Recently I spoke at a University of Tennessee conference celebrating the legacy of Britain's Winston Churchill. During this event, hosted by the Howard Baker Center, all of the speakers made repeated references to America's enduring special relationship with the United Kingdom, a deep security alliance currently on display in Iraq.
My task at the conference was to speculate about the future of that special relationship, and I know I stunned most of the audience with my unexpected verdict.
I told the gathering that the United States would certainly have a special relationship with a key great power in the 21st century but that this crucial partner would be China - not the U.K.
I know what you're thinking. Doesn't the Pentagon regularly cite China as a potentially significant military threat - assuming a trade war doesn't break out first? How could China possibly replace the Brits?
Some history: A century ago, England reigned as the leading military superpower with its global network of colonies and its world-class navy. Meanwhile, America was the upstart power with its booming industrial base and Great White Fleet that it used primarily for threatening - and sometimes conquering - small island nations.
England was smart enough back then to realize that America's rise was unstoppable. So the Brits followed the first rule of ruling the world: Don't fight the inevitable! Instead, Britain took America under its wing, playing Greece to our Rome. The British mentored our rise, knowing that it preordained their decline.
Fast forward: This time around, we're playing the Brits, and the Chinese are playing the Americans.
So what do we do? Do we recognize the inevitable and guide the Chinese into the corridors of global power or do we imagine them as the 21st century's equivalent of Kaiser Germany and plot our inevitable wars?
Just like Britain and Germany a century ago, the U.S. and China are becoming each other's most important trade and financial partner, and we're increasingly bumping into one another as we seek to secure access to energy and export markets - just like those colonizing Brits and Germans once did.
So what stops us from making the same mistakes the British and Germans committed when they fought - in rapid succession - two disastrous world wars, conflicts that permanently reduced both to second-tier power status?
The simplest answer? Nukes.
Nukes create the crystal-ball effect of making clear to both sides what would happen if America and China went to the mattresses - say - over Taiwan.
OK, so we'll probably be smart enough - yet again - to avoid nuclear war with a major Asian land power.
But is that enough of a basis for alliance with such a different civilization? Don't we have a whole lot more in common culturally with the Europeans?
In the Cold War, we assumed that, if a country was like America in a political sense (meaning a democracy), then it must be our friend.
We also believed that, if a country was different from us politically (i.e., communist), then it must be our enemy.
During that ideological conflict, this approach rang true. But in Thomas Friedman's "flat world," I'd argue that the truer basis for international alliances will be economics - not ideology.
Today, China is a highly capitalistic economy shaped primarily by its burgeoning private sector. Call China "communist" if you want, but I see a single-party state increasingly permeated by rapacious, American-style markets.
Frankly, China resembles our society more than we might care to admit.
In the 21st century, countries that are economically most similar to America will become our strongest allies, whether or not they closely resemble us politically. So imagine a future world in which we have more in common with China than with Japan, India than with Britain, Russia than with Germany and Brazil than with France.
Actually, that last one is pretty easy to imagine right now.
As we contemplate a Long War against radical extremists located overwhelmingly inside economically disconnected states in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, it's clear we'll need allies willing to throw a lot of cheap bodies at infrastructure-building efforts in these regions, something China's already doing in each.
I say, locate the labor where the problem is.
Britain used its brains to tap America's brawn throughout the 20th century and thereby was able to fight above its weight for decades. Will our leaders follow Winston Churchill's brilliant example?