As international borders continue to move, institutions of global governance transform, alliances change and global centers of power shift, a number of important questions arises. How to ensure that these processes follow an evolutionary path?
How to overcome the tensions, which emerge between the major powers, and to preserve peace? William C. Wohlforth, Daniel Webster Professor at the Dartmouth College Department of Government, addresses these issues in his essay for the Valdai Discussion Club.
In contrast to the bulk of current expert commentary, I would like to suggest that global power trends may well act to attenuate “radical changes in the world” and associated tension between the US-led west, on the one hand, and its partners (and occasional adversaries) on the other hand.
Looking carefully at serious assessments, one detects some convergence in perceptions of power. When states disagree on the distribution of power, they approach each other with divergent expectations and bargaining positions. When sides see their relative power in roughly similar terms, bargaining is smoother.
The United States and its chief allies have learned hard lessons about the limits of their power in recent years, causing an across the board moderation of the heady expectations that met the new millennium. At the same time, the narrative of the inexorable, rapid rise of the “BRICS” and like-minded states with some resentment toward the US-led global order—a narrative closely connected to the idea of the rapid return of a true multipolar system with roughly equal states at the top— has also suffered setbacks.
In particular, slower rates of growth and increasingly apparent massive challenges have caused a sea change in views of China’s rise. Few sober analysts now expect the PRC to replace the USA as a global superpower anytime soon. The result is a widespread convergence of assessments on a picture of a world with a China and Russia much more capable of pursuing their interests than they were a decade ago, a plethora of other actors with growing capacities, but also with a United States long remaining the sole true global superpower.
Looking longer-term, it is hard to make the case that underlying trends clearly favor either the liberal west or the non-liberal major powers. While the USA, with its comparatively young population, is something of a demographic outlier, most of the core states of the liberal west face a demographic future that portends slower growth.
Prominent economists argue, moreover, that the era in which technology generated rapid productivity increases is over and not coming back—and thus that sub-1% growth may well become the new normal. Technology and greater global economic openness, meanwhile, are widely seen to have reduced the relative standing of the broad middle classes, fuelling a populist backlash across the liberal world that is straining social contracts and settled institutions.
The European Union, long seen as key bulwark of an expanding liberal order, is in deep crisis. The liberal projects of democracy promotion and the expansion of international law to encompass liberal understandings of sovereignty and human rights have also suffered obvious reversals. The sum of all this is a potent background need for the liberal west to tend to its own garden rather than contemplate dramatic global projects for expanding its norms and principles.
But the story is not markedly different for the non-liberal powers. The most important driver of the “rising BRICS” narrative was always China, and there is little expert debate about that country’s slower expected growth trajectory and the major hurdles it needs to overcome to avoid the middle income trap. And its rapid rise has in any case been inexorably entwined with policies (e.g. accumulating massive dollar balances) that reinforce the US global position.
For its part, Russia’s military capabilities are arguably set to continue to increase but the country’s transition away from resource dependence seems as far away today as it did when Vladimir Putin first took office. Even if we discount critics’ arguments that Russia’s current political economic system limits its long-term prospects as an innovative, technological power, its demography places similar limits to future growth to those faced in western Europe.
Of the BRICS countries, the one whose fundamentals might well place it on the cusp of a prolonged rise is India. And, if so, that has ambiguous implications for the liberal order, given that India is an established democracy.
In these respects, background conditions augur for a live-and-let-live equilibrium between the US-led west and the rest, notably Russia and China. Mutual interest in avoiding another global economic meltdown, averting security dilemmas on the eastern and western reaches of Eurasia, combatting terrorism and preventing the spread nuclear weapons all argue for a concerted effort to search for solutions to ongoing disputes in China’s and Russia’s near abroad. It is of course a lot easier for scholars to suggest potential bargains and escalation-avoidance strategies than it is for statesmen to implement them. But it does little good for analysts to exaggerate the barriers to such cooperation.