Historian Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflicts from 1500 to 2000 which was published during the twilight years of the Cold War, succeeded in doing to geo-politics, what Mao’s Little Red Book had done to the deep, deep thoughts of the beloved communist Chinese butcher and child molester. It helped popularize a somewhat esoteric topic of discussion in stuffy gentlemen’s clubs in Victorian London or in Bismarck’s Berlin, turning it into a trendy piece of conversation among the more diverse American and international audiences.
Rising to the top of the New York Times best-seller list, the heavy Rise and Fall (close to 700 pages) became a book that members of the cool chattering class were required to read (or at least, to buy). Moreover, forecasting the political and economic decline (relatively speaking) of the U.S. (got it wrong in 1987) and the then Soviet Union (got it right) and the rise (again, relatively speaking) of Japan (wrong), the then European Economic Community (about right) and China (right), Rise and Fall seemed to set the standard for the new popular genre of books on the Next Big Foreign Policy Idea for the post-Cold War/globalization era.
From Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, through Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order and Thomas L. Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree to the Coming Anarchy and Future Perfect, scholars and pundits have been bombarding us with dire or bright predictions about global prosperity or mass starvation, international peace or world wars, unipolarity or multipolarity, and the rise or fall of nationalism, religion, ethnicity, racism and tribalism.
Enter Parag Khanna, the director of the Global Governnance Initiative in the American Strategy Forum in the New America Foundation, with his Next Big Foreign Policy Idea. Erase unipolarity and the third world and add tripolarity and the second world to your foreign policy vocabulary. In The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order, Khanna proposes that we are heading toward a tripolar global system dominated by three great geostraetgic and geoeconomic powers or empires — the United States, the European Union and China — that will be competing for the hearts and minds (and pocketbooks) of the emerging nation-states and markets in Central Asia, Latin America, the Pacific Rim and the Middle East that compose what Khanna describes as the second world. It is this mostly peaceful competition over markets and investments — not a cold or a hot war — in the second world between the big three — Brazil, Argentina, Indonesia, Malaysia, Azerbaijan are some of the countries in transition that will be the focus on this tripolar contest — that will shape the global political, economic and military balance of power in the twenty-first century, according to Khanna.
The U.S., EU and China represent three distinct diploamtic styles — coalition, consensus, and conusltation respectively that could appeal to the second world. America has its “coalitions of the willing” style of conducting foreign policy that negotiates diploamtic alignments based on issue-by-issue basis, and offers military protection and aid. The EU aggregates countries in a manner more resembling a corporate merger than a political conquest, providing them with economic association and political reforms, with net gains in both trade and territory from North Africa to the Caucasus. And China, which draws on ancient Confucian customs, promotes a consultative pattern of behavior that emphasizes areas of great agreement while tabling issues lacking accord for other occasions. It offers to potential partners in the second world “full-service, condition-free relationship.”
Against the backdrop of the Iraq War and the ensuing anti-American sentiments in many parts of the second world, the U.S. finds itself now in a weakened position in the tripolar competition, suggesting to Khanna that its post-Cold War unipolar moment is coming to an end, and that America will have to share this century with China and the EU. According to the futuristic scenarios drawn-up by Khanna, China’s search for energy resources and markets for its products will be driving its growing presence in America’s strategic backyard in Latin America, while the EU is getting ready to replace the U.S. as the leading power in the Broader Middle East.
In fact, Khanna warns that the continuing military overstretch and declining economic power and quality of life threaten to transform the U.S. from a global power into a member of the less prestigious club of the second world. The war on terrorism will end, and China and the EU — and not the U.S. — could emerge as the global winners.
There are many holes in Khanna’s grand strategic theory. He seems to exhibit too much pessimism about the ability of India to evolve into a global power and that of Russia to regain its former status. And he fails to highlight the many obstacles facing China and especially the EU on the road to global leadership. While he provides timely reports and sophisticated analyses about the growing geo-economic competition between the U.S. China and the EU in the emerging regions of the world, his vision of a tripolar international system remains a creative speculation at this stage.
While the U.S. is probably going to lose its global economic position, it will take a long time before we’ll find out whether its decline leads to a rise of a new bipolarity or multipolarity, to stability or anarchy, to clash between nations, religions or civilizations. In short, we are probably going to search for quite a while for the Next Big Foreign Policy Idea.