Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Goodbye to Hegemony, Hello to...?

For those who didn't catch it, be sure to check out Parag Khanna's piece in Sunday's New York Times Magazine entitled "Waving Goodbye to Hegemony." In it, Khanna joins the now crowded pack of international relations scholars trying to work out what the international system of the twenty first century (Friedman's "post-post-Cold War era") is going to look like. Fukuyama famously launched the neoconservative vision of a U.S./liberal-dominated "end of history" that now looks increasingly defunct, Huntington proposed his "clash of civilizations," and various other thinkers have offered realist and liberal internationalist perspectives as well. I'm certainly leaving some out, but you get the idea.

In asking (and answering) the questions that such theorists address, they are actually addressing three distinct issues. First, where will power be concentrated in the world of the twenty first century? Second, how will that power be operationalized? Third (for Americans), how ought the United States respond to the situation? All three questions are exceedingly important, because they lead in very different directions. If you are a neoconservative, for example, you believe that power will be disproportionally concentrated in the political and economic institutions of the United States, and operationalized primarily through leveraging America's unassailable advantages in economic and military strength. Thus, as the only entity with enough power to maintain global stability, the United States has both a moral responsibility and national imperative to maintain, by force if necessary, military and economic hegemony. If you take to Huntington's argument, on the other hand, power will begin to concentrate at the center of a number of socio-cultural blocs (civilizations), and will be most easily operationalized by leveraging the common cultural and philosophical mindsets within those blocs. Thus, the United States (and other countries) ought to align its political, economic and military intsitutions with those of societies with which it shares common cultural and historical bonds (basically, Canada and Europe). I could go on, but this is a blog, not a book, and you get the point.

Khanna's vision is somewhat more complex. First off, he asserts that any notion of U.S. hegemony was ephemeral in the first place and is now definitively over. The idea that America will bestride the world as a modern colossus, unequaled and unchecked, is being disproven daily both by America's clumsy ineptitude at running its purported Empire and by the meteoric rise of new powers like China and India. I have no argument with him so far. I wish very much that the post Cold War United States had taken a position of real global leadership, rather than acting as an over-reluctant sherrif during the 1990s and then as an over-eager bully during the Bush years, but it didn't, problems festered, other powers began to counter-balance U.S. strength, and here we are.

Khanna next proposes that the twenty first century power centers will be the societies of the United States, the E.U., and China, which will exercise considerable control over their own regional blocs while competing for resources, markets and influence in the regional blocs of others. To grossly oversimplify, he's proposing a tripolar world rather like that envisioned by Orwell in 1984, albiet with marginally different political geography and (hopefully) less outright military conflict. He sees many of the secondary powers (countries like India, Russia and Brazil) as the "swing states" of this new system, offering their resources and markets to whichever superpowers make the best offer, without entangling themselves in enduring, Cold War style alliances. The system he describes is fluid, dynamic, and one to which the United States needs desperately to readjust by strengthening its diplomatic corps, re-tooling its economy, and maintaining a flexible global posture.

Khanna's analysis has much that is quite valuable. Certainly his rejection of American hegemonic pretensions is right on, and his emphasis on soft power, economic strength and strategic flexibility is extraordinarily important. His point that even superpower control over independent-minded regional blocs will be flimsy at best should be given serious attention.

That said, the tripolar world he describes strikes me as a bit of a stretch. As Matt Dupuis at Foreign Policy Watch points out, he barely even mentions India, even though it may well emerge as a political and economic center of gravity comparable to that of China, and I don't recall seeing the word "Japan" anywhere in the article. Also, while his assertion that Russia's independent influence will decline precipitously due to its collapsing population rings true to my ears, his tongue-in-cheek dismissal of the country as "the Sino-Finnish border" seems a bit premature. I actually think his analysis of the E.U. as a coherently-operating political entity is right on, because future means of operationalizing power - through economic prowess operating in an open system rather than mercentalist domination enforced at the barrel of a gun - won't require completely centralized political structures in order to work. Still, the relative gradations of power that will be wielded by numerous international actors in the coming century make the notion of a "big three" group of superpowers seem like a pretty artificial distinction.

I see the world of the twenty first century as being genuinely multipolar, with the U.S. playing (for a time) a role similar to that of nineteenth century Great Britain: as the most powerful state in a group of other quite powerful states. Europe, Japan, China, Russia, India, perhaps Brazil, and eventually others all deserve a seat at the table, and policymakers shouldn't exclude them because of preconceptions of who counts as a "true" superpower. Still, Khanna's vision is important (I can't wait for the book), and deserves serious scrutiny and debate. He successfully melds cultural, economic, military and political factors into a coherent view of the coming geopolitical structure, and though I think his views could be tweaked, they are doubtless very important.

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