April 17, 2012
In an intelligent and highly readable essay, Fareed Zakaria, a close Obama adviser, analyses the fundamental changes in the distribution of power in international affairs, away from US dominance. He claims that what we are witnessing today is one of geopolitics’ “tectonic power shifts”, the third in the last five hundred years in order of magnitude. The first such power shift started in the 15th century, propelling the western world to global dominance. During the period, which peaked in the 18th century, the modern world was shaped by the agricultural and industrial revolutions.
The second power shift occurred at the end of the 19th century, with the rise of the United States of America. For 120 years, Zakaria writes, the US economy enjoyed an almost constant 25 percent share of the world’s GDP. The country’s political, military, economic and cultural predominance peaked between 1945 and 1975, remaining to this day the dominant political and military power globally.
The third and latest major shift in geopolitics is currently underway, being labelled by Zakaria as “the rise of the rest” (Japan, China, India, Brazil). As a result of this, the economic and financial power is moving away from the US, even if technically speaking the world is still being dominated politically and militarily by it. This veritable “imperial decline” of the United States is squarely blamed by Zakaria on a dysfunctional political system, one that is unable to correct the malfunctions affecting the US’ economy. Still, he is optimistic that “the US will remain a vital, vibrant economy, at the forefront of the next revolutions in science, technology and industry”.
From an international relations point of view, the problem left unsolved by “the rise of the rest” is the reallocation of political and military power among the main protagonists of the new age. The danger inherent in the current situation is that the new economic superpowers might in turn join the ranks of the EU, as the political dwarves and military worms of our time.
If during the 18th century the world’s affairs were dealt with by “the concert of European powers”, in a multipolar fashion, during the 20th century leadership in global affairs was exercised in a bi-polar manner by the US and the USSR. Since the USSR’s implosion, we continue to live in a unipolar world, although efforts are being made to suggest a variety of new leadership formulae, from G2 to G3 to G20. For IR specialists, politicians and geopoliticians alike, the challenge is to select the best possible leadership arrangement, one which would reflect – from a military and political point of view – the new shifts in economic and financial power that have taken place over the past two decades. Failing this, global governance could remain the sole preserve of the United States, which in turn could generate significantly increased international tensions and anti-American sentiment.