Accepting Limits: How to Adapt to a Copernican World
One of the most seductive deceptions of the Bush years was that once he was gone, America would regain its global reputation and place of leadership and all would be well. But the world was changing in many ways that would have held true even if there had not been a George W. Bush—and even with a Barack Obama.
For all the efforts to articulate these and related changes in the classic international relations parlance of unipolar, bipolar, and multipolar worlds, they are better captured as the transformation from a “Ptolemaic” to a “Copernican” world. Back in the second century A.D., Ptolemy developed a conception of the universe that held the Earth to be at the center, with all the other planets revolving around it. So was the United States seen by many, especially within the United States itself, as being at the center of the Cold War world—the wielder of power, the economic engine, the bastion of free-world ideology. International institutions were designed largely in America’s image, the terms of cooperation largely set by Washington. When the Cold War finally ended with the defeat of the Soviet Union, the world seemed even more Ptolemaic—the United States the sole surviving superpower, the U.S. economy driving globalization, democracy sweeping the world.
Not anymore. The twenty-first-century world is a Copernican one. The United States is not at the center. We have our own orbit. But other countries do too, and they all have their own interests, their own national identities, their own domestic politics. While we still have some gravitational pull, it’s not so strong that others orbit around us.
We see this in particular in two developments. One is the diffusion of power, especially evident in the eastward and southward shift in economic vigor. China is, of course, Exhibit A in this trend. But it’s not just China. As Jeffrey Immelt, General Electric CEO and now chair of the White House economic competitiveness advisory panel, acknowledged, “The billion people joining the middle class in Asia”—not U.S. consumers—are the “engine [of] global growth.” And it’s not just Asia. Overall, emerging economies will account for about 60 percent of global growth this year and next, up from about 25 percent a decade ago. The International Energy Agency projects that more than 90 percent of growth in world oil demand will come from non-OECD countries. In 2010, emerging market firms accounted for a third of the world’s $2.4 trillion in mergers and acquisitions.
Nor do we dominate the diplomatic stage as we once did. While we still take on lead diplomatic roles more often than anyone else, there’s been a “pluralization of diplomacy”—there are more states forging relationships with one another on a wider range of issues than ever before. We’ve been seeing new diplomatic brokers, states playing third-party roles such as Qatar in Lebanon and Darfur, Brazil in some South American conflicts, Turkey in the Middle East. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the United States will continue to have a role, but without the Camp David exclusivity of years past.
While U.S. military power remains vastly superior to that of any other state (or coalition of states), the military balance is much less central to overall systemic structure than during the Cold War. It bears heavily on some issues, such as Asia-Pacific and Persian Gulf regional security. But in a world in which there is much less of a shared and overarching threat, the currency of military strength is less convertible to other forms of power and influence than when such threats were more defining.
Even our soft power is not as potent as we like to assume. Electing Barack Obama President was seen by many around the world as a validation of America’s core claims of equal opportunity and commitment to diversity. But anti-immigration sentiment against Hispanics and increasing tensions with Muslim Americans cut in the other direction. And while our political system still stands out as a guarantor of individual freedoms, its capacity for making effective policy and addressing the many problems we face is hardly a model. Representative of the dim global assessment of the U.S. political system was an editorial in India’s Hindustan Times about our debt-ceiling fiasco last summer: “If routine has become Armageddon, the U.S. cannot be counted on when the tough decisions are being made.” Indeed, in which areas of public policy does the United States lead the world these days? Health care? Public education? Infrastructure? Job creation? We close museums while others build them. Even our vaunted Horatio Alger social mobility lags behind most other industrial democracies.
The second Copernican development is a twenty-first century version of nationalism and nonalignment that sees very few states today defining their foreign policies principally in a pro- or anti-American framework. Thus, the Indian national security adviser stressed on the eve of Obama’s November 2010 visit that while India seeks better relations with the United States, its foreign policy remains one of “genuine nonalignment.” The debate about whether Turkey has become anti-Western and pro-Islamist misses the ways in which a Turkish foreign ministry official expressed their new nationalist logic: “We have waited for the big powers to make up their minds on big issues and we just follow them. For the past several years we have made up our own minds.” In Brazil, while some anti-Americanism is sprinkled in, the rhetoric is much more about its own national narrative of greatness going back to its founding. While not as aggressive or antagonistic as in other eras, other countries and rising powers are asserting national interests and identities. As one recent study put it, “countries small, medium and large are all banking more on their own strategic initiative than on formal alliances or institutional relationships to defend their interests and advance their goals.”
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