The American-led global order set up soon after World War II is considered by some analysts as not only the formation of rules and norms for the operations of the global economy and global security, but it is also considered as an alliance system and a bulwark against the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. Now that the Soviet Union is in the ash heap of history, many Americans are questioning the utility of maintaining global order single-handedly when for the most part the United States gets nothing in return for the incurred costs of maintaining this global order. The question of why Americans should incur the costs of maintaining global order while other countries essentially get to free-ride off this order is something that was addressed by Donald Trump during his inaugural address in January 2017, when he stated: “[America] made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon.”
Thus, the central theme of America’s current administration led by Donald Trump as reflected by the sentiments of many Americans is “America First.” However, we should first envision a world in which American support for the upkeep of global order is largely removed due to the pursuit of individual interests and ask whether this new world will be peaceful and stable or chaotic and disorderly given that America has been the linchpin of the global economy and global security for many decades. After all, the aim and purpose of global order is to maintain the peace so that the global economy can function and people from around the world can prosper.
Perhaps China and Russia will largely fill the void left by the United States in places like Europe and Asia as the United States pursues a foreign policy that is based for the most part on relative isolation from the world as well as the pursuit of self-interest rather than constructive engagement with the world and the pursuit of the “common good.” But at this point, “all is uncertainty” to borrow from Paul Nitze. As mentioned in previous essays, the main task of international politics and relations is the establishment of global order. All the various dimensions of global order (industrialization, diplomacy, law, politics, militarization, and strategy) pertain to two basic elements, namely, the economic and security elements of global order. Physical and maritime security, coupled with the open access of markets and a common currency through which international trade is conducted, is something that the United States has provided as public goods in the international system for many decades.
Whereas in the latter half of the 20th century and at the dawn of the 21st century the United States was basically the sole linchpin of the global economy and global security, today that is no longer the case because the United States has to a certain degree exhausted its energy and resources in Middle Eastern wars and as a result it has become increasingly difficult for the United States to single-handedly uphold global order. As America withdraws, however, the void left by the United States increases the chance of chaos and strife in many parts of the world, particularly the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia.
Moreover, the global economy as well as global security – and thus global order – are now heavily impacted by globalization, which equates to making the world much more interconnected, interdependent, and smaller as a result of the internet and technology. In turn, the challenges as well as the threats to the global economy and global security are more acute than ever before given that heightened globalization, according to Jeffrey Sachs, leads to a more rapid rise and fall of empires and nations alike, and as a result there will be immense turbulence and volatility in the international system for the foreseeable future.
However, a peculiar feature of today’s world is that globalization is bringing the world ever closer despite immense social fragmentation, which is in and of itself a paradox. In order to govern in this type of situation, it is more than likely that heavy bureaucratization, technocracy, meritocracy, and thus the hyper-centralization of power will occur in various administrative regions of the world such as North America, Europe, and Asia, which in turn will lead to a diminution of civic liberty and individual will almost everywhere. Because power is in such flux due to globalization, there are now four major shortcomings in the prevailing global order which need to be addressed as suggested by Henry Kissinger. For one, there is the issue of failed and weak states. Second, there is the issue of the blurring of national borders and frontiers resulting from globalization. Third, there is the challenge of governance prompted by a modification of “conventional patterns” resulting from globalization. And fourth, there is a lack of an effective mechanism for major powers to cooperate on transnational issues despite the existence of intergovernmental institutions such as the United Nations and NATO.
As Kissinger notes, the economic prosperity of the global order rests upon globalization and thus the interconnection and interdependence of people and nations within the global economy. But the political reaction to globalization in many countries is antithetical to it. Even in America, many people refuse to acknowledge or are unaware of the economic and social realities of our globalized world. As Fareed Zakaria has noted, the perception around the world of Americans is such that Americans are seen as living in a “cocoon” due to a state of relative isolation from the rest of the world. The American economy and market is largely isolated from the rest of the world. Also, many people were worried that America would abuse its power after becoming the unipolar power in the 1990’s because it was so out of touch with the economic and social realities of the world, and these worries were reaffirmed with America’s wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Although America is still the most powerful country in the world, America’s unipolar moment has largely evaporated as a result of its wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
What is now possible as a result of America’s “relative decline” and the relative rise of everyone else is the emergence of three distinct power centers, namely, America, Europe, and Asia. The concept of there being three distinct power centers was first developed by Janet Abu Lughod and was later echoed by Margaret Thatcher when she stated that the future of the global order will rest upon the distribution of power between America, Europe, and Asia. Relative equilibrium between these three power centers may lead to stability within the international system or perhaps multipolarity may lead to instability or social strife. “All is uncertainty.”
What is certain, however, is that America’s approach towards the world over the past two decades or so, as well as the approach of all other nations towards the world, has been based largely on realpolitik and self-interest, and the most pertinent question of international affairs right now is whether this approach towards the world that is based on realpolitik and self-interest can be replaced with a constructivist approach towards the world in which there is a shared effort on the part of the major power centers towards the maintenance of the global economy and global security.
Due to the gradual development of this multipolar structure based on three distinct power centers, America’s focus will perhaps be oriented more towards the other two power centers (Europe and Asia) rather than the Middle East and Afghanistan, which have extracted a great deal of American energy and resources and as a result has prompted the multipolar structure that is gradually emerging. As it becomes more difficult to sustain a global empire, America will have to make difficult choices as well as tradeoffs as to where it wishes to orient its energy and focus. America cannot be everywhere, nor can it focus on everything all at once. As Kissinger wrote: “What is new about the emerging world is that, for the first time, the United States can neither withdraw from the world nor dominate it.” It begs the question, however: will America choose as a foreign policy strategy to allocate its energy and resources towards the world’s major power centers, namely Europe and Asia? Or will it focus on what the late Zbigniew Brzezinski called the “global ghettoes”?
In the end, as Odd Arne Westad has argued, international politics and relations is based on the haves versus the have-nots of the international system, and thus America will have to choose which side it is on as it reorients its energy and focus towards the outside world. Perhaps through constructive engagement with the other power centers, America will be better positioned to address the problems stemming from these “global ghettoes” in a collective manner. But it is also important to note that Europe and East Asia combined have a GDP that is larger than the United States. If prodded to a certain extent, these two regions of the world should contribute to the upkeep of global order and solve some of the transnational problems stemming from the “global ghettoes” as the United States starts to draw down its presence in these global ghettoes. These two power centers, namely Europe and Asia, can now fend for themselves, for they both have nuclear breakout capabilities in the event of an American withdrawal which would in turn serve as a deterrence measure against adversaries such as Russia and China. Even Saudi Arabia has nuclear breakout capabilities as a deterrence measure against Iran in the event that America draws down its presence in the Persian Gulf.
But in a world of haves versus have-nots, the latter will seek to agitate and provoke the former either through asymmetrical warfare and propaganda, populist rage, or revolutionary fervor. Thus, it requires patience as well as self-restraint on the part of the haves to avoid hitting every nail with a sledgehammer per se. The have-nots will always challenge the legitimacy of the order set up by the haves, either successfully or not. As Henry Kissinger wrote: “[Global order] is submerged not primarily from military defeat or an imbalance in resources (though this often follows) but from a failure to understand the nature and scope of the challenge arrayed against it.” What may perhaps ease the tensions between the haves and the have-nots is to a certain extent empathy as well as understanding on the part of the former group. Most people in troubled situations are simply looking for empathy and understanding, and if this cannot be afforded to people who are stuck in the “global ghettoes,” then it should not come as a surprise that the social fabric of a highly globalized world will fall apart.
Nevertheless, given the nature of international politics and relations in the post-Cold War world of the 21st century that is largely based on schadenfreude as described by Westad, a more realist approach to the world would be more useful than an idealist approach in the event that a constructivist approach to relations with the other major power centers (Europe and China) fails to render favorable outcomes. One should always pursue a constructivist approach initially, and if it fails, the realist approach is always a fallback option. Even with the case of Cuba during the Cold War, the United States initially took a constructivist approach towards the Castro regime until the latter proved to be completely intransigent towards American overtures.
But in a way, the world is going back to the way it used to be in the sense that three distinct power centers are arising, except the only difference between then and now is that Europe, the Middle East, and China were the three major power centers of the past, whereas today it is the United States and North America as a whole that has taken the place of the Middle East alongside Europe and China. Thus, regionalism as the mechanism of organizing the international system is in order. As Kissinger notes: “The contemporary quest for world order will require a coherent strategy to establish a concept of order within the various regions, and to relate these regional orders to one another.”
An accommodation of this new reality within the international system is perhaps important for America’s position in this evolved system, for it is probably the only way to preserve a semblance of the status quo. As Kissinger wrote: “The second cause of an international order’s crisis (aside from the issue of legitimacy) is when it proves unable to accommodate a major change in power relations.” The essence of statesmanship, according to Kissinger, is to strike a balance between assessing changes in power relations as well as maintaining one’s legitimacy within the global order.
Perhaps the only way to preserve a semblance of the status quo that is characterized by American preeminence is to accommodate the rise of alternate or competing power centers such as Europe and China, as difficult as it may be for the status quo power to digest considering the psychological factors involved such as the sense of “American exceptionalism” and idealism. As Kissinger wrote: “One of the new necessities is that a world comprising several states of comparable strength must base its order on some concept of equilibrium – an idea with which the United States has never felt comfortable.”
Kissinger adds: “A country with America’s idealistic tradition cannot base its policy on the balance of power as the sole criterion for a new world order. But it must learn that equilibrium is a fundamental precondition for the pursuit of its historic goals.” Thus, there is a constructivist dimension to international relations that is perhaps missing in America’s foreign policy at the moment. But if there is any comfort that comes with this fact, it is that the evolution of global order through the solidification of three distinct power centers will not occur overnight. However, it is an evolution that is taking place, and perhaps the core issue of international affairs at the moment is the issue of how America will respond to this evolution.
Will the United States seek to thwart this evolution through a containment and rollback strategy towards China as was done towards the former Soviet Union? And if this strategy is adopted and implemented by the United States, how effective will it be? Will other countries come on board with such a strategy? Nothing is certain at the moment. Moreover, if China’s economic and security strategy is limited to a regional scope, is there really anything for the United States to contain and roll back? For the most part, America has done away with Asian conflicts and its foreign policy aims at no particular strategy or objective anywhere in the world at the moment. In a word, let China deal with the never-ending Asian wars.
Quite frankly, after the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, there is nothing much for the United States to do from a foreign policy standpoint. America, as absurd as it may seem, is largely an idle and isolated superpower with no real aim or purpose in the broader world. But because it is imperative for any state to assess changes in power relations and to retain its legitimacy within the global order before anything else, it would perhaps be useful to adopt a constructivist approach towards the other major power centers, and if this approach does not work for some odd reason, then one can always revert to the old playbook of containment and rollback.