Stephen M. Walt

The end of the world as we know it?

The end of the world as we know it?

For the past 500 years or so, world politics has mostly been driven by the actions and priorities of the transatlantic powers (aka "the West"). This era began with the development of European colonial empires, which eventually carved up most of the globe, spread ideas like Christianity, nationalism and democracy, and created many of the state boundaries that still exist today. (They also screwed a lot of things up in the process). Although other actors (e.g., Japan) played significant roles too, especially after 1945, the transatlantic community (broadly defined) had been the most important set of players for centuries.

Europe’s decline after World War II was immediately followed the era of American liberal internationalism. With NATO and Japan as junior partners, the United States underwrote a variety of global institutions (mostly of its own making), maintained a vast array of military bases, waged and won a Cold War, and sought-with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success-to spread core "Western" values and institutions to different parts of the world.

I don’t want to go all Spenglerian on you (or even Kennedy-esque) — but I’m beginning to think this era is essentially over, and that we are on the cusp of a major shift in the landscape of world power. Asia’s share of world GDP already exceeds that of the United States or Europe, and a recent IMF study suggests it will be greater than the United States and Europe combined by 2030. Europe has already become a rather hollow military power, and the current economic crisis is going to force European states-and especially the United Kingdom — to cut those capabilities even more. Needless to say, hopes that the euro might one day supplant the dollar look rather hollow today. Politics within many European countries is likely to get nasty as austerity kicks in, and there will inevitably be less money and less support for Europe’s various philanthropic projects in Africa, Central Asia, or the Middle East. Such activities won’t disappear entirely, but it’s hard to see how they can continue at anywhere near their current levels.

America’s situation is more favorable for several reasons (greater growth potential, a younger and still-growing population, more flexible labor markets, greater capacity to borrow abroad, etc.), but it will face analogous pressures of its own. We’ve piled up some serious debt due to the Iraq war and the 2008 financial crisis, unemployment remains uncomfortably high, the health care bill won’t cut costs fast enough to make up for all those aging (and demanding) baby boomers, state and local governments are facing major fiscal problems of their own, resistance to taxation remains endemic, and we’ve got a lot of deferred maintenance in our national infrastructure. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged in a major speech last week, the Department of Defense won’t be immune from these realities and it is going to have to make some serious cuts in the next few years too. And I’m betting that once the dust settles, the combined experience of Iraq and Afghanistan is going to cool U.S. enthusiasm for more open-ended and ill-conceived efforts at "nation-building," "regional transformation" or whatever other label you want to place on our mucking about in areas we don’t understand and where we mostly don’t belong.

Taken together, this means that the countries that have done the most to try to manage global politics over the past several centuries are going to be doing a lot less of that sort of activity in the decades to come. In some ways, this could be a good thing, because some Western meddling was misguided and harmful and it would be better if other countries started taking more responsibility for their own affairs. But it also means that some areas of the world are going to get messier, and in ways that could still affect us all directly. And it also means that a new set of players will be increasingly involved in shaping the global agenda, and in some unfamiliar ways.

Of course, to some extent the shifts I am describing merely reflect the fact some parts of the world are now developing rapidly, and shifting the global balance of power largely through their own efforts. China is the poster child for this trend, and its rapid rise is mostly due to Beijing have finally cast off the failed policies of the past century or so. Similar trends are evident in India, albeit more slowly, and in other Asian countries too.

But the impending end of the Atlantic Era also reflects the self-inflicted wounds that Europe and America have each suffered over the past decade. In the European case, it was the misguided attempt to float a common currency on an inadequate institutional foundation, combined with irresponsible budgetary practices (the Labor era in England), fiscal chicanery (Greece) or a speculative bubbles (Spain and Ireland). In the American case, it was simple hubris: somehow we convinced ourselves that markets would always go up, that debts did not need to be paid, that whole regions could be transformed in liberal democracies at a point of a rifle barrel, and that we really could run the world on the cheap and without raising taxes. In simple terms, we can now see that the United States and much of Europe were like happy drunks enjoying a pleasant if prolonged pub-crawl. But eventually the party has to ends, sobriety returns, and the hangover must be faced. Welcome to 2010. 

If this analysis is even partly correct, then we are going to need some serious rethinking of grand strategy in both Europe and the United States. Hard choices will have to be made, and traditional world-views and familiar platitudes won’t help us very much. Experience is valuable trait for policymakers in normal times, but it can also blind them when new circumstances arise and the conventional wisdom is no longer relevant. One doesn’t see a lot of bold foreign policy thinking on either side of the Atlantic these days, and one could argue that lengthy service inside-the-Beltway (or even worse, at NATO headquarters) is one of the best ways to stamp the life out of any kernels of imagination that might arise. 

Call me fanciful, but I’d still like to see Obama (or Cameron, or Merkel) create a "Team B" to inject some new thinking more directly into the policy process. Or why not create several? Why not a Team B on the future of NATO, another on the Middle East peace process, a third on how to deal with Iran, a fourth on how to rebuild global institutions, and yet another on future relations with China? Don’t give these groups any formal authority, but tell them to take a zero-based look at our current strategy and populate them with at least a few people who might not pass a Senate confirmation hearing and who haven’t spent their whole lives repeating what everyone else has said before. And then listen to what they have to say. Who knows? They might actually come up with something useful.

Travel note: I am back to the Balkans this week, attending conferences in Istanbul and Athens. As always, blogging frequency will be subject to jet lag, time, and internet access.