It's a provocative question. Under the competitive conditions that many of us face, being number two is not, generally, the result of trying to come in second. Did the silver medalist want gold? Did the second-ranked university strive to be first? Did the vice president not covet the top job? And so on. The fact is, most who reach the second position did so because they were aiming for the first. Naturally, those who are not very competitive might be satisfied with being number two. Those who have no hope of being first might be happy with the same. And those who are rising might be temporarily satisfied with being second. For example, China now has the second largest economy in the world, and this is positive indicator of growth, but isn't this achievement celebrated in the context of China's potential to reach the first position in the next decade or so?
Sometimes, one encounters those who are happily second whether or not they were interested in the top position. They have recognized in one form or another that being first requires a level of effort and commitment if not talent that is either beyond their ability or desire. Being first comes with certain responsibilities that often go well beyond surmounting the competition. Nevertheless, such instances are muddled by the simple fact that those who are second overall are likely first in other respects. For example, perhaps the second place finisher of the Tour de France won a number of stages because he was the best pure climber. Perhaps the overall number two student is the best in chess or track and field.
Aren't a lot of parents satisfied, if their child is number two? It's a respectable finish, sometimes more so than finishing first. Being first means you defeated everyone else. Perhaps you think you're better than everyone else. Perhaps it's an indicator that you care too much about competition. Isn't there something ridiculous about most competitions? Being first might be an indicator that you're a suck-up or corrupt, or almost as bad, that you have submitted too fully to a system that has left you wanting in other respects. Those who are first in a particular instance are often last or nearly so in others. In other words, being first might be an indicator of being fundamentally imbalanced, of being overdeveloped in some aspects and underdeveloped in others. It might be an indicator of unsustainability. The top ranking might be an indicator of ephemerality, and thus, perhaps not really a top ranking of any lasting substance.
Additionally, we should not forget the basic point that being first is usually a quantitative measure that frequently obscures qualitative values, and does so by imposing, sometimes unintentionally and unknowingly, an ideology of dominance and power over others. If we ask, for example, which is the number one city in China--Shanghai or Beijing? One is larger geographically, the other has a larger population. One is a political center, the other an important global hub. Both struggle to control pollution levels. Both boast excellent schools, with Beijing edging Shanghai slightly in higher education, but the opposite being true in high schools, at least according to international test scores. Any ranking that puts one ahead of the other would be both highly subjective and dissatisfying to many.
What happens when we narrow our discussion here and focus on the question of nations? Is it possible, let alone desirable, to be first among nations? And if it's possible, then what might that mean? Clearly, nations can be ranked in numerous ways. For example, one can rank in terms of population, geographical size, and resources, as well as education, health and economic indicators. Often, if the numbers are reliable, such simple data can tell us a lot. Many researchers take infant mortality rates, for example, as a key indicator of national wellbeing. Others like to point to per-capita GDP, GINI coefficients and other indicators of national wealth and its distribution.
There are many types of rankings. In the world of sports, according to a 2012 report, China's Olympic goal for the future is to win every medal in every sport. If true, it's a breathtaking goal, the sort that ought to catch the attention of Olympians worldwide. To be sure, it's the sort of goal that one might expect from a national Olympic organization that understandably aims to compete and win. If a nation has three qualifying athletes in a sport, then it is natural to hope they win gold, silver and bronze. And it is reasonable for a country the size of China to want to compete in every sport. Nevertheless, we know that such a goal might be impossible to reach. It's possible, maybe even likely that in time, China will consistently produce sprinters that rival, say, those from Jamaica, but the fact is, no one can guarantee that the next Usain Bolt will be Chinese. Of course, this shouldn't stop the Chinese from trying to win it all, but what's reasonable in one sense can be completely unreasonable in another. As others have pointed out, to build a national sports system that might come close to actually achieving such a goal would likely require an unhealthy concentration of resources and create unhealthy and unsustainable pressures on the athletes themselves.
But when we speak of being the number one country in the world we generally have a just a few things in mind, like, which country has the biggest economy, the strongest military, the largest population, and so on. While it's no exact science, many would argue that the United States is the number one country in the world, at least in terms of it economic and military power. In terms of economic power, as noted above, China is currently ranked second overall. In terms of military power, some rank China as second or third overall, just behind Russia. Given China's rapid rise, many have projected China to rise to the top position economically by 2030, while the U.S. intelligence community admits the possibility of an overall decline in U.S. military power relative to an overall rise in Chinese power, with some believing China can surpass the United States militarily by 2030 as well. Meanwhile, global public perceptions seem to agree, with more people in the United States and elsewhere believing that China will eventually surpass the United States and perhaps even become the world's sole superpower. To China's credit, such a development has not been a stated objective, while the United States has made in clear in numerous ways that it will try to cling to its top position as long as possible.
As fans of Voltaire and Spiderman and others know, "With great power comes great responsibility." While the United States has certainly made a number of positive contributions to human development, many around the world believe it also has a tendency to abuse others with its economic and military might. Recent revelations of NSA spying coupled with well-established cases of extraordinary rendition, black prisons, torture, and a habit of invading and toppling governments or propping up oppressive ones indicate a country that might well be number one in some respects, but has lost it moral compass in many others. Perhaps being so powerful invites temptation, but it is more likely that becoming number one and staying that way requires some fundamental, systemic rot in the first place. I would argue that this rot has its fundamental basis in the competitive nation state system, which, along with capitalism, has dominated the global political economy since the decline of European feudalism.
A curious fact about China is that no other state has more neighbors on its immediate borders, and when China was at its most powerful position in world history, generally speaking, it did not follow a pattern forcing its will on others, even during periods of Chinese chauvinism, when the Chinese were convinced theirs was the most advanced culture in the world.
In part, this can be attributed to the fact that the modern nation-state system emerged in the wake of political and economic innovations that first emerged in 16th century England. These developments yielded clear competitive advantages and the model began spreading across Europe. From there, it was pushed onto the rest of the world through imperialism and colonialism. The first Asian country to reform itself as a modern nation was Japan, which, like England, held the advantage of being an island nation with relatively clear cultural, linguistic, economic and political borders. Once Japan made this transformation, it joined its European counterparts in carving up the world under various schemes of hegemony and domination.
China was a latecomer to these sorts of changes and paid a heavy price for it, particularly as the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) entered a period of decline that was in turn accelerated by foreign intervention. From the Opium Wars period all the way to the Nanjing Massacre and even beyond, it can be argued, China has been pushed to develop a strong nation as a matter of survival. But now that China has reached a stronger position, now that it has reached or nearly reached the second position and perhaps barreling towards the first, it's prudent to ask, "What next?"
Chinese leaders and scholars have answered this question with assurances that China has no ambition to be first among nations, no desire to be a superpower capable of dominating others. Yet, we live in a period when the competitive nation state system is still operative and confrontational, with the United States still resorting to hegemonic and imperialistic tactics, and a now infamous American promise to pivot towards China as its wraps up its involvements in the Middle East and Central Asia. Still, China has proposed creating a multipolar international political system, one that seeks harmony in lieu of confrontation. At the same time, and to continued international pressure means that China must continue to build its military, continue to try to close the technology gap that has long favored Western powers. Nevertheless, if this trend continues, China may well find itself in the first position whether it wants it or not. Should that occur, some will be happy, undoubtedly. But being first can be a dangerous and damning development, as history has demonstrated repeatedly. It is certainly the case that the competitive nation state system has led to the deaths of hundreds of millions of people, along with political and economic instability and what some believe is a level of global environmental degradation that is threatening the existence of all life. Whatever its advantages, being on top of such a vicious system is fraught with moral hazards, the likes of which commonly lead to terrible trouble for others and more often than not, culminate in self-destruction. One should not seek to be first or second in such a system. Rather, one should seek a different path altogether.
The author is associate professor of politics, East China Normal University; research fellow, Institute for Advanced Studies, Fudan University, Shanghai, and assistant editor of U.S.-based Journal of Chinese Political Science