NEW YORK – We are in a protracted period of international transition, one that began more than two decades ago with the Cold War’s end. That era of strategic rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union gave way to one in which the US possessed far greater power than any other country and enjoyed an unprecedented degree of influence.
That American unipolar moment has given way to a world better described as non-polar, in which power is widely distributed among nearly 200 states and tens of thousands of non-state actors ranging from Al Qaeda to Al Jazeera and from Goldman Sachs to the United Nations.
But what distinguishes historical eras from one another is less the distribution of power than the degree of order between and within states. Order never just emerges; it is the result of conscious efforts by the most powerful entities in the world.
While the US remains the world’s most powerful single country, it cannot maintain, much less expand, international peace and prosperity on its own. It is over-extended, dependent upon massive daily imports of dollars and oil, and its armed forces are engaged in demanding conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US lacks the means and the political consensus to take on much more in the way of global responsibility. It also lacks the means to compel others to follow its lead.
Moreover, contemporary problems – for example, thwarting the spread of materials and weapons of mass destruction, maintaining an open world economy, slowing climate change, and combating terrorism – cannot be managed, much less solved, by any single country. Only collective efforts can meet common challenges; the more global the response, the more likely that it will succeed.
In short, the US requires partners if the twenty-first century is to be an era in which the majority of people around the world enjoy relative peace and satisfactory standards of living. But the partnerships that prevailed in the Cold War – between the US, Western Europe, and several Asian countries, including Japan, South Korea, and Australia – are no longer adequate. These countries lack the resources and often the will to manage most of the world’s problems.
So the old partners need new ones. Emerging powers have the potential to fill this need. The question is what China, India, Brazil, and others are prepared to do with their growing strength.
What makes a country great is not the size of its territory, population, army, or economy, but how it uses its power to shape the world beyond its borders. Countries that are strong but still developing tend to regard foreign policy as little more than a hand-maiden of domestic policy and a means to gain access to markets and resources essential for rapid development.
This outlook is understandable, but shortsighted. Rising powers can neither insulate nor isolate themselves from what happens beyond their borders. Whether or not they acknowledge it, they have a stake in world order.
Consider China, by many measures the most significant emerging country. It wants to maintain preferred access to Iran’s energy resources, but if conflict results from Iran’s nuclear aspirations, China will be paying much more for those resources. The prospect of a threat to the stability of the greater Middle East and to the flow of oil should give China an incentive to support robust sanctions against Iran. But it is not clear whether China’s leaders will recognize this and act in their country’s own long-term self interest.
The point is not to single out China. Similar questions apply to India and Brazil. And it is not just the developing and emerging countries that must reconsider their approach to the world. The US must do so as well. While much has been said and written about America’s call for China to become a global stakeholder, China will not simply sign on as a pillar of an American-defined world. It wants to help set the rules and build the institutions for enforcing them.
It is up to the US to work with China and others to do this, and this requires America’s openness to others’ preferences and their having a larger role. The empowerment of the G-20 is a step in the right direction, but many more changes are needed, including restructuring the UN, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank so that they, too, reflect the new distribution of power. In return, new arrangements should call on emerging countries to contribute more to addressing climate change, paying for peacekeeping and state-building, promoting free trade, and sanctioning those who support terror or develop weapons of mass destruction.
This era’s major states, developed and emerging alike, have the ability to reach accord on today’s defining issues. Their willingness to do so will determine when and how this period of global transition ends and what succeeds it.