American dominance is bound to wither as Asia’s confidence grows

In President Bush’s inauguration speech, he pledged to support “the expansion of freedom in all the world”, deploying the words free or freedom no less than 25 times in 20 short minutes. The neoconservative strategy is quite explicit: to bend the world to America’s will; to reshape it according to the interests of a born-again superpower. There is something more than a little chilling about this. Even though the Iraqi occupation has gone seriously awry, the United States still does not recognise the constraints on its own power and ambition.

This was something that Europe learned the hard way: two world wars, the rise of the United States and the Soviet Union, and the anti-colonial struggle have taught our continent the limitations of its own power. That is why Europe today, with the partial exception of Britain and France, and exemplified by Germany, is so reluctant to use military force. The United States, of course, is the opposite. It measures its power not by its relative economic and technological prowess, which would suggest restraint, but its military unassailability, which implies the opposite.

Nor is this attitude simply a product of the neoconservatives. It also draws on something deeper within the American psyche. The birth of the United States and its expansion across the American continent – the frontier mentality – was an imperial enterprise, involving, most importantly, the subjugation and destruction of the Amerindians. This is lodged in the national genes, it is part of the American story, and it helps to inform and shape its global strategy and aspirations.

It is not difficult, of course, for the United States to throw its weight around in the Middle East, a poor and defeated region, one of the big-time losers from globalisation. The world’s superpower versus a failed region is a hopelessly unequal contest, especially when the former can rely on the support of its regional policeman Israel, to do its bidding. But this is not the dominant story of our time, even though the Bush regime, in its desire to exploit the country’s status as sole superpower, has chosen to define this conflict as the central narrative. History will judge differently. The rise of China and India will have a far more profound effect on the world than a small band of Islamist terrorists.

Indeed, there is something faintly bizarre about the psychotic worship of American values, the incantation of its applicability to each and every country, at a historical moment when, for the first time since its emergence half a millennium ago, the modern world will, in the not too distant future, no longer be monopolised by the west. It is not difficult to imagine that, by the middle of this century, both China and India will rank among the top five largest economies in the world, with China perhaps the biggest. Nor is this just an economic story, which is how it is generally told. With economic strength comes, in due course, political, cultural and military influence: such has been the case with the emergence of all great powers.

The fact and significance of this, of course, has been hugely underestimated. The dominant view of globalisation is that it is overwhelmingly a process of westernisation: indeed, the neoliberal form of globalisation espoused by the Washington consensus has deliberately sought to define it as such. The prevalent western view is well-articulated by Chris Patten in his book East and West, where the differences between western and east Asian countries, like China, are explained simply in terms of historical timing. The closer they get to western levels of development, the more they will come to resemble the west. Or, to put it another way, there is a singular modernity, and that is western.

Given that modernity is not simply a snapshot of the present, but a product of history, not only a function of markets and technology, but the creation of a culture, then this is utterly mistaken. One cannot make sense of American modernity – and how it diverges from European modernity – without understanding its history, in particular that it was a settler society, without any prior experience of feudalism.
If Europe and the United States differ because of their diverse pasts, even though they palpably share a great deal in terms of history, culture and race, then how much more true it will be of countries like China and India, whose civilisational roots – from religion and ethnicity to history and geo-location – are completely different to those of the west. The main historical form of intimacy with the west, in the case of India, was colonialism, which for China was only a marginal experience.

China and India, of course, will take on board a great deal from the west in their modernisation. But that can only be part of the picture. They will also draw from their own history and culture. The outcome in each case will be a complex hybrid, its character varying from country to country. In future, international discourse – the word “international” is now invariably shorthand for the west – will no longer be overwhelmingly western. As these societies grow in economic strength and cultural self-confidence, so the global political and intellectual language will change. That language, involving concepts like democracy, civil society, freedom, a free press and an independent judiciary, is now almost exclusively western. But it will not always be the case.

So which Chinese and Indian concepts might make the transition from national to global discourse and debate? In time, one would guess many, some positive, some regressive – just as has been the case with western values. But, for two reasons, it is still very difficult to predict what they might be. Firstly, because China is ruled by a communist party, the debate about it has been overwhelmingly conducted in terms of politics rather than culture: a profoundly rich and complex culture has been reduced to the colour of its government. Secondly, the relative backwardness of these societies has hitherto deprived them of self-confidence in the face of western hegemony. Their indigenous traditions and ideas tend to be viewed, even from within, as symptoms of backwardness and therefore as essentially parochial rather than cosmopolitan. That will change as these societies become increasingly self-confident. As a result, the west will be forced to engage with these societies and their cultures in a very different kind of way. There will be global competition between the different claims for universality. The cultural traffic will no longer be one-way.

The pastoral concept of the Chinese state, for example, its obligation to take care of the people, that dates back to the responsibilities of the emperor, and is also related to the concept of the extended family, is likely to become an increasingly familiar idea. There is the Chinese concept of min jian, not easily translatable – either linguistically or culturally – but which might be described in shorthand as the expression of Chinese tradition, from superstition to folklore, in everyday life, which remains a potent force in all Chinese societies to this day. More obviously, the very different notions of the family in Indian and Chinese culture are likely to become globally familiar; indeed, in a limited way, they already are.

The contrast between China and the United States could hardly be more striking. The former dates back thousands of years, the latter not much more than 200; the former is a product of an ancient civilisation, the latter an invented nation whose citizens bear allegiance to a political document, the constitution. It is little wonder that Americans constantly need to reinvent themselves: the Chinese, unsurprisingly, have no such problem, they know exactly who they are. The profound cultural differences are already being played out in a cinema near you: Hollywood versus the new breed of popular Chinese films. This is just a taster for the future, the beginning of what will later come to dominate the 21st century. American – and western values – will find themselves contested like never before.