Book Review: 'Unrivaled' by Michael Beckley


Apr 18, 2019

Military delegates leave the Great Hall of the People after a meeting ahead of National People's Congress in Beijing, China, March 4, 2019, photo by Aly Song/Reuters

Military delegates leave the Great Hall of the People after a meeting ahead of National People's Congress in Beijing, China, March 4, 2019

Photo by Aly Song/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on April 17, 2019.

Calling China a “new hegemon,” the Economist recently declared that the “Chinese century is well under way.” It noted that Beijing accounts for roughly 45 percent of global economic growth since the onset of the 2008 financial crisis and 60 percent of the increase in global defense spending since 1990. The Trump administration has been increasingly aggressive in countering America's putative replacement, imposing penalties ranging from 10 to 25 percent on $250 billion worth of Chinese exports; inking a trade agreement with Mexico and Canada that aims to prevent either one from pursuing a separate trade accord with China; and, more recently, banning Chinese chipmaker Fujian Jinhua Integrated Circuit Company from buying U.S. components without a special license from the Commerce Department. A growing cadre of U.S. observers holds that Washington has entered into a new Cold War with Beijing, with China representing a significantly more potent challenge than the Soviet Union ever did.

Michael Beckley is not among them. An assistant professor of political science at Tufts University, he argues not only that U.S. preeminence is safer than most contemporary commentary would have one believe, but also that it is more resilient: “Unipolarity is not guaranteed to endure,” he concludes, “but present trends strongly suggest that it will last for many decades.”

I was admittedly skeptical that Beckley's Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World's Sole Superpower would add much to contemporary debates over whether the United States is in decline and China is poised to succeed it—because, while the author is a distinguished scholar of international relations, the sheer volume of analysis on those judgments would almost seem to preclude the possibility of original thinking. Most debates offer some variant of a familiar exchange: anti-declinists cite the durability of U.S. power and the history of declinist predictions that proved premature; declinists contend that the present confluence of domestic dysfunction and external challenges is uniquely challenging. Beckley's book is doubly surprising against this backdrop: a concise but detailed provocation, it breaks methodological ground to offer a novel assessment of America's position in world affairs. One hopes that it finds a high-level audience in both Washington and Beijing: the United States would be less likely to succumb to fatalism were it to understand more thoroughly its bases of power and China's corresponding points of weakness; China, in turn, would be less likely to succumb to hubris.

Expounding an essay (PDF) that he published in International Security near the end of 2011, Beckley argues that a country's aggregate power is better measured by its “net resources” than its “gross resources.” The latter, he explains, do not account for production costs, “the price a nation pays to generate wealth and military capabilities”; welfare costs, “the expenses a nation pays to keep its people alive”; and security costs, “the price a government pays to police and protect its citizens.” Because population size is the chief source of these costs, he derives a country's net resources by multiplying GDP by GDP per capita. While his fellow political scientists will surely debate the utility of this metric—Beckley himself calls it a “primitive proxy”—his core insight—that net resources are a more accurate gauge of power than gross resources—is sound.

Beckley adduces an impressive amount and diversity of evidence in support of his argument. U.S. workers, for example, “generate roughly seven times the output of Chinese workers on average.” China's total factor productivity growth rate, meanwhile, “has actually turned negative in recent years, meaning that China is producing less output per unit of input each year,” and “roughly one-third of China's industrial production [goes] to waste.” In addition, “China would need to outspend the United States by substantial margins in the decades ahead just to start closing the gap in recently accumulated military capital,” and “at least 35 percent of China's military budget goes to homeland security operations.”

The remainder of this commentary is available on

Ali Wyne is a policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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