In the current U.S. debate, the American decline theme is richly present, and vastly overdramatized. Americans, however, have hardly lost faith in their country. The idea behind the talk of U.S. decline is to shake oneself up, refocus, and fix the problem. This has been done before.
Taken at face value, the “declinist” view can be challenged on a number of counts.
First, Western global supremacy was not only threatened before, but actually broken—by the Soviet Union. The West did not rule supreme between 1945-1991, and at times it seemed that it was losing, at least geopolitically, to the U.S.S.R.
Second, the U.S. global position today should never be measured against the highly unusual situation in the early 1990s in the aftermath of the self-destruction of the Soviet Union. Though less dominant than at the time of the fall of Baghdad in 2003, the United States can continue as the world's pre-eminent power for several decades to come.
Third, Europe, the “other half of the West,” did not suddenly lose its position of power and influence amidst the euro crisis. It forfeited its unique leadership role as a result of the two world wars which proved that European countries were no longer able to manage their relationships. Consequently, they lost their capacity to function as fully independent strategic players after 1945, or earlier in some cases, and have not regained it after the end of the Cold War. They might yet regain it—but only if they use the current crisis to help themselves onto a higher orbit of integration.
Fourth, what we are observing on the world scene is not so much the decline of the West as the rise—and a very uneven one—of some of the rest. As such, this is a highly positive product of globalization and should be welcomed rather than feared, also in the West.
This is not to say that the West is not challenged by the rise of the emerging powers. It certainly is. The very rise of the new players, however, needs to be seen for what it is. What follows are a few quick takes on the implications of the “rise of the rest” on the West.
- The emerging powers are a highly diverse group. Not all are emerging for the first time. Some are re-emerging. China was supreme in East Asia for millennia. One might even argue that the West itself has emerged on China's watch, and quite recently at that. Turkey reigned supreme for centuries across a wide swathe of lands extending from the Balkans to North Africa to the Gulf. Russia has just gone through the trauma of imperial collapse, and while the quality of its foreign policy is new—it is post-imperial—the world role, or better said its claim to it, is not.
- The emerging powers do not form a single bloc, or even a community. BRICS is a thoroughly Western concept. The thought of lumping together Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa would have never occurred to a Russian for example—although after it was coined and gained currency, it became used by many, including the Russians. Each emerging power, however, is emerging for itself.
- Each of the emerging powers is not bent on ending Western domination as such, but they all seek to earn a better position for themselves in the global economy, in the global or regional balance of power, and in the various global structures. This promises more competition, but no bloc-to-bloc politics.
- The emerging powers’ quest for enhanced positions in the world does not mean, however, that they want to join the West. Some of them are, formally speaking, already in the Western institutions—Turkey in NATO, Mexico in NAFTA, Korea in a defense alliance with the United States. Some tried to join, half-heartedly, but were found wanting (Russia), to some this would never occur (China).
- The impact of the emerging powers on world politics, so far, has been rather limited. All are mainly preoccupied with their domestic agendas. For the Kremlin, for instance, Russia's business is Russia, its business is mainly business, and Russia itself is nobody else's business. This attitude is even more pronounced in China's case. In the United States, the Secretary of State is the senior cabinet officer, and the Secretary of Defense manages a globally engaged military force. In China, the foreign minister is a rather lowly official, and his immediate boss, although he sits on the State Council, is not a member of the Politburo, not to speak of its Standing Committee. Turkey may be an exception, largely through the intellectual depth and hyper-activism of its indomitable foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu.
- When the emerging powers address global or major regional issues, they are doing this mainly for themselves, not for the world. China's “harmonious world” concept speaks above all about China's need for an appropriate external environment for its policy of modernization. Russia's insistence on the centrality of the UN Security Council is conditioned by Russia's permanent membership in that body, complete with a veto right.
- When the emerging powers come up with initiatives which go beyond their immediate interests, these initiatives are either geared to their interests, as is the case with China’s and Russia’s insistence on sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs, or demonstrations of their own existence as serious international players, as evidenced by the Turkey-Brazil initiative on Iran.
- This does not mean that the emerging powers are not competing with the United States. Of course some of them are. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a growing club for Continental Asia, is a case in point, as is the China-Russia alignment at the UNSC. More of this is to come, as more emerging powers come of age as international actors.
- The United States will have to—grudgingly or not—accept the expanding role of the emerging powers. Responsible stakeholders they might gradually become, but not in the sense of supporting U.S. foreign policy objectives. For the time being, Washington will keep the privilege of initiating the global agenda, but it will have to negotiate to arrive at, increasingly, compromise solutions.
- The U.S. adjustment to a more important role played by the emerging powers is being hampered by the fact that not all emerging powers are democracies. There is always a temptation to push back against the authoritarians, put them under pressure or delegitimize them. This promises a more intense and more interesting competition, but in the end Washington will likely put its interests above the strictures of its ideology—as it nearly always does, at the end of the day. Ironically, this enhanced competition may help the United States to become more competitive itself.