While America remains the world's sole superpower, numerous rising great powers re-grade the global landscape, making it flatter than it's been at any time since the early 20th century. Some experts naturally expect we'll face all the same strategic challenges of that age, including great power war, while others are more sanguine, judging this era's dynamics to be quite different.
Two new books by political commentator Robert Kagan and journalist Fareed Zakaria provide a nice contrast along these lines.
Zakaria's "The Post-American World" describes the "rise of the rest" as hardly constituting America's decline. Rather, it reflects our nation's long-standing role as "the creator and sustainer of the current order of open trade and democratic government - an order that has been benign and beneficial for the vast majority of humankind."
While "economics isn't a zero-sum game," Zakaria notes that geopolitics remains a struggle for influence and control. So, as these rising great powers naturally become more globally active, they're "taking up more space in the international arena than they did before." That obviously crimps America's freedom of action.
Despite fielding the world's preeminent military force, the United States inevitably faces a realignment of our strategic principles. As Zakaria wisely notes: "In today's international order, progress means compromise. No country will get its way entirely."
Rising powers might seem to have two choices today: Join the dominant Western order or reject it. But emerging pillars like India, Russia, China and Brazil, says Zakaria, appear to be forging a third path: "entering the Western order but doing so on their own terms - thus reshaping the system itself."
The good news?
So long as America views this as a problem of success and not failure, and our liberal international trade order remains both hard to disrupt and easy to join, then rising great powers will "want to gain power and status and respect, for sure, but by growing within the international system, not by overturning it."
So America's role seems clear: an organizer and leader of collective great power efforts to supply global public goods - security being but one. As long as we foster system stability, argues Zakaria, the rising "rest" are highly incentivized to continue reaping the economic benefits such peace provides.
Robert Kagan's extended essay, "The Return of History and the End of Dreams," offers a far darker picture: the return of "strategic and ideological conflict" and "struggles for status and influence" as the "central features of the international scene." Much like the Cold War, we see the world's great powers divided between two familiar camps: the West's "axis of democracy" versus the East's "association of autocrats."
Russia and China might replicate America's brutal markets, but because their political systems remain dominated by single parties, the world once again enters into an "age of divergence" that produces, in Kagan's words, "ideological fault lines where the ambitions of great powers overlap and conflict and where the seismic events of the future are most likely to erupt."
Today's revived Russia, Kagan boldly proposes, resembles inter-war Germany: armed with a "stabbed in the back" vindictiveness that presages a turn toward Nazi-like fascism. China's stunning economic rise is likewise compared to Germany's scary early 20th-century trajectory. Moreover, because China and Russia make autocracy attractive, Kagan opines that their successful economic model examples might spawn fascist regimes around the planet, just like fascist Italy, Spain and Germany once triggered similar developments in Latin America decades ago.
Here's the essential difference between these geo-strategic diagnoses: The India-born Zakaria sees a world where economic similarities trump political differences, while the Brussels-based Kagan sees the exact opposite.
This is the ideological argument of our age: Is liberty defined more by politics or by economics? In an age marked by the explosive growth of a global middle class, this entrepreneur is betting on the latter.