It is now a commonplace of international policy analysis to observe that the rise of Asia “changes everything”: that America is no longer dominant, Europe is no longer relevant, and the twenty-first century belongs to China. The bipolar world became a unipolar world in 1991, turned into a multipolar world around 2001, and is fast becoming a bipolar world again — with China as the dominant pole. China is alternately feared and celebrated, but never forgotten.
My advice is: forget about China.
China is a horrifically polluted, extraordinarily exploitative, stiflingly repressive capitalist dictatorship run by multibillionaire politicians who share power with a coddled, irresponsible, and socially isolated military bureaucracy. China is great place to visit for rich westerners who isolate themselves in five-star hotels and bullet trains. But you wouldn’t want to live there. On most days in Shanghai and Beijing you can’t even see the sky.
This is not to knock China. China has done no worse than most other poor countries, and much better than many. But China has little to offer for people dreaming of a better world. The international system, to the extent there is any system at all to international politics, is oriented around vision, not power. The bipolar world of the post-WWII years was bipolar because the United States and the Soviet Union — each in its own, flawed way — offered the world a vision of what the future could hold, not a national vision but a universal vision for all of humanity.
The postwar United States offered the world a vision of endless plenty, an overflowing cornucopia of technology and material goods. Postwar America peddled individual freedom, both ideologically and literally. Every individual family would have an individual house and an individual car. Embrace consumer society and you could decorate your house any way you wanted and chose from among a dozen models of car. It is easy to ridicule the individual consumer society, but the dream of that society is highly seductive for many people.
The postwar Soviet Union by contrast offered the world a vision of shared sacrifice in the pursuit of common goals. Instead of a fabulous personal car you could ride on an even more fabulous communal underground. The Soviet Union often did not live up to its vision, especially where its internal subject nations were concerned, but the vision was there, and it was seductive. Postcolonial independence movements around the world looked to the Soviet Union not just for funding, but for inspiration and ideology.
Both of these postwar models are now discredited. The Soviet Union, of course, is gone, and few people look to contemporary Russia for inspiration. After 1991 the United States, on the other hand, had the historic opportunity to articulate a new vision for a better world. If the United States in 1991 had used its unipolar moment to promote nuclear disarmament, the expansion of the welfare state, and global action against climate change, the people of the world would have looked to the United States for global leadership in the twenty-first century just as in the twentieth.
Instead the United States used its unipolar moment to secure its dominant position in the Middle East, promote the financialization of the world-economy, and create the World Trade Organization. In all these efforts it was, to a large degree, successful. But by prioritizing narrow national business interests over the future of humanity, the United States lost any claim it may once have had on the world’s imagination. The ever-narrowing nationalism of American politics since 2001 has made things even worse. In contemporary American policy debates, the adjective “European” is routinely used as an insult.
If neither China nor the United States nor China is today capable of inspiring people around the world, who is? Who will set the terms of the great policy debates of the twenty-first century? Where are the best ideas coming from?
The international system is not some giant board game in which countries threaten and invade others in a quest for global dominance. Armies, navies, and nuclear weapons don’t win arguments anymore. Even a country as large and powerful as the United States can find itself isolated and ignored if it promotes a vision of the future that fails to capture the imaginations of the peoples of the world.
No, the future belongs to the small countries of the world. The future belongs to countries that have learned how to live alongside each other in peaceful harmony, how to support each others’ efforts to achieve fulfilling lives for their citizens, how to work together to preserve and nourish their shared environmental endowments. It is increasingly the small countries of the world that are taking the lead in showing how we can make our world a better place for everyone.
Many of the smaller European states have strong records of regional and global cooperation, but cooperation among small countries is not limited to Europe. In South America there is a new spirit of continent-wide cooperation towards common goals of sustainable and equitable development. In Africa regional and continental groupings are increasingly taking responsibility for the promotion of freedom and democracy throughout the continent. Southeast Asian countries are working together to establish new human rights norms for the region. The world is moving forward, with or without the major powers.
The twentieth century bipolar world order is gone, and no new polar order has arisen to replace it. That’s a good thing. The world needs order, but it doesn’t need poles. It needs leadership. If that leadership comes from 100 countries instead of just one or two, so much the better. Our best hope for the future of humanity is that all countries embrace the human-scale spirit of neighborly cooperation that prevails in many small countries. The challenges we face are too large to be left to large countries alone.