THIS SUPERPOWER ISN'T DOOMED TO DECLINE
[Yes, the rise of Asia is a challenge. But it's not the end of the world.]
(FORTUNE Magazine) – THE HANDELSBEURS IN THE Belgian city of Antwerp was once the financial center of the world. The prototype of the modern stock exchange, it was first built in 1531 and reconstructed in 1872. It has in recent years hosted squash tournaments, book fairs, and corporate parties, but now stands silent and bedraggled. The nearest actual stock exchange is 30 miles away in Brussels, and even that is merely an outpost of the Paris-based Euronext network.
This may sound like the beginning of a cautionary tale about what happens when a nation loses its competitive edge. It is not. Antwerp, 450,000 persons strong, may no longer be the dominant economic power that it was in the 16th century, but it is a much more populous, prosperous place than it was then. The city is, thanks to its glorious and well-preserved past, a big tourist draw (the Handelsbeurs is about to be transformed into a grand hotel). Antwerp is also a major center of the global diamond business, Europe's second-busiest port, and home to a concentration of petrochemical facilities second only to Houston's. It has even, over the past two decades, spawned a new industry--high fashion--as a posse of Antwerp-trained, Antwerp-based clothing designers led by Dries van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester have leaped to global prominence.
There is, in other words, life after economic superpowerdom. That is something of which Americans unsettled at the prospect of ceding economic preeminence to the Chinese and the Indians need to be reminded. Yes, the rise of Asia poses a challenge--to both the U.S. and Western Europe. And yes, it is a challenge for which many Americans (and Europeans) aren't prepared. What it is not is the end of the world.
Given that China has four times as many inhabitants as the U.S.--and India soon will--it seems only humane to hope that both nations will eventually boast economies bigger than that of the U.S. Whether that means the focus of global capitalism will shift to Asia is far less certain. But let us, just for the sake of argument, assume that Shanghai or Mumbai will wrest from New York City the title of economic center of the world. Then what?
In ancient times, great empires did in fact crumble into nothing. Economic and technological gains were lost for centuries. Rome fell. Once-great China dropped into a 1,000-year economic slumber from which it has only recently awakened.
Since the global capitalist trading system began to take shape in the 12th and 13th centuries, though, things haven't worked like that. The headquarters of capitalism have moved from Venice to Antwerp to Genoa to Amsterdam to London to New York, but the economic gains have for the most part stayed. Northern Italy remains prosperous. So do the Low Countries. London, after a few dark decades during and after World War II, has reemerged as a financial and media capital that on a good day can outshine New York--something the July 7 terrorist attacks will not change.
Antwerp has gone through some tough times of its own since the 16th century, but they were the work of armies and politicians, not economic forces. The city's reign as financial capital ended in 1585, when Spanish troops captured it. King Philip II of Spain declared that he'd rather rule a wasteland that was free of heretics than a fertile land that wasn't. Antwerp's Protestant commercial elite fled north, where they helped jump-start Holland's economic golden age.
This ability of talented people and capital to flee across borders has only increased since. Information and technology now flow quickly around the globe as well. As a result, the economic penalties for not being at the center of the world have been greatly reduced. What is penalized instead are sins like excessive government bureaucracy, bad tax policy, mediocre schools, inadequate infrastructure, and--perhaps most important--a lack of innovation and flexibility.
There are lots of decidedly not-at-the-center-of-the-world places that by paying attention to such matters have made themselves prosperous and economically significant. Think Singapore, Helsinki, Dublin, Dubai, Seattle, Atlanta. The facts that Seattle and Atlanta seem reasonable additions to this list, and that U.S. states and cities are already accustomed to competing against one another for economic growth, bode well for the nation's future. So do the high marks the U.S. usually gets on the scorecards of economic competitiveness put out each year by the World Economic Forum and the Swiss business school IMD--although there's certainly lots of room for improvement. No, we may not be ready for all the challenges posed by China and India. But neither are we doomed.