There has been a steady stream of books about how Western primacy has been fading in a more pluralist and structurally transformed world. Many of these have intensified the ongoing foreign policy debate in the United States about ‘declinism’ – the relative diminution in America’s power and place in a changing global landscape.
Some works focused more on whether America’s hour of power had passed. Others surveyed a wider canvas to examine what the rise of the rest means for managing a more complex and uncertain world. Many writers have contributed to our understanding of how power shifts are reshaping the world. They include Kishore Mahbubani, Fareed Zakaria, Joseph Nye, Martin Jacques, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Richard Haas.
Some in the west lamented a world bereft of a global policeman. Others welcomed the advent of a multipolar era. Many asked whether the emerging world would be volatile and ungovernable, with no global guardian or international institution having the capacity to solve pressing global problems.
Two new books have joined the debate about the present state of world affairs. A third is more in the ‘declinist’ genre. Ian Bremmer’s ‘Every Nation for itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World’ is by far the most thought provoking. For all the recent talk of a new coalition of established and new powers in the G-20 or emerging US-China G-2 partnership taking control of global issues, Bremmer rejects the idea that anyone is in charge today. The G-20 is too “unwieldy” for effective action. And the G-7, with its weakening economies, is out dated.
Like Richard Haas who wrote about a ‘nonpolar’ world, Bremmer offers the notion of a G-Zero world. “For the first time in seven decades we live in a world without global leadership”, he writes. The world that emerged from the 2008 financial crisis is one in which no nation on its own or with others can deploy enough power or will to provide leadership and shape global outcomes. “No single country or durable alliance can meet the challenges of global leadership”, he says. International cooperation is hard to come by just when it is urgently needed.
Bremmer first presented his G-Zero hypothesis in an article last year in Foreign Affairs. His book expands on this. Arguing that cooperation vanished after the 2008 economic crisis, he says the US no longer has the capacity or the will to assert global leadership. A country that borrows $4 billion a day – half of that from China – is a shadow of its former self. China, he says, is too preoccupied with the next phase of its internal development to assume global leadership.
Who then will fill this power vacuum? Regional coalitions or groupings of second-ranking countries? Not likely, as they are too disparate, too consumed by their own interests and contests over water or energy, to agree on anything and find solutions to global problems.
This means we are headed toward a conflict-prone world, which Bremmer warns, will have profound consequences for the global economy and stability, as agreement on vital issues will prove elusive. Will global paralysis endure? He sees the present phase as an interregnum. Among the scenarios he outlines the most likely for him is where regions become more important and regional or local solutions replace the search for global ones with demands for multilateral cooperation ignored.
Most of his scenarios are contingent upon the future course of Sino-US relations. Although a G-2 entente would be the most desirable scenario he does not see this as likely. Instead he posits that the two countries will compete for influence and clash in several areas. This sets his view apart from Henry Kissinger who has famously argued that there is nothing inevitable about a contest of supremacy between China and the US. In fact their peaceful co-evolution and cooperation offers the best way to navigate this transitional phase in global politics.
The second book by Charles A Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University, is a very readable assessment of the passing of western global dominance and its implications for the future. Titled ‘No One’s World: the West, the Rising Rest and the Coming Global Turn’, the book argues that as power becomes more widely distributed the world will belong to no one. He takes issue with the school of thought associated among others with Francis Fukiyama that acknowledges the end of western dominance but maintains that western ideas will still reign supreme in the world.
Kupchan argues that the West is not just losing economic but also ideological ground to rising powers. Interests rather than values are determining how nations line up on issues such as trade and the environment. Moreover the evolving international system will not just comprise multiple power centres but also multiple versions of modernity and become an amalgam of diverse political cultures. The western model will be one of competing conceptions of domestic and international order.
The rules and concepts that govern trade and politics, war and peace, statecraft and global governance will have to be negotiated anew between old and rising powers. He argues compellingly that the defining characteristics of the West – liberal democracy, industrial capitalism and secular nationalism – are not being imitated by other nations as they modernise. They are following their own paths and have different notions of sovereignty, political legitimacy and international trade rules.
Depicting this as the coming ‘global turn’ he urges the US to take the lead in constructing a new consensus that does not try to force the rising rest to embrace western values and institutions but learns to respect and adapt to the world’s political, religious and ideological diversity.
Where Bremer sees gridlock resulting from the diverse and competing interests of a multipolar world, Kupchan sees the potential for consensus. Provided that a new bargain can be struck between the West and the rest on issues of governance, sovereignty and legitimacy.
The third book, ‘The short American Century’ is edited by Andrew J. Bacevich. His earlier work, ‘Limits of Power’ made the case for America to shed its illusion about “exceptionalism” and avoid debilitating external overreach and involvement in endless wars, which drain it of the ability to address pressing domestic especially economic challenges.
His edited volume brings together well known American historians who soberly assess why the much proclaimed “American Century’ has ended prematurely and legacy it has left. In his own essay, Bacevich casts the American century as a ‘brief interval of history’, cut short by its own actions and delusions and the penchant for “oversized aspirations”.
In his concluding chapter he subjects the notion of American exceptionalism to scathing scrutiny, arguing that airbrushing history – ‘Disneyfication’ of the Cold War and other wars that followed – was aimed at investing US conduct with ‘moral clarity’. But this was a convenient, self-serving flight from reality that proved counter productive.
The author concludes that preserving the illusion that the US can “preside over and direct the course of history” will not only impede America’s understanding of a changing world, but also pose a danger to both. The past decade has laid bare five key shortcomings about the US which merit mention. He describes these as the inability to anticipate (9/11, consequences of invading Iraq), to control (wars begun in Afghanistan and financial scandals at home), to afford (reflected in an overstretched military and huge deficits), to respond (by a dysfunctional US political system) and finally, to comprehend the complex forces shaping the world.
While these recently published books provide differing perspectives on a world in strategic flux each has instructive insights to offer. A world in profound transition holds both promise and peril. What is welcome is the call in these books for the US to adopt a more realistic global role consistent with its reduced leverage and diminished power, learn to work with others, and adapt both its policy and narrative to a world with many centres of power and political values different from its own.
– Dr Maleeha Lodhi is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.