We are living through one of history’s swerves. A multipolar world has been long predicted, but has always seemed to be perched safely on the horizon. Now it has rushed quite suddenly into the present. Two centuries of western hegemony are coming to a close rather earlier than many had imagined.
The story is unfolding in dry economic statistics. Next year, just as this year, the economies of the rising states – China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia and the rest – are likely to grow by 8 per cent or more. Debt-burdened advanced nations will mostly struggle to expand by more than 2 per cent. The pattern is well-established. The global divide is between slow- and fast-growing nations as much as between the rich and the rising.
The geopolitical balance is adjusting accordingly. China is asserting itself in east Asia. India is building a blue-water navy. Turkey and Brazil are seeking to translate regional power into international kudos. Indonesia is hedging between Washington and Beijing. Europe battles against irrelevance; America with a burgeoning budget deficit and political gridlock.
Predictions of the passing of US primacy are premature. For all its troubles, America remains the sole superpower – the only nation able to project power in every corner of the earth. One of the under-noticed stories of 2010 has been the return of the US to Asia. Unnerved by Beijing and the lethal unpredictability of North Korea, China’s neighbours have clamoured for protection from Uncle Sam.
The picture of US power painted by secret diplomatic cables is essentially flattering. America’s pursuit of its national interest coincides most of the time with the provision of public goods for the rest of us. Washington worries in private as much as it does in public about the impact on global security of nuclear proliferation, failing states, terrorism and regional conflicts.
The other side of the WikiLeaks coin is that the US is an inadequate superpower. The diplomatic exchanges show how its unrivalled power has left the US unable to impose its solutions in the world’s troublespots. Only this month we saw Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu wreck Barack Obama’s efforts to promote peace in the Middle East.
The world’s rising states are at a stage where they want to enjoy power without responsibility. Putting a kind interpretation on its latest muscle-flexing, China is the adolescent who has just discovered he has the physical strength of an adult. In ignoring Deng Xiaoping’s admonition to bide its time, Beijing is squandering soft power accumulated over a decade.
India wants the respect conferred by great power status, but is reluctant to give up the street credibility conferred by its old non-aligned leadership role. Delhi is also strangely incapable of confronting enmities in its own neighbourhood. Turkey wants to look east as well as west, but has yet to balance its new ambitions for Muslim leadership with its old attachment to Euro-Atlantic integration.
Europe is in bad shape. What started out as a private sector banking crisis has become a public sector debt crisis. The eurozone is under siege from the markets. The real threat is political. The economic shock of the continent’s relative decline against a rising Asia has merged with the continuing political aftershocks from the fall of the Berlin Wall two decades ago.
A united, more unapologetically nationalist Germany, has upended the European Union’s political equilibrium. The Union worked when leadership was shared by France and Germany. But Berlin now wants to call the tune. The single currency may be rescued, but I am not sure there is great enthusiasm for a German Europe. As for Britain, its fresh-faced prime minister has shown no interest in, nor aptitude for, crafting anything resembling a foreign policy.