Much has been said and written in recent years about the growing challenge to US geo-strategic and geo-economic status by China, BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and the other rising global powers, including South Africa, South Korea, and Turkey.
Indeed, in the aftermath of the US military debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and especially since the financial meltdown and the ensuing Great Recession, small-time pundits as well as renowned futurologists have been predicting that the West is basically kaput and that the rest of the Twenty-First Century belongs to the ‘Rest’. In this scenario, China replaces the US and the global hegemonic power sooner or later.
As we study these America-is-finished-and-China-rules-the-world forecasts, it is important to recall that not so long ago many of the same pundits and futurologists were anticipating that globalisation and the Internet would lead to the collapse of the nation-state and the end of the business cycle, or that the US would dominate a unipolar international system and bring about the triumph of democracy and free markets worldwide.
That many of the same experts who were celebrating US triumphalism in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the First Gulf War have now been transformed into the prophets of American gloom and doom, should encourage us to embrace a certain sense of scepticism about the notion that China and the rest of the Rest are about to take charge and that Washington will turn out to be nothing more than a tourist attraction for Chinese and Indian tourists in the coming years.
Even if we set aside indicators such as gross national income per capita (US$46,300 in the US; US$3,650 in China) or military spending (US$687.105 billion in the US; US$114.300 billion in China) that make it clear that the combined economic (G-8 and other industrial nations) and military power of the West overwhelms that of the Rest, the reality is that the Rest — occasionally being referred to as the South — remains an amorphous amalgam of nation-states and economies that have very little in common aside from some hostility — which is receding — towards past European colonialism and American hegemonism.
That Russia is both a member of the exclusive western club of the G-8 and of the BRIC grouping is just one example of the complex global reality in which governments like Russia, or for that matter China, Turkey or Brazil, find US power to be appealing while at the same time also trying to keep it at bay. Hence, the states and economies which belong to the elusive Rest are seeking to penetrate the markets of the US and the West and attract their investors, while also hoping to reform global rules and institutions in a way that would reflect their growing power.
But as Mexico failed in its attempt to win support from the South for its candidate for leading the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the long-term interests of China or India may lead them to support the current status quo in the institution. In fact, the G-20 that has been touted as the new global grouping for projecting the rising power of the Rest, has yet to demonstrate its effectiveness in charting a new direction for the global economy.
Moreover, notwithstanding their occasional resort to anti-American rhetoric, China and Russia which are leading members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation are each probably more worried over the threat that the other poses to its security interests than the US challenge.
Turkey may be attempting to reassert its influence in the Middle East by defying US pressure. But it remains a loyal member of Nato and continues to press for membership in the EU. In fact, notwithstanding Turkey’s regional ambitions, it has proved to be ineffective in trying to bring to an end the political upheaval and violence in neighbouring Syria. At the same time, despite its lessening influence in the Middle East, the US and its Nato and EU partners continue to play an active role in trying to provide support to its allies and bring some stability to the Middle East.
And while Asean members are strengthening their economic ties with the rising Chinese giant — as are Japan, South Korea, Australia and India — they also support continuing strong US military and economic presence in East Asia as part of an effort to counter-balance Chinese efforts to establish its dominant position in the region.
In a way, even as emerging markets are gaining more economic clout and the international system is becoming multipolar, it is not clear that that is creating the conditions for the West versus the Rest confrontation or that the US or the EU is being marginalised. In the new global economy and international system with its many centres of power, interlocking trade and investment ties, and shifting balances of power, a wise and effective leadership coming out of Washington could help actually turn the US once again into a central and indispensable power.