At the turn of the twenty first century the ‘vox globalii’ was all aflutter – or, a-twitter – with the talk of the Rise of Asia and the (inevitable?) Decline of the West. This was only further fueled by the perceived failures of the Iraq invasion, and the log jam in Afghanistan. Further nails in the coffin for the West came with financial crisis. The USA looked like going under. The European Union was going to break apart today or tomorrow. And, China’s growth rates continued to soar as if on steroids. India seemed to be on the verge of breaking out into the big league. The Arab Spring promised a liberal, democratic and progressive Arab world. The world was never going to be the same. Tectonic shifts, they said, are taking place on the international scene.
The earthquake, however, never came. And it seems to have been put off for a while. The US economy is on the rebound while China’s steroids seem to be wearing off. The European Union has seen through the worst of its woes while India seems to be trapped in crisis after crisis. And the Arab Spring? Mosri seems to have replaced Mubarak in more ways than one and a re-incarnated Al-Qaeda threatens to wreak havoc throughout the region.
Well, this century is only twelve years old. It often takes a decade or two for the turn of the century to kick in as was the case with the last which only truly began with the World War. The earthquake could yet come. I should definitely cover my back for folk who fail to predict earthquakes can be given a beating now and then. But will the twenty first century be, like some analysts were wont to put it till some time back, the Asian century?
For that, we need to see a simultaneous double sided direction of change in the international system – the continuous rise of the ‘new’ powers and a similar relative decline of the old. We can be sure about the first. But we can also, as we stand today, quite firmly discount the second. Simply put, the United States of America will not lose its position of power in the global system any time soon. And by ‘soon’ I mean before the last two or three decades of the century. This is for a number of reasons. First, the impending decline of the US economy never happened. Second, USA’ alliance system, which could have crumbled in the situation of EU’s collapse, remains strong. Third, the long term prospect of US power remain strong with a number of self-enforcing factors. A stable polity, huge investment in r and d (in military and civilian spheres), a society that seems to be free of any system threatening cleavages – like communal or identity conflicts. In fact, one could say that this century will see the United States re-define the scope and dimension of ‘super-power.’
Then, importantly, China will not any time soon see itself rise to a position where it can challenge the United States for global supremacy. China will, most probably, overtake the United Stated as the largest economy in the projected time – you can choose whichever projection you prefer – but will remain constrained by its domestic problems, especially relating to the political system, and its international relations, especially with regard to its relations with neigbouring countries. Also, China will hardly be in a position to build up a counter-alliance-network to rival that of the United States. The BRICS, for example, have an anti-cement of intra-rivalries in relation to China which plague almost all international regimes which China is a member of. Even its homegrown SCO.
It hardly seems likely that we will see an international system organized around a United States of America-China rivalry on the lines of the bi-polar Cold War world of the twentieth century. In fact, if there is to be any bi-polar reorganising of the international system it seems more likely to be one slightly modified but on the lines of the early cold war, with a Sino-Russian-Iran bloc pitted against the US-NATO bloc. This is an important topic which should be dealt with in detail but we will leave it aside. For now. But my point is only this that the international system is unlikely to see any tectonic shifts – any large scale re-ordering – any time soon. We will most probably see a return to mid-twentieth century international politics with the focus shifting away from the Central Asian Heartland to the Pacific Rimland – the United States‘ alliance system in China‘s periphery, as was the case in the 1950-60’s – as exemplified by the United States’ Pivot to Asia. In other words, more of the same in the twenty-first century.
My point is not to deny change – the inexorable process of change towards progress that we all expect and hope for. National societies, especially in the developing world, will continue to feel the flux of – to use a rather controversial term – modernization. In my view, the twenty first century will be the century of democracy. Already a vast majority of the nations of the world are more or less democracies – at least self defined as such and if only electoral rather than the ideal of liberal democracy. I hope to develop this idea further in a subsequent essay. In the meanwhile, I would request the reader to refer to my earlier essay on the implications of the Rise of Asia.