The world is changing rapidly around us. The world of the late 20th century, marked by the unilateral dominance of the United States, is beginning to give way to the more complex and multipolar world of the 21st century, marked by the emergence of new economic and political powers such as China, India and Brazil.
The core foreign policy challenge that will confront the United States over the coming decades is how to respond to this changing world.
[This op-ed appeared in the January 1, 2009 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch]
There are several possibilities:
— First, we could ignore it. This is the path imperial Chinese rulers chose in the late 18th century when China comprised a full third of the world's economy. It was the undisputed superpower of East Asia. But rapid European economic growth altered this equilibrium, leading to the emergence of countries such as Britain, France and Russia as world players. China's emperors refused to adapt.
The result? While European nations surged ahead, China remained insular and isolated. When, at the end of the 19th century, Chinese leaders sought equal political treatment from the European powers, they met nothing but scorn and hostility.
— Second, we could fight it. This is the path that imperial Spain and France chose during their respective moments in the sun as the most powerful European players during the 16th and 18th centuries. Both attempted to unilaterally suppress the emergence of rising powers, particularly England.
The result? Spanish and French efforts to prolong their control over the European political stage through military force prompted other nations to build extensive coalitions to unseat them. Both nations were left battered and bloodied by a long series of wars with their economic and political possessions ripe for picking by the newly emerging powers.
— Third, we could accept it. This is the track that Britain chose in the late 19th and early 20th century. Despite dominating an empire that covered one-fourth of the globe, British leaders faced the uncomfortable realization that the world was changing around them. A rapidly growing United States was emerging as a world power. Rising nationalism in India created citizen demands for an increasing role in deciding the fate of South Asia. Faced with these changes, London's continued global dominance simply was not sustainable.
British leaders did make errors initially; the American Revolution was one. But they rapidly adjusted their own policies and worldview. They allowed India and United States to assume increasingly large responsibilities for regional and world governance. They supported the development of new international institutions to replace old British colonial ones.
This skillful response to a changing world allowed British leaders to protect their core interests and helped limit unnecessary conflict with the rising powers. And by allowing the United States and India a place in the world system, British leaders ensured that both countries saw their future as intrinsically tied to the institutions that England had helped create, rather than trying to break those ties.
The United States will remain one of the most influential world powers for the foreseeable future. It has the third-largest population and the second-largest economy. But over the next several decades, we will face challenges similar to those that have confronted other powers. As the rest of the world develops, we will discover that our ability to make decisions unilaterally on world affairs will decline.
Ignoring these global tectonic shifts or fighting them will not stop them from occurring. Such responses simply would ensure that the world institutions that develop over the coming decades bypass the United States or, worse, oppose us.
Alternatively, we can embrace these changes. We can take a leading role in creating international institutions to address such long-term threats as the financial crisis and climate change. We can make certain that our children grow up equipped with the languages and skills to operate in a truly global environment. We can assure developing countries such as China that we want them to have an equal place at the table, along with equal responsibilities, in deciding world affairs.
If we take this path, the United States can actively shape the world in which our children will grow up and ensure that newly emerging powers find it in their interest to work with us in designing the world of the 21st century.
Carl Minzner is an associate professor of law at Washington University School of Law. He specializes in Chinese law and politics.