Given the recent turmoil at The New Republic, which so richly symbolises the tumult in serious journalism (if you've missed this story, try Andrew Sullivan's coverage for a passionate and not-at-all balanced take), maybe it's passé to attach special significance to a new essay by a senior figure in a major magazine.
Still, it strikes me as significant when one of America's most respected economic commentators, Joseph Stiglitz, takes to the pages of Vanity Fair to pronounce that 'China has overtaken the United States...China enters 2015 in the top position, where it will likely remain for a very long time, if not forever. In doing so, it returns to the position it held through most of human history.' We talk about this stuff every day on The Interpreter, but I imagine it must be bracing for Vanity Fair readers to take this in before flicking to the latest essay on the Kennedys.
Stiglitz's argument, however, will reassure VF readers, and that's a problem.
He argues that the US shouldn't worry too much about losing the number 1 spot because economics is not zero-sum (true) and that the US should make greater effort to accommodate China's preferences on global economic questions such as an international reserve currency, development aid, and World Bank leadership. Washington needs to do these things, says Stiglitz, because it has so many other foreign policy concerns — Islamism, Israel-Palestine, Russian revanchism, nuclear proliferation — on which it needs China's help.
But this elides the fact that China itself has come to present the biggest challenge to US foreign policy.
It would probably benefit both powers for the US to give some ground on the economic issues Stiglitz raises, but it should be clear from China's behaviour in recent years that this is hardly the sum of its ambitions as a great power. Stiglitz picture of China as a reluctant world power which would be prepared to cooperate with the US so long as Washington gives ground on global economic governance is surely wishful thinking.
None of this is to imply that China is necessarily aggressive or expansionist. But even if it just acts as a 'normal' great power, it has a weight and influence that cannot but reshape the balance of power in the Pacific, and eventually the world, in ways that challenge America's status. That very much is a zero-sum game, and it cannot be won by making concessions on who runs the World Bank.