We live in one of those rare moments in history when the political and economic axis of the world is shifting. Four or five centuries ago, it shifted West. Europe, for so much of its history a quiet backwater, came to rule practically the whole globe. Now this axis is shifting East. We know what this means for Asia. We have seen the new majestic skylines and the bullet trains and stations quickly replacing the old camel routes and caravanserai.
But what does this mean for the West? Could the colossus used to bring change upon others be now forced to change in response to the new political and economic winds blowing from the East? Suddenly what happens in East Asia – but also in South Asia, Russia and the Middle East – affects us more profoundly than we would like to think, especially since we now feel these influences are in some important respect beyond our control. Our world has expanded, but expansion of this sort is not always welcome.
It is now almost a truism to say that our century will be an Asian century. In just a decade or two, three of the five largest economies in the world will be in Asia: China, which most likely has already overcome the United States, Japan and India. The only uncertain point about this metric is which country will occupy the fifth position. Will it be Germany, Russia or Brazil? And yet, if you talk to people in Asia, they are certainly less ebullient. They know their societies are still, with the exception of Japan, pursuing the hard path of modernisation, and they lag the West in a number of crucial dimensions: innovation, soft power and, of course, military might.
As Charles Kupchan has argued, the new swing of the pendulum is going to lead to a world where no one will be dominant. Ours will not be a new American century. It will not be a Chinese century or an Asian century. In some respects this is a return to the past. We have had historical moments before in which power was broadly diffused across different zones and different visions of political order lived side by side. But the fact that the Qing, the Mughals and the Holy Romans had very different views about religion, commerce, hierarchy or markets was not very significant, because they lived their own lives. What is different about our time is that globalisation forces us to live, as Kupchan says, "all smushed together", and yet we all have very different visions of what this common world should look like.
Let us forgo the more spectacular pronouncements and settle on a compromise: this century will not be Asian, but neither will it be Western, as the previous five hundred years so clearly were. I suggest the alternative of calling it Eurasian as a way of signaling this new balance between the two poles. It is a "smushed up" world where very different visions of the world order are intermixed and forced to live together.
When it comes to the history of such terms, one can point to an earlier change when European hegemony came to be replaced by the concept of a western alliance encompassing Europe and the United States – as well as countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand – but effectively under American leadership. The term Eurasian refers to a comparable recombination. The question I want to discuss is how the new hybrid affects the previous one: what role does the US occupy in a Eurasian world?
Previously, America placed itself at the head and helm of European civilization. The country of Washington and Jefferson never had many qualms about its ambitions. It knew that the world was ruled by Europe and according to European ideas and quickly made them its own – in any event, its population and elites came from Europe, so it experienced no difficulties in appropriating the new rational and scientific civilisation developed in Europe and was even able to develop it more fully by being relatively free from older and more parochial sediments still surviving among the European nations.
We need a particularly sharp eye to understand that the United States was never essentially European. But it was a child of the Enlightenment and it would embrace the most universal and advanced principles available, no doubt as a way to ride the crest of history and grow into the role of a powerful nation, in time the most powerful nation on earth. At the time those principles happened to be European. Does this mean that Americans will tend to mirror the global order and, therefore, at a time when the global order is no longer infused with European values, shall we see the United States become increasingly less European? I am afraid that is exactly what it means.
The process did not start with the recent Pivot to Asia (in other words the US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy focus on Asia rather than Europe – editor’s note). It started, as one might expect, with the first stages of European global retrenchment. After Suez, all European states were forced to recognise once and for all that they were no longer world powers and that their role on the international stage would have to remain in the shadow of the United States. From that moment, the destinies of the two western poles started to diverge. Once the burden of maintaining order in dangerous and unstable regions of the world – from East Asia to the Middle East – fell upon the United States, a crucial difference in how Europe and the United States perceived the world became apparent. It is certainly not the case that in order to deal with rogue states you have to become like them, but it is still true that you need to adapt to their existence and cannot think and act like those countries for whom this is simply not a problem. The US was thus forced to evolve in a way that allowed it to deal with a world that, after the destruction of the Second World War and the decolonisation process, was no longer under the influence and control of European powers.
America, the shapeshifter
The secret of American history is that the United States is a shapeshifter. This prodigious child of the Enlightenment will not hesitate to shed western, liberal principles if it becomes convinced that they have been refuted by time and experience. If ever the United States becomes convinced that the West belongs to the past, it will leave Europe living in that past, but will not be inclined to do so itself, especially if that would entail sacrificing the thing to which it is most addicted: global primacy. If the West ever falters, America will want to become less western. As the fulcrum of world power moves away from the West, so does America. As Thomas Jefferson so strikingly put it, American principles must apply universally: "It is impossible not to be sensible that we are acting for all mankind."
Is this a Faustian bargain by which one trades his soul for power and prestige? That would be an exaggeration. When a country attempts to shift away from the core principles upon which it is based – even if only slightly – the process is bound to be convulsive and traumatic, but it will certainly be possible to interpret it as made necessary by the realisation that those principles need to be improved or adapted. If we consider the fractious nature of the contemporary American debate on foreign policy, it is apparent that a number of axioms are being questioned with increasing vigour. Does the liberal world order appeal equally to different regions of the world? Are different political traditions moving towards a liberal consensus, even if haltingly? Is there an intimate connection between democracy and human rights, on the one hand, and economic dynamism and power on the other? Does the world need and welcome American leadership? Does globalisation suit American interests, promoting prosperity and security for all Americans? Does globalisation encourage co-operation between different countries or, on the contrary, does it intensify competition and rivalry?
Compared to Europe, the United States does have the resources to apply the modern principle of reform to very organising principles of American society. It remains to be seen if this change can be felt as a change for the better rather than a surrender to the outside. When Hillary Clinton made her first visit to Asia as Secretary of State, her claim that the US would look at human rights questions as entirely separate from the most significant economic and security questions immediately made headlines. She then retreated somewhat, but the claim was not a mistake of inattention. She thought that for America to increase its influence in a rising Asia a new measure of flexibility was needed. Needless to say, the claim sounded dangerously close to the way Beijing would think about such matters.
The American universalist vocation is not to guarantee the global pre-eminence of European civilisation, but to remain the only global superpower by tracking and mirroring the nature of the global order and the principles ruling it. If the US was to remain anchored in the western world it could be no more than the leader of the western half of a new Eurasian hybrid. In fact, we see something else happening, as Washington tries to reposition itself as the embodiment of the new Eurasian world. The unprecedented shift in relative wealth and economic power from West to East now underway will continue, eventually settling along some measure of balance between the two poles. It is this resting point that Washington will be trying to occupy. Open markets in Asia provide the US with unprecedented opportunities for investment, trade and access to technology. Setting a new trajectory of strong economic growth will depend on exports and the ability of American firms to tap into the vast and growing consumer base of Asia. As Hillary Clinton wrote in a programmatic essay launching the Pivot to Asia: "by virtue of our unique geography, the United States is both an Atlantic and a Pacific power. We are proud of our European partnerships and all that they deliver. Our challenge now is to build a web of partnerships and institutions across the Pacific that is as durable and as consistent with American interests and values as the web we have built across the Atlantic."
When the current administration defends its flagship initiative that is exactly the argument it uses: most of the history of the next hundred years is going to be written in the Asian Pacific region and the United States wants to play a central role in that drama, as it did at other periods and in other regions. As Clinton put it in the same essay, "the future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the centre of the action."
Unnoticed to most, the argument contains a striking recognition of the growing relevance of Asian soft power. For what could soft power mean if not the sense of being at the centre of events shaping world history? But soft power is also the ability to change how others think and act, to bring them closer to our ways, and the United States would not be immune to its operation.
In the current US presidential campaign and notwithstanding her role in launching the Pivot to Asia, Clinton represents the preservation with little or no change of the existing western order. She had defended with no qualifications the existing transatlantic alliance, while reinforcing an interventionist tradition that had been diluted under Obama. She no longer seems willing to pay any kind of political price to defend the Trans-Pacific Partnership, once the crown jewel of the Pivot to Asia. In part this is due to electoral positioning and the attempt to fully explore the weaknesses revealed by her opponent. Donald Trump has indeed come to symbolise a precipitous retreat from the previous American foreign policy consensus. At times he seems to want to jettison the existing liberal world order and replace it with something else, defined around a national idea and appealing to a world of cutthroat competition. Trump seems to regard a firm commitment to liberal values as a hindrance to American power.
This has become an election about the West and how the United States will be positioning itself in relation to the liberal world order. It is nothing short of remarkable that the question has been opened. Will America become less western? Certainly not in the terms defended by Trump, but the quietism that Clinton adopted for the duration of the campaign is equally unlikely to survive beyond it.