Since the end of geostrategic competition between the U.S. and the (former) U.S.S.R and with the ideological struggle between Democratic Capitalism and Communism over, pundits have been proposing new conceptual frameworks for understanding the evolving global political and economic balance — or imbalance — of power.
Indeed, for close to two decades, scholars have been debating the direction that the "paradigm shift" in international relations would take. What would replace the obsolete bipolar international system and the strategic and ideological forces that had driven it?
From Francis Fukuyama's End of History assuming a stable unipolar system under which the process of economic globalization and the spread of democratic and liberal values would widen to Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations forecasting a challenge to American power and values from the Muslim World and other civilizational blocs, and through other complementing and competing Big and small ideas warning of (or hailing) the formation of rival trading blocs, the collapse of the nation-state, the New World Order, the Coming Anarchy or the rise of a world government, we have been bombarded with a few useful and a lot of useless foreign-policy paradigms.
In a way, these ambitious models were fashioned in response to developments in the real world and seemed to enjoy brief popularity when this or that crisis seemed to be "confirming" one's favored theory. Hence the fall of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. military victory in the First Gulf War, and China's entry into the global economy made Fukuyama's vision kind of trendy. The civil war in the former Yugoslavia and radical Islamic terrorism transformed Huntington into an international celebrity and his "clash" paradigm was all the rage. The post-Maastricht Treaty consolidation of the European Union (EU) and the establishment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was supposed to be a sign that regional economic blocs would dominate the international system, while the Zeitgeist of globalism AKA Spirit of Davos seemed to reflect the eroding power of the nation-state.
More recently, the growing economic power of China and India coupled with the relative decline in American power have helped popularize the notion of the coming of the "post-American-American world" while against the backdrop of the heated debate over the so-called Ground Zero mosque and the rising electoral power of anti-Muslim political parties in Western Europe it looks as though the Clash of Civilization thesis is once again very much "in." The conventional wisdom is that the brief unipolar American moment is over and that U.S. allies are now hedging their strategic bets as the global environment is taking an elastic multipolar shape.
And so it goes. A new international economic or military crisis gives birth to a new instant paradigm only to be run over by the ensuing events that modify it or even make it obsolete. Recall that it was only a few years ago that the booming energy prices led many observers to conclude that with its huge oil and gas reserves Russia would regain its position as a global superpower and that it would ally with China under the Shanghai Treaty Organization and the BRIC grouping to counter-balance American military and economic power. Didn't happen!
Moreover, while Fukuyama, Huntington and other pundits may have provided us with some valuable insights — capitalism and liberal democracy did emerge as winning economic and political systems in most of the West; culture and religion did become important elements in global politics; regional trading blocs did play an increasing role in global economics; globalization did challenge the power of the nation-state; failed states did produce anarchy — they have failed to provide an all-encompassing explanations of the way the post-Cold War international system was working. In fact, many of these theories pretending to be grand proved to be quite insignificant in the larger scheme of things; not to mention the fact that they were full of intellectual holes. Or to put it in simple terms, reality failed to confirm the theory.
Hence the financial crisis and the growing economic and political discontent in the U.S. and Europe have demonstrated the continuing fragility capitalism and liberal democracy in the West. At the same time, the economic success of Chinese capitalist and non-democratic model is posing a long-term challenge to the American one. Notwithstanding the 9/11 terrorist acts and the ensuing war against terrorism, the notion that the West and Islam are sliding towards an historic global clash has proved to be nothing more than the figment of imagination — the Crusaders vs. the Caliphate — shared by American neoconservatives, European Islamophobes, and radical Islamists. In the real world, the U.S. is allied with the most important Muslim countries (Turkey; Indonesia: Pakistan; Saudi Arabia) while some of the deep and dangerous political divisions are inside the Muslim world (Sunnis vs. Shiites, for example).
And contrary to earlier grand expectations, the EU seems to be in the process of a slow and painful disintegration, pitting the prosperous German-led "North" against the poorer economies of the "South;" NAFTA has proved to provide limited benefits to its members and has not been extended to the rest of the hemisphere; and most of the economic groupings in the Pacific, including the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) forum serve as nothing more than useful talking shops.
If anything, notwithstanding the great hopes invested in such multilateral economic regimes, ranging from the old International Monetary Fund (IMF) to the newer Group of 20 major economies (and the continuing bombastic rhetoric in support of multilateralism), the trend among the large and small economic powers in the aftermath of the economic crisis is to protect their own national economic interests including by embracing protectionist policies. The latest drift towards "currency competition" involving the U.S., China, Brazil and other economies is just the latest example of this economic nationalist trend that included the failure in Copenhagen to achieve global consensus on climate change and the rising opposition in Germany to continue backing the euro as well as the stalemate in the Doha round of global trade liberalization negotiations. The spirit of Doha is no more...
There is no reason to assume the obstacles to global economic integration would disappear anytime soon, especially if the slow economic recovery in the U.S. and the EU would not gain momentum and expose growing economic structural problems and make it clear that it would be impossible for the U.S. and other economies to spend their way towards recovery, forcing them to embrace painful austerity measures. Under these conditions, the economically distressed members of middle class in North America and Europe and other parts of the developed world would be more inclined to vote into power political leaders and movements that favor more trade protectionism and anti-immigration policies. Indeed, ultra-nationalism and xenophobic backlash against the "Other" — Hispanic and Muslim immigrants or for that matter, the booming Asian exporting economies — could become more popular, especially if the effort to rebalance the global financial system — getting China to save more and the U.S. to spend more — would not gain momentum.
In a way, even under the best-case scenario of a speedy economic recovery, the rising tide of nationalism — economic and military — is going to become the default option of the powerful and less powerful nation-states worried about growing threats to their security and prosperity. Nationalism has and could prove to be the most effective way for political leaders to win support and legitimacy from their people, a process that could even affect the pacifist nations of Germany and Japan that would drive nations to form partnerships based on interests and not on "civilizational" and other values. This new and messy world would not conform to any of the fashionable and neat paradigms of the last twenty years. But not to worry: An entrepreneurial intellectual would eventually come up with a new theory to explain why all of what is happening in the real world makes a lot of sense, theoretically speaking.