems, the settlers appear to be there to harass and murder Palestinians with the protection of Israel. These actions sum up to the enactment of your first possible future for Palestine.

    Such actions in the world would indeed hurt the UN, and signal the opportunity for other nations to use Israel’s tactics to grab land for themselves.

    So Biden is a huge cause of the current system. Why should Israel determine the US foreign policy? Do American Jews really support the behavior of Netanyahu’s Israel? I think not. But Trump would hardly be an attractive alternative. I would support Gavin Newsom for President on the chance that he would be the new Kennedy.

    Basically I found your blog very clear and enlightening.

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