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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

15 June 2005

The coming tripolarity?

The world is polarizing around three centers of gravity—America, Europe, and China—each with its own ambitions and interpretations of how the world should work.

What makes this emerging tripolarity prone to conflict is that all three have differing views on how societies should be organized and how the world should be ordered. Disputes between them will be for more than dollars, euros or yuan—their battles will be about the optimum form of political and international organization; and other countries may increasingly view their relationship with one of the superpowers as a way to define their political identities, just as it happened in the Cold War.

Domestically America is liberal with an individualistic culture that is skeptical of government; Europe is also liberal, but with a citizenry that expects government to offer economic security against the free market; China is capitalist with a culture which is weary of sudden change and which believes that patient governance is preferable to the speedy poll-based decision-making of the West.

Internationally, America is missionary in its desire to spread democracy yet realistic in its faith that force can solve international problems; Europe is more inward looking, yet believes that international institutions and law can be relied upon to foster cooperation and peace; China pursues a commercial realpolitik, with increasingly military tunes, whose driving force is the national interest.

The three ways to organize life are spreading. The European Union is a magnet for Eastern Europe, and the acquis communautaire has become the EU’s guide on how to run a country. American-trained professionals are bringing ideas to foreign lands, and the “Washington Consensus” is the expertly guide on economic management. And, the Chinese are being called in different places to advance their development model which combines economic growth without political liberalization.

Although the West believes that its liberal ways have won, the Chinese model has broad appeal. Indeed, the world increasingly looks like China: insecure emerging countries, guarding of their sovereignty, whose political elites want economic development without relinquishing power, domestically or internationally. The perennial Western predicament—that its economic advice is directed to political chieftains who cannot heed to it without losing some power—is being resolved by an alternative development process.

This tripolarity has yet to fully emerge because China is only now spreading its influence. As Robert Kaplan writes, “All over the globe, in such disparate places as the troubled Pacific-Island states of Oceania, the Panama Canal zone, and out-of-the-way African nations, the Chinese are becoming masters of indirect influence—by establishing business communities and diplomatic outposts, by negotiating construction and trade agreements” (The Atlantic, June 2005). There are countries, too, that approach the Chinese to get their expertise on establishing authoritarian capitalism. China’s influence will increase as its adds foreign aid and other types of economic pressure to its diplomatic arsenal, to coerce as well as attract others to its ideas and interests.

This new environment has profound implications. America has assumed that with the fall of the Soviet Union, the importance of remote locations has waned; and Europe is self-consumed to try to extend its influence abroad. But the rise of China makes clear that countries are no longer left out in the cold if Washington or Brussels refuses to let them in—they can knock on Beijing’s door. This complicates America’s effort to square the circle of national security and democracy promotion. Where America pressures allies to democratize, China awaits in the corner to court rebuffed allies—and to lure them with access to its market and other economic benefits.

Sooner or later, the spheres of influence of the three superpowers will meet. As Europe spreads eastward, its ideas will reach Central Asia, upon which China depends to satisfy its energy appetite. And the American presence in the Middle East, with the peripheral alliances that make it possible, America and China could clash in China’s East, as surely they are bound to in the Pacific rim.

There is reason to think that these clashes might be lethal, which is that conflict between the three could become about the best way to organize a society. The twentieth century was a struggle between capitalism, fascism and communism. The twenty-first could be free market capitalism versus social welfare capitalism versus authoritarian capitalism.

This conflict is particularly disruptive because it has no bounds and hence security is infinitely unattainable. The success of any model threatens the order in the other two superpowers. Chinese authoritarianism undermines America’s grand strategy which connects democracy to peace and prosperity. The spread of the European model could undermine world trade, as it thrives with populations that are fear globalization (though this has yet to happen in Eastern Europe). And the spread of American ideas could bring industrial upheaval in Europe or political revolution in China.

This means that the world could be up for another cold war—resembling the Cold War in the deepness of the disputes between the superpowers. It could also herald new alliances—particularly between Europe and America to counter China. It could also mean that what to date has been considered a futile political exercise—building armies to deter an American attack, a strategy many Americans find incomprehensible given what they think is their benign intent—will find a superpower sponsor. China might become more and more willing to offer those states security—security from America’s military, and security from America’s and Europe’s disruptive ideas of political liberty.

There is some comfort in knowing that this play has been staged before. However novel China’s aristocratic system of government, the bet between giving and denying freedom has been won by liberty. But there is less comfort in knowing that whatever the ultimate end of this struggle, which could mean another “end of history” for Western liberalism, the struggle could be long and brutal.

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