Globalist Bookshelf

From the American Century to the Competition Century

Western dominance will wane in the 21st century, but what will take its place?

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Takeaways


  • China may eventually become a democracy — but, if so, it will surely do so well after its emergence as a country of the top rank.
  • Rising nations need additional time and resources to develop the ambitions and institutions that will mark their arrival as major powers.
  • For the first time in history, an interdependent world will be without a center of gravity or global guardian.

If the world’s emerging powers enjoyed a consensus among themselves about the nature of the post-Western world, they could drive the debate about the shape of the coming era. But rising powers are far from arriving at a shared view of the rules of the next order.

They know what they do not want — a world under the continued hegemony of the West. But they do not have a coherent vision of what should replace the Western order. Indeed, with the exception of China, which has well-funded ministries and think tanks tasked with mapping out the country’s grand strategy, other rising powers are just getting in the game.

India’s diplomatic service is still less than 1,000 strong. By way of comparison, the United States employs roughly 12,000 diplomats. Brazil is fast seeking to expand its diplomatic presence abroad (it has recently opened some 16 embassies in Africa alone). Turkey’s more assertive foreign policy and its deepening engagement in the Middle East are new and still evolving.

Rising nations need additional time and resources to develop the ambitions and institutions that will mark their arrival as major powers.

As power becomes more broadly distributed across the globe, the diverging interests and strategic visions of emerging powers will ensure that the next world will be “no one’s world.” The global turn will bring to an end the era of the West’s material and ideological dominance. But what comes next will not be the Chinese century, the Asian century, or anyone else’s century.

Rather, “no one’s world” will exhibit striking diversity. Alternative conceptions of domestic and international order will compete and coexist on the global stage.

For the first time in history, an interdependent world will be without a center of gravity or global guardian. Previous eras were, of course, home to a multipolar landscape and a broad array of approaches to governance and commerce. But prior to the advance of globalization during the 19th century, centers of power rarely interacted with one another.

In the 1600s, for example, the Europeans, Ottomans and Chinese had little to do with each other. Forging a common set of rules across Christian, Muslim and Confucian societies was thus not an issue.

Not so today. In a world in which both markets and security are global in nature, the Washington Consensus (to the degree it still exists), Brussels Consensus, Beijing Consensus, New Delhi Consensus, Brasilia Consensus — and other developing conceptions of order — will regularly interact with each other.

The globe’s main centers of power are highly interdependent, meaning that developments in one region have a major effect on developments in many others. Indeed, economic policies arrived at in Beijing can sometimes have a greater impact on the U.S. economy than decisions taken in Washington. As a consequence, global governance will require compromise and consensus among competing conceptions of political and commercial life.

The spread of democracy and economic interdependence, some analysts contend, has the potential to ensure that this coming transition in global order will be pacific and cooperative. But such arguments do not hold up under scrutiny.

The next world will be populated by major powers of many different regime types, not just by democracies. China may eventually become a democracy — but, if so, it will surely do so well after its emergence as a country of the top rank

Moreover, emerging powers that are democracies may well align themselves with their rising compatriots rather than with the West. And even if all the world’s countries were democratic, it cannot be taken for granted that the relationships among them would be reliably cooperative.

Unable to direct their competitive energies against nondemocracies, democratic great powers may engage in geopolitical rivalry with each other. After all, great-power rivalry is often the product of competition for prestige and status — a yearning from which democracies are hardly immune.

The peace-causing effects of commercial interdependence are similarly illusory. Economic interdependence among Europe’s great powers did little to avert the hegemonic war that broke out in 1914. Geopolitical competition made short shrift of economic ties. And when lasting peace does break out, deepening economic ties are usually a consequence rather than a cause of political reconciliations.

The stability afforded by Western predominance will slip away in step with its material and ideological primacy. Accordingly, the West must work with emerging powers to take advantage of the current window of opportunity to map out the rules that will govern the next world.

Otherwise, multipolarity coupled with ideological dissensus is likely to bring back to global politics balance-of-power competition and dangerous jockeying for position and prestige.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from No One’s World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn (Oxford University Press) by Charles A. Kupchan. Published with permission of the author. Copyright © 2012 by Charles A. Kupchan.

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About Charles Kupchan

Charles Kupchan is an associate professor of international relations at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

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