Gideon Rachman’s “Zero-Sum Future: American Power in an Age of Anxiety” continues a theme in a number of books about the slide in American “unipolar” power and suggests that the global system would be weaker for it, with more potential for destabilization.
This author phrases the risk as a form of zero-sum logic in how nation-states deal with each other-the idea that a benefit to one means a dead-loss to another. Such an approach suggests hawkish negotiating behaviors instead of cooperative ones, which would be necessary to deal with issues such as global warming, nuclear proliferation, free trade, food security, water use, and other shared issues. And yet in times of national vulnerability and experiences of scarcity, constituencies have been found to prefer hawkish and competitive leaders-who do not give away unnecessary advantages to foreign countries.
Of late, with double-digit unemployment and a stagnant job market, a third to a half of Americans in poverty, house prices not yet hitting bottom, high government borrowing (with reliance on continued Chinese and Middle Eastern lending), and political gridlock, the US is no longer in a position of “unchallenged superiority.” This sense of an American pullback may presage a period of “dangerous instability and profound change,” writes Rachman.
A chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times, Rachman conceptualizes three macro-level phases in regards to globalization from 1978 to the present: the Age of Transformation (1978-1991) which saw the rise of China and India with their integration into the world economy; The Age of Optimism (1991-2008) with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and then The Age of Anxiety (2008-present) with the near-collapse of the international financial system (sparked by the crisis in the US housing market).
If there is a kind of surplus benefit that may be attained with nation-states cooperating, the question is how much of a margin there is in that. If there are true limits to the world, then it may be that there is some reality to zero-sum logic. For example, the consumption of oil or a rare mineral by one nation-state means a non-use by any other-as these are rivalrous goods. (However, substitute fuels or artificially created minerals may change that equation to be less zero-sum but at cost to whomever pursues the R&D.)
The global system’s entrenched challenges result in part from the incentive systems which reward nationalistic behaviors-for national security interests. A zero-sum assumption risks continuing deadlock in international bodies in terms of arriving at meaningful agreements (vs. pro forma ones).
At stake are debates also over the ideologies of authoritarianism vs. democracy as viable governance approaches. A case in point was the West’s response to “6-4” in the People’s Republic of China: “The West’s reaction to Tiananmen” (1989) was a strange mixture of horror and complacency: horror at the bloodshed, but also a complacent sense that China would ultimately have to embrace democracy. The Chinese government had won a battle against the democratic movement sweeping the world, but it could not win the war. Popular liberal theory held that, ultimately, economic freedom and political freedom went hand in hand. China could not buck the system forever.”
From a proverbial 30,000-foot level, this writer offers a cursory look at US domestic politics in relation to the larger geopolitical environment. The former Soviet Union collapsed amidst the effects of its poor economic standing, with 20 to 30 percent of its GDP going to the military. The effects of glasnost and perestroika resulted in the eventual collapse of the USSR from 1985 - 1991. Latin America made headway towards democratizing from 1982 - 1991 (but has since reverted to various forms of more authoritarian leadership).
The US “unipolar” moment in 1991 with the Gulf War, in which it strove to lead the world in an international fight against aggression in the Iraqi invasion of oil-rich Kuwait, but that moment now is seen in retrospect as the beginning of the slide.
There followed a period of US power: “Economic power with the United States as the core of the global economy. Financial power with Wall Street directing the flows of money around the world. Military power with the United States outspending the rest of the world combined. Technological power with America at the heart of the computer and Internet revolutions. This led to intellectual power-the power to create new narrative for the world.” American thinkers described a new world order of global citizens cooperating with each other around shared trade and mutual interests. It was thought that the end point of human ideological evolution was in a Western style liberal democracy, once and for all.
A challenge to that vision occurred on 9/11 with the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., acts of terrorism that challenged both economic globalization and American power.
Still, the proliferation of information technologies was thought to make it harder for authoritarian governments to exist (with the Arab Spring as a case in point).
And the United States still had world leaders in philanthropy and science, such as Bill Gates, whom the author met in his journalistic work: “Gates was convinced that the world’s toughest problems could be cracked-if you could just find the right people and enough money, and then applied the power of technology. He was the epitome of the American ‘can-do’ spirit-a man with an almost nineteenth-century faith in progress that seemed to have been largely lost in Europe.”
The 1990s witnessed the advance of democracy, even though there was the breakup of Yugoslavia, with 300,000 dying in the fighting in Bosnia, and then the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 with the murder of some 800,000. A new value of the “responsibility to protect” emerged from those conflagrations-with the world more sober about the threats of human hatreds of each other culminating in violence.
A key question now is whether economic liberalization will mean that China will take on political liberalization-and optimally benefit from the democratic peace that seems to accompany both the development of wealth and a political system that is more responsive to its individual citizens.
Rachman explains the idea of democratic peace: “People who got used to making their own decisions as consumers, workers, and employers would eventually demand political rights as well. The spread of democracy would then further strengthen the move toward international peace because democracies were highly unlikely to go to war with each other. . . Political systems that stressed individual rights and a free press were less likely to tolerate the misery of war. Countries that shared the same political values were unlikely to feel threatened by each other. Democracies that gained their legitimacy through the ballot box would not need international conflict to rally people behind their governments. And citizens who gained fulfillment and dignity as consumers and voters would be less susceptible to the demagogic temptations of nationalism.”
Does the European Union as a semi-functioning bloc of countries offer a clear way forward for global leadership (even with its struggling euro and political fractiousness)?
If a G20 is not to be, how about a G2-with the enduring rivals US and China coming to some agreements and providing leadership? Rachman suggests that both nations’ leaders would be discomfited by this proposal. “The Americans know that any such talk will antagonize and even destabilize vital American allies such as Japan and the EU,” he observes. This concept may be simply unrealistic.
He observes that both countries’ military strategies war-game each other. A sustained military buildup in China puts at risk US aircraft carriers and its bases in East Asia.
That tension has seeped into the public sphere: “At present, U.S. troops and warships are stationed all over East Asia and the Pacific, from the soldiers along the frontier between the two Koreas, to the huge U.S. military base in Okinawa in Japan, and the forward naval and air base in Guam. Officially, China is not calling for an American military withdrawal from East Asia. Unofficially, some influential Chinese will tell visitors that it is unnatural for the United States to have such a large military presence in Asia and that eventually this will change. There is even a strong current in Chinese thinking that holds that war with the United States is inevitable,” he writes.
While China holds $2.5 trillion in foreign reserves mostly in greenbacks, there is a conspiracy theory that the US would let inflation devalue the value of their holdings. China’s massive purchases of US debt is seen as part of a larger strategy as possibly destabilizing the US and not as an endeavor that is helping the country through a difficult economic period until it figures out how to stop over-spending.
The rising population of the world only stands to make global problems more difficult to solve. UN statistics suggest that there will be 9 billion people on earth by 2050.
State-controlled national businesses control the world’s largest oil companies and three-fourths of the world’s energy reserves in 2009. There is a sliding loss of faith in free markets to provide “order and prosperity to the world system.”
The rising costs of basic foodstuffs and food shortages are seen to be socially destabilizing, disproportionately harming the “bottom billion,” and making conflict more likely to break out.
Some projections suggest that the world will have more failed states-defined as governments unable to control territory or exert the rule of law.
“The American military remains the only force with a global reach. If America becomes much warier of foreign entanglements in the wake of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Great Recession, there is no coordinated global force prepared to move into the vacuum. Each of the authoritarian powers is likely to become more assertive in its backyard,” he reasons.
That would lead to a more violent and fractured world and none of the benefits of the Pax Americana (“American peace” in Latin) in a zero-sum future.
Shalin Hai-Jew works for Kansas State University. She lives in Manhattan.