Is the United States still the "indispensable nation"? How much more time does it have on top of the global political order? Who-or what-will come after America? Thursday at "A Place for the U.S.? The Future of American Leadership in a ‘World Without the West,'" four panelists pondered these questions. The general consensus was that rising powers like China, India, Brazil and Russia are gaining influence-at the expense of Europe and the United States.
After an introduction by the executive director of the University of California Washington Center, Bruce Caine, TNI editor and moderator Nikolas Gvosdev opened with a sharp critique of the American political class. Democrats and Republicans on the campaign trail, he said, talk about foreign policy as if they can hit a "reset button" that will take them back to 1992 or 2000. But the reality is that economic and geopolitical changes mean that other countries are now "less likely to accept the American lead" on a range of issues.
Steven Weber, a professor at UC-Berkeley and coauthor of the July 2007 article in The National Interest that inspired the event, picked up where Gvosdev left off. Wondering how long it would take for Americans to "wake up" to the fact that "another center of gravity" is emerging, he spoke of a group of developing states building an "alternative . . . international system" that largely bypasses the United States. According to Weber, this loose coalition doesn't yet aim to challenge American military preeminence, but instead "root around" and supplant Western norms, international organizations and financial practices.
Rejecting the now-conventional notion of a "flat" world, Weber argued that economic, technological and political linkages are growing among countries in this "world without the West" faster than they are with America and Europe. Non-Western powers are both attracted to the ideology advanced by states like China-chiefly noninterference in internal affairs, a different conception of human rights and confidence in "state-directed capitalism." If the United States is to preserve the liberal order, Weber said, it must change these perceptions.
Next to speak was Flynt Leverett of the New America Foundation, who focused on the economic foundation of the world without the West: developing countries are nationalizing their natural resources and converting them into political leverage, with startling success. Leverett maintained that the dramatic increase in energy prices since 2000 tips the geopolitical scales in the direction of oil-and-gas producing powers. The "strategic consequence" of these developments is a huge redistribution of wealth and economic power. Energy exporters like the GCC states and Russia gain; other beneficiaries include manufacturing powerhouses like China, Germany and Japan. Most ominously, the losers from high energy prices-the United States, Great Britain and the European Union-are ringing up large current-account deficits, putting them at the mercy of China and the energy exporters who finance their fiscal shortfalls.
Like Gvosdev and Weber, Leverett saw a huge disconnect between the foreign-policy rhetoric of the U.S. presidential candidates and the actual situation, going so far as to say that Obama, Clinton and McCain must be talking about "some other planet."
Rounding out the session was Frederick Kempe of the Atlantic Council, who represented the most optimistic voice. He started off by identifying three "mega-trends" in the international system: energy as a driver of strategic relations, the rise of nonstate actors and the transition from unipolarity to multipolarity. He maintained that a dramatic reduction in U.S. influence was not necessarily inevitable if Washington played its cards right.
Kempe grouped the myriad challenges facing the next president into three categories, advocating a "New Atlanticism" that would drive all their solutions: the Middle East, globalization and fashioning a new institutional order (part of a "new commitment to multilateralism"). A renewed partnership with Europe, Kempe said, would enable America to "stop the world without the West," which he viewed as weakened by internal problems in China and Russia. Instead, he argued, the United States and the European Union should co-opt disaffected powers into a global architecture more sensitive to their concerns.
But perhaps there's a gray area between the world without the West and a new Atlanticism. In his closing remarks, Gvosdev spoke of another group of up-and-coming states: "southern democracies" like India, South Africa and Brazil that have developed solidly liberal institutions, but remain suspicious of Western interference in their affairs. It's possible that New Delhi or Brasilia could be decisive in an East-West struggle-will they decide to throw in their lot with one side or instead remain nonaligned? The implications could be enormous.
Andrew E. Title is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.