To be fair scholars have been exploring this possibility for decades – Paul Kennedy’s seminal book the Rise and Fall of Great Powers (1984) is a case in point. Not suprisingly the financial meltdown of 2008 has resulted in a gold rush of simliar such publications.
Having enjoyed Charles Kupchan’s The End of the American Era (2002) I was willing to indulge his latest effort, No One’s World: The West, the Rising Rest and the Coming Global Turn (2012).
As the title suggests, Kupchan’s core thesis is that the latest swing of the pendulum won’t result in a new American Century, a Chinese Century or even for that matter an Asia Century, it will be a world in which no one country dominates. He argues that a world where power is diffused across several zones isn’t new, but today’s globalised world is not one where different zones can exercise their power independently of one another.
What Beijing decides matters to Brussels, and what Brussels decides – if it can ever decide anything – matters to Washington and so on.
For Kupchan the end result is a globalised and interdependent world without a centre of gravity and without an anchor. Seen from this perspective the core challenge of our time is how we think about and practice world politics in a world that is no longer anchored by the West’s material and ideological primacy.
There is much that is familiar in Kupchan’s writings, but his argument that as emerging powers modernize, they are unlikely to slip neatly into the order that exists today, is challenging. If the existing order reflects our own modernity then surely it is presumptuous to assume that the emerging powers won’t bring to the table their own views about how to organize political, social, and commercial life?
The idea that we shouldn’t assume people want to become more like is a helpful tonic to much of today’s analysis about the transformations taking place in the Middle East today.
I’ve always been a little bit sceptical about the EU’s approach to the Arab Spring which is a modified version of the existing Neighbourhood Strategy first developed for Eastern Europe following the end of the Cold War. Put crudely this revised strategy amounts to an enlargement-lite strategy – where countries are rewarded with extra money, markets and mobility for delivering on key reforms without the promise of enlargement.
Even if EU member states can deliver much of the promised money, markets and mobility – which I think doubtful given the health of Europe’s economy and the state of public opinion – the strategy is built on the premise that countries comprising the Middle East and North Africa actually want to adopt European norms and standards. The evidence to date suggests otherwise and in some cases the trajectory is very clearly in the opposite direction.
Countries like Algeria and Egypt are fiercely protective of their independence and want to protect themselves from foreign and in particular Western influence. This is perhaps hardly surprising given the far too cosey relationships many of Europe’s leaders had with autocratic rulers in the region.
The nature of modernity that we slowly see emerging as the Arab Spring unfolds might well be very different to the one that we have crafted in the West. For a start our version of modernity – a product of the post-reformation era – saw religion removed from politics whereas what we are likely to see in the Middle East is a form of modernity where religion and politics are more closely aligned.
None of this is to say that we should throw our hands up in despair and reach for the JB and the sleeping pills. That others might not want to follow our path of modernity doesn’t diminish who we are or what we stand for. It merely means that we need to be tolerant of others who follow different paths.
Rather than resisting the move to multiple versions of modernity should we accept it and in so doing try to help shape the process? If we did so, might we find the end result, a form of global pluralism, nearer to our own set of core values? To do so however, we will need to recognise and accept, however shocking we may find it, that people don’t necessarily want to be like us.