By Abraham Denmark
As an Asia specialist, I spend most of my time thinking about the consequences of Asia’s rising powers – China, India, South Korea, Indonesia, etc. – and what it means for the United States and our allies. It’s a simple trend to identify. China’s economy has been expanding rapidly, as have those of many developing countries. Indeed, the entire Asia-Pacific region continues to be the world’s most dynamic and promising for future growth. The inestimable Ian Bremmer has also pointed out that – along with the BRICS, CIVETS and MIST – Africa has also been an important source of growth in recent years. This is what Fareed Zakaria meant when he wrote about the “Rise of the Rest.”
These trends have unfortunately created a general misperception that “The Rest” represents a new political force in geopolitics – one that will fundamentally threaten today’s liberal international order. In reality, “The Rest” – as a cohesive geopolitical whole – doesn’t exist. Incongruities between political structures, cultural heritages, economic conditions, and strategic interests of the countries who constitute “The Rest” will make real coordination a near impossibility. While they may agree on specific issues (such as environmental policy or sanctions on Iran), long-standing strategic and historic rivalries and dissimilarities will undermine efforts to build real strategic cooperation.
The BRICS offer an excellent example. Agreements on specific issues do not override the reality that China has long-standing strategic tensions with both India and Russia – tensions that will make strategic cooperation almost impossible. Even though Chinese officials routinely call for a more “democratic” international system, does that mean they will support India becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council? Don’t count on it. Ultimately, there is very little mortar holding the BRICS together.
This stands in sharp contrast to the long-term cohesiveness of the West, which is based on a foundation of deeply shared values, interests, and histories that transcends policy disagreements. On key issues of great strategic significance, the United States has a global network of friends it can rely upon. Thus, while one cannot speak of “The Rest” as a cohesive whole, the West is a geopolitical force to reckon with.
Moreover, the West’s resilience, openness, and dynamism have long been its ultimate sources of strength. It has problems, certainly, but the West has seen far worse than the domestic problems it faces today, and we generally know what the answers are. As a foreign diplomat in Washington is fond of saying, the United States is a single budget cycle away from fixing most of its serious problems.
This cannot be said for many of the world’s rising powers, whose problems are more complex and whose solutions are highly fraught. China must navigate itself through multiple challenges – including urbanization, privatization, marketization, globalization, slowing growth, environmental degradation, corruption, and persistent political upheaval – all on a scale and speed previously unseen in human history. There is no easy path to address these challenges, and any failure could lead to disaster. India, similarly, faces tremendous domestic challenges that could quickly undermine economic growth.
Moreover, “The Rest” largely has no intention of seeing the West’s downfall. Most strategists and officials from China, India, and other rising powers will readily admit that they need a liberal international order as much as the West. Export-oriented economies are especially reliant on public goods like stability, open global markets, and stable global commons – all fundamental features of the liberal international order. Rising powers apparently agree with arguments made in recent books by Robert Kagan and Zbigniew Brzezinski that without the United States, the world would rapidly descend into chaos and violence. As such, they will likely continue to look to the West to provide public goods and help solve global problems.
Still, ‘the Rise of the Rest’ will pose two significant challenges for the West in the coming decades. First, the West will be forced to manage the after-effects of those rising powers that are unable to sustain their development. While the relative rate of growth for rising powers has certainly been fantastic, political and social realities on the ground will make continued growth difficult without significant reform. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. When these countries fall, the financial and human costs may be devastating.
The West will also face the daunting task of managing the success of those rising powers that make the transition from “developing” to “developed.” This will require integrating these new great powers into the international system, and making it clear that on issues of fundamental interest – such as open global commons, the power of international institutions, human rights, and preserving stability – they must adjust to the world, and not vice versa.
And there, of course, is the rub. Nothing is certain in international relations – especially when one looks several decades into the future. Yet most indications suggest that the West is likely to survive, thrive, and maintain strategic cohesion. The Rest, on the other hand, face more profound questions about their long-term prosperity and their ability to build, let alone maintain, any degree of strategic cohesion. Ultimately, the long-term health and success of the liberal international order will be dependent on the will and resolve of the West to fix its problems and promote its interests. The West has done it before, in far more dire circumstances, and I expect that it will succeed again.
Abraham M. Denmark is Senior Project Director for Political and Security Affairs at The National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR). The views expressed are his own.