The US has to accept 'first among equals' status or, in the jargon, a multipolar world
We have to keep up with the views of experts who are taken seriously, for better or worse. Henry Kissinger belongs to that category. I read his piece, The Assembly of the new world order published in The Wall Street Journal on 29 August. It is good in parts.
The good parts, in my view, are here: “... vast regions of the world have never shared and only acquiesced in the Western concept of order. These reservations are now becoming explicit, for example, in the Ukraine crisis and the South China Sea.
The challenge in Asia is the opposite of Europe’s: Balance-of-power principles prevail unrelated to an agreed concept of legitimacy, driving some disagreements to the edge of confrontation.
A contemporary structure of international rules and norms, if it is to prove relevant, cannot merely be affirmed by joint declarations; it must be fostered as a matter of common conviction."
The first one is a belated recognition. Secondly, it is true that Asia is being shaped not so much by values as by a primal display that combines, angst, insecurity, power and belligerence. Third, there is a need for common conviction for the world to forge ahead. However, common conviction won’t be forged by consensus. Humans do not make rational decisions when they have a choice. Power and the urge to dominate influence decisions, when there are choices.
We have to disagree with him on the prosperity of the international order being dependent on the success of globalization. Globalization is passé. The enabling conditions have ceased to exist. It cannot be revived. Brisk economic growth is as much a precondition for globalization as it is a cause of it. It has ceased and so would globalization.
The following two sentences contradict one another:
“The celebration of universal principles needs to be paired with recognition of the reality of other regions’ histories, cultures and views of their security. Even as the lessons of challenging decades are examined, the affirmation of America’s exceptional nature must be sustained."
While the first sentence offers a glimpse of a belated recognition—a recognition that has been forced by circumstances simply because the US is no longer as dominant economically and intellectually as it is used to be—the second sentence immediately throws up the difficulty of coming to terms with the new reality.
The common conviction can arise out of the recognition and acceptance of the following:
* Easy-to-achieve economic growth phase is behind us, at least temporarily if not forever.
* Today’s developing countries or aspiring countries cannot grow their way to prosperity on the back of the growth path, models and methods adopted by the West. The resource constraint is and will be binding. They have to come up with better and wiser growth models. But, they do have a moral right to grow. The West did not achieve prosperity not merely on the strength of its models and technological progress but also largely through colonisation of resources and minds.
* Therefore, the West has to agree not to stand in the way of economic growth in the aspiring world. It has to reconcile to benefiting from trickle down theory, operating in reverse, at least for a while.
* Further, the West has to learn to stop its addiction to debt and debt-financed growth. It has no choice, really. The crisis of 2007-08 has been an unsuccessful warning so far. The West has to deleverage, clean up and wait for the next growth cycle to emerge. Incidentally and paradoxically, grabbing addiction to debt and growth by its horns might allow the US to begin to reclaim intellectual dominance lost in the aftermath of the global crisis of 2007-08.
* As the process of deleveraging proceeds, economic growth will be a casualty, barring miracles. Lower standards of living will result. Some will have to be cajoled, persuaded or threatened to share more of the pain, in return for future growth warrants, may be. This is one way (no guarantee of success) to manage internal social strife. Externally, there is the risk that no-or-weak economic growth results in diminished political influence.
For a while, the US has to accept the first among equals status or, in the jargon, a multipolar world. It should not worry too much about because it is being required to adjust at a time when no other nation, individually, is even a remotely formidable threat. But, the US does worry. There is no power without paranoia or so, the US believes.
Do all of these sound fanciful? Yes, they do.
Kissinger’s anxiety to sustain the affirmation of the US’ exceptional nature without having to earn it in the changed context is proof of that. That is why another crisis might need to pre-date the emergence of common conviction. Perhaps 2014—the centenary of the First World War—has signalled its onset—one in which the world would re-experience the years between 1915 and 1945.
V. Anantha Nageswaran is co-founder of Aavishkaar Venture Fund and Takshashila Institution.
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