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Power politics in the 21st century

The Cold War was probably the most high-stakes and globally encompassing theatre of Great Power struggle the world has ever known. Never before had two states of such immense power and international influence competed so vigorously to carve out indomitable spheres of influence, militarily checkmate the other, and – probably most significantly – promote such starkly contrasting worldviews whose epoch-changing effects on human life and society are now codified in the annals of history. One of the ultimate lessons of the Cold War is that it doesn’t ultimately matter whose side is judged by more people to be on the “right side of history,” or a better reflection of moral and social values. Whether democratic capitalism or Soviet-style communism was a better conception of societal organization is irrelevant. What mattered in the grand scheme of history is that the side with greater power, and more precisely the side with the ability to use its power to the irrevocable paralysis of its principal competitor, could challenge the other side in such a way that that side could no longer sustain its domestic order – or its far-flung empire – in any reasonable form. The United States had so successfully contained the Soviet Union that the latter collapsed – much like an exhausted runner – under the weight of imperial and military overreach.

As the Cold War was ending, it became fashionable among some intellectual circles in the West to suggest that the ideological struggles of the 20th century were about to culminate in the irrevocable triumph of liberal democracy. The century began with expansive European colonial empires, experienced unprecedented devastation in two rapidly successive world wars (the second of which served as the death toll of fascism), and then held its breath under the never-ending threat of nuclear devastation amidst the global ideological battle I already mentioned. Francis Fukuyama’s well-known essay “The End of History” suggested that there would never again emerge a serious ideological challenge to liberal democracy because the experience of the 20th century had discredited them all. He wrote in response to the political upheaval taking place in the Soviet Union in the second half of the 1980s:

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
America’s triumphal emergence from the Cold War left it the world’s sole superpower, a state so incredibly powerful that it could influence global affairs with relative ease through its unparalleled military, rich and innovative economy, and the attractiveness of its liberal political institutions and open culture. Commentators and politicians of all stripes believed that the world was about to enter a “new American century” whose events would be shaped by the will of the United States. Crucially, they believed that more states would become liberal democracies and reflect the values that had been vindicated and legitimized at the end of the Cold War.
It’s quite clear that the experience of the first decade and two years of the 21st century shows that optimism regarding the triumph of liberal democracy is grotesquely misplaced. It’s also clear that a mere glance at the rise of China and the relative decline of American power reveal that the 21st century will continue to be characterized by competition – both military and ideological (although Fukuyama did not mean to suggest that his hypothesis predicted the end of military conflict) – and that the world is about to enter a new period of Great Power struggle. The question of liberal democracy’s fate in the greater context of global affairs has not been settled.

The rise of China is an issue that deserves particular attention. It’s easy to get caught up in daily headlines that – in spite of recent economic troubles related to the ongoing global economic crisis – acclaim China’s mesmerizing rise from catastrophic poverty a mere 30 or so years ago to the inner circle of world power and wealth. President Richard Nixon’s and then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s opening of American relations with China in the 1970s was not only a brilliant Realpolitik chessboard motion designed to constrain the Soviet Union; it was the beginning of a reordering of the global distribution of power. Today, China’s influence in Southeast Asia is growing at an alarming rate (recent events surrounding the issue of sovereignty over the South China Sea and the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands are indicative of this). It has begun aggressively pursuing and defending its interests in Central Asia, Africa, and even the Arctic region. After a “century of humiliation” during which it was mercilessly carved up and abused by foreign powers, China is eager to reclaim a position it believes it lost: a position of nearly unsurpassed prominence in the world, and of hegemonic dominance in Southeast Asia which is now kept together by the power and prestige of American military might. This American presence has kept Japan from fully remilitarizing after World War II, preserved peace on the Korean peninsula, prevented China from enveloping democratic Taiwan – an island China regards as a renegade province – and generally keeps shipping lanes open and ready for the business of high-stakes, multibillion dollar trade. China, however, sees American power in the region as a constraint on its rightful place in the world. It desires to attain enough power to exclude the United States from what it solely regards as its sphere of interest. This is the next potential theater for serious Great Power conflict in the 21st century.

Of course, China is not a liberal democracy. It is not exactly a communist state either; in spite of enduring Maoist trappings, China has for all practical intents and purposes discarded communism and has instead unleashed a thriving private sector that has lifted hundreds of millions of people from poverty. The political class long ago realized that it would have to tolerate a great deal of “capitalism” to survive, but to date the political system has barely been reformed. It remains opaque, jealously controlled by a tight knit conglomeration of commercial, political, and military interests and mutually-supporting personalities, and intolerant of serious challenges to the monopoly of power enjoyed by the Communist Party. There are occasional domestic flare-ups on human right issues, but what must be stressed is that the Chinese leadership – and many, many ordinary Chinese too – believe in their system. They believe that Chinese-styled authoritarianism is superior to Western-styled democracy, that it yields more sweeping and quicker economic results, and that it is more appropriate for China’s interests and context. As it develops its “soft power” – a term political scientist Joseph Nye coined to describe the attractiveness of a state’s cultural and political institutions abroad – China is becoming a model for developing states that graciously accept its generous development handouts and at the same time import its style of national development that does not conform to Western standards of political democratization and economic liberalization.

No serious person who wants to be globally engaged can expect to learn about the world without devoting considerable time and mental resources to understanding China. And such an understanding will be crucial if this country is to be prepared to handle both the inevitable challenges and opportunities posed by a rising China. Next week this column will explore the broader issue of the relative decline of American power in relation to the emerging world – particularly China – and what implications this will have for America’s ability to defend its interests in what is already commonly being called “the Pacific century.”

(If you’re interested in some good and serious reading on these issues, I recommend “The Return of History and the End of Dreams” and “The World America Made” by Robert Kagan, and “On China” by Henry Kissinger.)

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