Report and Retort: Facing the Reality of the 21st Century

The politics and economics of that world look different from the world that most U.S. foreign policymakers and academic theorists are planning for and writing about.

Developing countries are going their own way, and they're doing it without the West. Steven Weber, Naazneen Barma and Ely Ratner opened the debate with their article "A World Without the West" in the July/August issue of The National Interest. Devin StewartIan Bremmer and Chas Freeman address some of these issues in the print and online editions of the magazine. Weber responds below.

Why is it so hard for Americans to realize that we have real competition for leadership roles in international politics?

I remember the 1980s and the "competitiveness" debates about Japan. It took us a decade to come to grips-intellectually and emotionally-with the idea that the Japanese "system" posed a real challenge to American leadership in the organization of capitalism.

It's unfortunate that just as we were making our peace with that reality and learning to compete successfully in light of it, the Japanese economy collapsed. The real unfortunate part is that this reinforced our ego-and ethnocentric views of America's leadership

The 1990s made matters worse. Madeline Albright told us we were "the indispensable" nation, that nothing of importance could get done in global politics without the United States. In the university world, my international relations colleagues argued incessantly about the meaning of "unipolarity" and the political dynamics of a world with a single superpower.

The implied "theory" of unilateralism-or perhaps I should say the implied "influence theory of unilateralism"-was that the United States had been left by the Soviet collapse as a state capable of structuring the incentives of others, such that their least bad option was always to do what we wanted. The capability to actually set up the world that way is a reasonable definition of unipolarity, but it was not a capability that America actually had, even in the 1990s. It was a conceit that rested on a fundamental overestimation of U.S. power.

And just as insidious, it revealed a fundamental underestimation of both the creative and destructive potential of other human beings and countries. As Thomas Schelling and Alexander George explained well, these independently-minded individuals, groups and nations, in pursuit of their own goals, have every incentive to "design around" U.S. strategies, so that that they don't have to confront them head on. And human beings are remarkably innovative when it comes to doing that.

I'm not going to quote here a list of statistics about China as a great power. We all have our favorite versions of these numbers, and they do act as an important wake-up call much of the time. I'm also not going to say more about China's (just as impressive) vulnerabilities, or engage in the continuing discussion about the sustainability of the Chinese economic miracle or the robustness of its political equilibrium.

The truth is, we don't know whether China as we see it today will "work" and neither, quite frankly, do the Chinese. It's an ongoing experiment, and the most likely outcome is that all of us will be surprised somehow by how it turns out.

What I am going to do is quote from the United States 2002 National Security Strategy.

This is the first sentence of the introduction, which comes under the direct signature of President George W. Bush.

"The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom-and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise."

And then:

"People everywhere want to be able to speak freely; choose who will govern them; worship as they please; educate their children-male and female; own property; and enjoy the benefits of their labor. These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society-and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages."

These are powerful sentiments, powerfully expressed. They appeal to our ethics, to our guts, perhaps even to our souls. But they are simply not factual representations of today's operational global reality. You can't make good policy on the basis of these claims. The world doesn't look like that; it doesn't believe it; and thus in the world of politics, economics, ideology and statecraft, it's not meaningfully true.

Our "World Without the West" article is meant to provoke against that background, and I'm glad that it has done that. It's meant to point to the possibility of alternative systems of governance that privilege values other than the ones we associate with America. We think those alternatives are present in today's world. We think they are as "real" as our own-whether or not we like them. We think that a lot of people on this planet find those alternatives attractive, and not just out of ignorance, false consciousness, or because they are at an earlier stage of a single developmental trajectory.

The real issue for the United States is not the question of dominance, yes or no. We think it is years too late for Americans to come to the recognition that the "days of unquestioned U.S.-or even Western-dominance of the global economic system is coming to an end." That process started a long time ago in everyone else's minds. In any case, dominance is never unquestioned in international politics.