By Jeffrey Gedmin

The finest minds of our times have been engaged for some time now in a deep and ongoing debate over the so-called rise of the Rest (particularly India and China) and what this means for the liberal international order. What we know is clear. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, the end of the Cold War signaled an end of bipolarity and a new fluid moment in international relations. We also know that as other nations come on line — by virtue of things like size of population, economic growth, national self-confidence and strategic ambition — relative shifts in global power are likely to ensue (indeed they have already begun).

I suspect we actually spend far too much time, though, speculating about what something like the rise of China means for the new world order. In truth, we can’t possibly know. To those who see a menace, there’s the rebuttal that China’s rising middle class is likely to seek greater political participation in the years ahead; that as a result, Chinese politics may well became more consensual and democratic, with emerging checks and balances that will mute the more malign aspects of nationalism and diminish the appetite for foreign adventurism. To those who see China’s future as a peaceful one, a rising power wrapped (and restrained) in a global web of economic  interdependence, there is the fact that we’ve fallen prey to analogous wishful thinking  before. A century ago, two popular forecasts stood out: one that the advent of international trade would soon make war obsolete; the other, that the one nation poised to play a leading role for peace in the world was Germany.

Of course, let’s keep forecasting, and thinking about economic trends, defense spending, demographics and social stability in a place like China. Let’s think about policy and incentives to shape a new world order that we view as conducive to our interests, supportive of our values and likely to advance world prosperity, peace and security. Let’s also be humble, though. In this respect, it’s quite possible that the keys to the future lie chiefly with us, “not them” — and, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers in the Wizard of Oz, we ought to look right beneath our very nose if we’re concerned about getting home to a future we want and can believe in.

The Great Recession of 2008, America’s crippling debt problems (and our inability to get entitlement spending under control), and the EU’s single currency are serious self-inflicted wounds which, if not properly tended to, may undermine the very foundations of the West and severely curtail our ability to grow, prosper and project power in the decades ahead. What may have started as a crisis in the financial system has become a crisis of values. In fact, the two were always inextricably linked.

In the United States, what made America of the past great — things such as risk, thrift, self-reliance, humility, and deferred gratification — have slowly been fading as central tenets of American life and key ingredients of the American dream. In foreign policy, we’ve always been at our best when we balance interests and values, and fuse American values to universal values, so that we can work closely with and appeal to the enlightened interests of other nations. As humility has declined at home, it’s no surprise that hubris has increased in our dealing with affairs abroad.

In the European Union there is a similar crisis of values. The EU’s crisis is compounded by the grave strategic error of having forced the introduction of a common currency in the last decade. A number of nations did not want this. Others were simply incapable of sensibly adopting the euro. What drove this? It was principally false lessons from history mixed with the vanity and ambition of elites. The result is becoming clear. A project aimed at bringing Europe together has manifestly had the opposite effect.

There are lessons. To build a strong, liberal international order, it’s indeed important that we soundly reject isolationism and the folly of those who call for us to retreat into our shell. America and its allies must remain engaged and seek to shape the new emerging world order. But let’s show a little modesty. Let’s understand those spheres where we have more control, and those where we have less. Centrally, let’s assume responsibility for the health and vitality of the West and see the current crisis for what it is: an immense challenge, but also an opportunity. It’s time for self-critique, self-examination and self-control. It’s time to adapt, and grow again. If the West cannot solve its problems and set a convincing agenda for its own future, how can we pretend to influence and manage the peaceful rise of the Rest? 

Jeffrey Gedmin is President and CEO of the London-based Legatum Institute.