The single best description of the changes in the world system I’ve ever heard came from Henry Kissinger. When assessing the political importance of recent events, he said sometime after the fall of the Berlin Wall that “the unification of Germany is more important than the consolidation of the European Union. The fall of the Soviet Union is more important than the unification of Germany. And the rise of India and China is more important than the fall of the Soviet Union.”
Looking ahead to the next ten years, the biggest trend for the new decade is neither America’s rise nor its fall. The United States is likely to end the decade more or less as it began it: as the most important single power in a complex international system — but as a hampered and harassed power with more mail in its in-box than it knows how to answer.
Instead, the big global trend will be the emergence of a post-European world order; the United States will be adjusting to this reality and shifting the center of gravity in its foreign policy from the Atlantic to the Pacific as it prepares for the post-Europe world.
The world we live in today is a product of European expansion and imperialism. As Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, France and Britain set up great empires, their merchants and their soldiers quite suddenly brought the world’s different civilizations and cultures into constant communication with one another. Over time, the British established a unique global role for themselves by maintaining a balance of power in Europe and while laying the foundations for today’s economically integrated world system. Europe has been in political decline since the outbreak of World War One almost a century ago, but the world still bears Europe’s stamp. Three of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are European states (Britain, France, Russia); Germany thinks it should also have a place. Disproportionate numbers of global institutions have their headquarters in Europe; European countries are significantly overrepresented in such organizations as the IMF and the World Bank.
That is only the tip of the iceberg. International law has its roots in European history and culture; a world organized around Islam or a world in which China had become the dominant power 400 years ago would have very different legal systems from the one we use now. The bureaucratic, legal and financial institutions of the international system also reflect European cultural and historical developments.
When the United States became the primary global power during and after World War Two, Europe was still the center of our world. Our culture and our history were almost entirely wrapped up in Europe (especially because African-Americans were systematically marginalized in American intellectual life and racial theories still had many Americans in their grip). European countries were the world’s largest and most advanced economies and Europe was the home of our closest allies and our most dangerous enemies. The contest between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was to some degree a contest between two European social models seeking to shape the future of the world — and the fate of Europe was always at the center of the Cold War.
The end of the Cold War combined with the rise of Asia will introduce the world to a new kind of reality: a post-European world order. The axis of world politics is rapidly shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific; the next decade will see many of the ‘European’ elements of global society in retreat. The balance of economic and political power will continue to tilt toward Asia; American policy will increasingly reflect this tilt in global politics; Europe’s power will be under pressure and in retreat in global institutions; and global institutions, ideas and legal practices will be shifting away from their European foundations.
In one of my blog posts last year, I wrote that the Copenhagen climate summit showed the new picture of world politics: for the first time ever, Europeans were completely excluded from a meeting at which leading world powers made important decisions on matters that Europe cared about. On many issues in the upcoming decade, Europe will have one point of view, Asia another, and the U.S. will be somewhere in between. In general, however, the U.S. will be more concerned about keeping Asia on board and happy with the world system; increasingly it will be in the American interest to help Asian powers rebalance the world power structure in ways that redistribute power from the former great powers of Europe to the rising great powers of Asia today.
In terms of demography, culture and economic structure, Europe tends to be at one end of the world’s spectrum: old, rich, seeking stability. The rising powers in Asia and elsewhere tend to be younger, faster growing, more ambitious and hungrier for change and for growth. They are less risk-averse, and more likely to see the future in terms of opportunity rather than threat.
They are also much less invested in the legitimacy of international institutions and practices. A country like India, which has one vote in the General Assembly of the United Nations and is a relatively small stakeholder in the World Bank and the IMF, is less in awe of the UN’s ‘mantle of legitimacy’ than are many European countries. Many of the world’s rising powers see the current structure of the world’s institutions as a hangover from an unlamented colonial past. They may also see such documents as the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a statement of purely European interest and relevance. Many of the world’s rising powers are not and do not wish to be post-nationalist, post-religious and/or post-historical as many European countries do. Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Indonesian and Brazilian nationalists do not have European guilt-complexes based on the bitter experience of the failures of nationalism in the twentieth century. They are not looking to bury their sovereignty in universal liberal institutions; they are excited by what still feels like a newly recovered sovereignty and they want to take the shiny new car of national power out for a spin.
The United States has got one foot in Europe and one in the rest of the world on many of these issues. During the last fifty years, the United States has used its power and influence in the world to preserve the European basis and orientation of the international system. Even under an instinctively pro-European president like Barack Obama, this can no longer be true. The United States is vitally interested in the health and preservation of a global system; it is willing to compromise and negotiate on the details. For the foreseeable future it’s going to be much more important to win acceptance for that system in Asia and other parts of the world than to keep Europe happy with every twist and turn of American foreign policy.
Reflecting both the shift in American interests and the rising power of other parts of the world, in the next ten years we are likely to see the decline of a world system based in the history of European power and reflecting the cultural and social priorities of European society. The emerging new world system may be less universal and more regional — with influence flowing down from the UN and the global financial institutions to regional power centers and networks. It will likely be less bureaucratic and legal, with a greater emphasis on ad hoc agreements and informal cooperation. There will probably be substantially fewer Europeans occupying top posts in global bureaucracies in 2020 than there are today. Global summits will increasingly take place outside Europe as well, and if they know what is good for them global institutions will also be seeking to move their headquarters into Asia and Africa and out of Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands and France (I am sorry to say).
Smart European diplomacy and clever maneuvering by deft international bureaucrats can slow down this trend, but the world system of the 21st century, to the degree that we have one at all, will look very different from what we knew in the twentieth. It is likely that the decade of the 2010s will be the time when the differences really start to emerge.