With several new world powers on the rise, what is the future of U.S. global leadership?
June 6, 2008
It has become a rather constant refrain in Washington to criticize Russia. Is there anything positive to be said?
“Unlike China, Russia still maintains the trappings of democracy. Elections must still be held — even if they are unfair or are merely referendums on the selection of leadership.”
How about a positive word about China?
“The structure of the international system should remain as the Chinese describe it — one superpower and many great powers.”
Any hope for the UN?
“The United Nations Security Council — after a brief awakening from the Cold War coma — has fallen back to its former condition of near-paralysis.”
“It is no longer possible to speak of an ‘international community.’ The term suggests agreement on international norms of behavior, an international morality — even an international conscience. International order does not rest on ideas and institutions. It is shaped by configurations of power.”
That sounds quite harsh.
“Not in my view. I don’t see American predominance as standing in the way of progress toward a better world. What it does stand in the way of is regression toward a more dangerous world.”
What do you believe it is that many Europeans don’t want to accept?
The choice is not between an American-dominated order — and a world that looks like the European Union. The future international order will be shaped by those who have the power to shape it. The leaders of a post-American world will not meet in Brussels — but in Beijing, Moscow and Washington.”
So you don’t see a multipolar world emerging?
“A multipolar world — with Russia, China, the United States, India and Europe as the poles — would produce its own kind of order, with different rules and norms reflecting the interests of the powerful states that would have a hand in shaping it.”
What’s not to like about that?
Would that international order be an improvement? Perhaps for Beijing and Moscow, it would. But it is doubtful that it would suit the tastes of enlightenment liberals in the United States and Europe.”
What do you say to those who are hoping that an Obama presidency would bring a fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy?
“So long as U.S. power in all its forms is sufficient to shape the behavior of others, the broad direction of U.S. foreign policy is unlikely to change.”
Assuming a period of stronger disagreements across the Atlantic, will the United States stay engaged in Europe?
“Yes, as far as I can see. If the United States withdrew from Europe — if it adopted what some call a strategy of “offshore balancing” — this could in time increase the likelihood of conflict involving Russia and its near neighbors, which could in turn draw the United States back in under unfavorable circumstances.”
So which country does the United States need to look out for — and why?
“China. It is the only power in the world, other than the United States, that is engaged in a long-term military build-up.”
What is the lesson that the West needs to relearn in that context?
“The Cold War may have caused us to forget that the more enduring ideological conflict since the Enlightenment has not been between capitalism and communism — but between liberalism and autocracy.”
And what’s the crux for China in the years ahead?
“The Chinese have learned that — while it is possible to have capitalism without political liberalization — it is much harder to have capitalism without cultural liberalization.”
How do you look at the Muslim world?
“Today’s radical Islamists are the last holdout against the powerful forces of globalization and modernization. They seek to carve out a part of the world where they can be left alone, shielded from what they regard as the soul-destroying licentiousness of unchecked liberalism and capitalism.”
What, in your view, grates the Islamists?
“Islamists have more than a century of humiliation to look back on. Israel has become its living symbol.”
Who will win the battle inside the Muslim world?
“In the struggle between tradition and modernization, tradition cannot win — though traditional forces armed with modern technology can put up a good fight. The tragedy for them is that their goal is impossible to achieve. Neither the United States nor the other great powers will turn over control of the Middle East to these fundamentalist forces.”
Do you see intriguing parallels between Europe and the Muslim world?
“Europeans seek honor and respect, too — but of a postmodern variety. The honor they seek is to occupy the moral high ground in the world, to exercise moral authority, to wield political and economic influence as an antidote to militarism, to be the keeper of the global conscience, and to be recognized and admired by others for playing this role.”
Are the United States and China alike, too?
“Like the Americans, the Chinese believe power, including military power, is a good thing to have and that it is better to have more of it than less. Perhaps more significant is the Chinese perception, also shared by Americans, that status and honor — and not just wealth and security — are important for a nation.”
And finally, why did you never buy all the globalization hype?
“‘Globalization’ was to the late 20th century what ‘sweet commerce’ was to the late 18th — an anticipated balm for a war-weary world.”
The leaders of a post-American world will not meet in Brussels — but in Beijing, Moscow and Washington.
American predominance stands in the way of a regression toward a more dangerous world.
Today's radical Islamists are the last holdout against the powerful forces of globalization and modernization.
In the struggle between tradition and modernization, tradition cannot win — though traditional forces armed with modern technology can put up a good fight.
Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Robert Kagan is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He also writes a column on world affairs for the Washington Post, and is a contributing editor at the Weekly Standard and the New Republic. He served in the U.S. State Department from 1984 to […]