By Michael Green

I accept the broad argument behind Fareed Zakaria’s “rise of the rest” thesis, but also see some flawed assumptions in his worldview.  It is probably true that the narrative of the 21st century will be about the relative decline in American and Western power because of the rise of China, India, Brazil and the rest — rather than a decline of American aggregate power resulting from imperial overstretch or some internal contradictions.

Indeed, the rise of the rest signifies the success of post-war American strategy more than its failure.  In that sense, we are not Rome or even Britain.  Zakaria has that right.  But the “rise of the rest” thesis still has several flaws:

1.         The rise of the rest is not inevitable:  China, India, Brazil and South Africa face fundamental internal contradictions and a looming middle-income trap in their development.  This is particularly true of China, given demographics, endemic corruption, environmental challenges and problems of regime legitimacy.  A dramatic reversal of Chinese economic growth could be one of the most threatening developments to international security since rejection of convergence by Beijing would lead in the direction of mercantilism and hypernationalism (a la Japan and Germany in the 1920s-30s).

2.         Balance of power still matters:  The “rest” are competing with each other more than they are aligning together.  For those closest to China (India, Indonesia, etc.) there is a premium on maintaining a stable equilibrium vis-à-vis Beijing.  India, Australia, Indonesia, Japan and Korea are all more likely to align with each other and the United States for the foreseeable future than to bandwagon with China because of trade.  Zakaria rejects balance-of-power logic in the 21st century in favor of a concert of power with China and “the rest.”  The United States should pursue cooperative security everywhere possible, but Asia will be a zone of balance of power as well.  The key will be not to retreat and not to ask countries to choose between Washington and Beijing.  They all want us there.

Moreover, international institutions such as the UN, G-20 and WTO are going to be harder to manage with the assertiveness of  “the rest.”  These institutions will still matter despite the governance nightmares, but action will increasingly require ad hoc coalitions among like-minded states on trade, security, humanitarian crises and the like.  It follows that alliances will remain critical as the operational base for such coalitions and that action will follow in concentric circles outwards from those alliances to like-minded states and then to regional and global organizations.

3.         Ideational power mattersHegemonic stability rests on a set of norms and institutions that are empowering for member states in the system.  Numerous polls in Asia demonstrate that the so-called “Beijing consensus” of authoritarian development does not have any traction compared with universal norms of good governance, rule of law, and democracy.  Even though American material power is declining in relative terms, American ideational power is increasing.   That does not always translate into direct American influence – particularly with post-colonial states like India or South Africa — but it is a great deal more important than “soft power” in terms of creating trust and gradually closer alignment between the United States and many of the “rest” – particularly in Asia.  Beijing does not have that ideational advantage with countries that matter.

4.         The United States has sources for rejuvenated strength.  Our demographics, energy profile and innovation put us well ahead of “the rest” in terms of economic competition in the future….as long as the politicians do not muck it all up.

Michael J. Green is Senior Advisor and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an Associate Professor at Georgetown University.