History shows that world orders, including our own, are transient. They rise and fall, and the institutions they erect, the beliefs and “norms” that guide them, the economic systems they support—they rise and fall, too. The downfall of the Roman Empire brought an end not just to Roman rule but to Roman government and law and to an entire economic system stretching from Northern Europe to North Africa. Culture, the arts, even progress in science and technology, were set back for centuries.
Modern history has followed a similar pattern. After the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century, British control of the seas and the balance of great powers on the European continent provided relative security and stability. Prosperity grew, personal freedoms expanded, and the world was knit more closely together by revolutions in commerce and communication.
With the outbreak of World War I, the age of settled peace and advancing liberalism—of European civilization approaching its pinnacle—collapsed into an age of hyper-nationalism, despotism and economic calamity. The once-promising spread of democracy and liberalism halted and then reversed course, leaving a handful of outnumbered and besieged democracies living nervously in the shadow of fascist and totalitarian neighbors. The collapse of the British and European orders in the 20th century did not produce a new dark age—though if Nazi Germany and imperial Japan had prevailed, it might have—but the horrific conflict that it produced was, in its own way, just as devastating.
Would the end of the present American-dominated order have less dire consequences? A surprising number of American intellectuals, politicians and policy makers greet the prospect with equanimity. There is a general sense that the end of the era of American pre-eminence, if and when it comes, need not mean the end of the present international order, with its widespread freedom, unprecedented global prosperity (even amid the current economic crisis) and absence of war among the great powers.
American power may diminish, the political scientist G. John Ikenberry argues, but “the underlying foundations of the liberal international order will survive and thrive.” The commentator Fareed Zakaria believes that even as the balance shifts against the U.S., rising powers like China “will continue to live within the framework of the current international system.” And there are elements across the political spectrum—Republicans who call for retrenchment, Democrats who put their faith in international law and institutions—who don’t imagine that a “post-American world” would look very different from the American world.
If all of this sounds too good to be true, it is. The present world order was largely shaped by American power and reflects American interests and preferences. If the balance of power shifts in the direction of other nations, the world order will change to suit their interests and preferences. Nor can we assume that all the great powers in a post-American world would agree on the benefits of preserving the present order, or have the capacity to preserve it, even if they wanted to.
Take the issue of democracy. For several decades, the balance of power in the world has favored democratic governments. In a genuinely post-American world, the balance would shift toward the great-power autocracies. Both Beijing and Moscow already protect dictators like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. If they gain greater relative influence in the future, we will see fewer democratic transitions and more autocrats hanging on to power. The balance in a new, multipolar world might be more favorable to democracy if some of the rising democracies—Brazil, India, Turkey, South Africa—picked up the slack from a declining U.S. Yet not all of them have the desire or the capacity to do it.
What about the economic order of free markets and free trade? People assume that China and other rising powers that have benefited so much from the present system would have a stake in preserving it. They wouldn’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
Unfortunately, they might not be able to help themselves. The creation and survival of a liberal economic order has depended, historically, on great powers that are both willing and able to support open trade and free markets, often with naval power. If a declining America is unable to maintain its long-standing hegemony on the high seas, would other nations take on the burdens and the expense of sustaining navies to fill in the gaps?
Even if they did, would this produce an open global commons—or rising tension? China and India are building bigger navies, but the result so far has been greater competition, not greater security. As Mohan Malik has noted in this newspaper, their “maritime rivalry could spill into the open in a decade or two,” when India deploys an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean and China deploys one in the Indian Ocean. The move from American-dominated oceans to collective policing by several great powers could be a recipe for competition and conflict rather than for a liberal economic order.
And do the Chinese really value an open economic system? The Chinese economy soon may become the largest in the world, but it will be far from the richest. Its size is a product of the country’s enormous population, but in per capita terms, China remains relatively poor. The U.S., Germany and Japan have a per capita GDP of over $40,000. China’s is a little over $4,000, putting it at the same level as Angola, Algeria and Belize. Even if optimistic forecasts are correct, China’s per capita GDP by 2030 would still only be half that of the U.S., putting it roughly where Slovenia and Greece are today.
As Arvind Subramanian and other economists have pointed out, this will make for a historically unique situation. In the past, the largest and most dominant economies in the world have also been the richest. Nations whose peoples are such obvious winners in a relatively unfettered economic system have less temptation to pursue protectionist measures and have more of an incentive to keep the system open.
China’s leaders, presiding over a poorer and still developing country, may prove less willing to open their economy. They have already begun closing some sectors to foreign competition and are likely to close others in the future. Even optimists like Mr. Subramanian believe that the liberal economic order will require “some insurance” against a scenario in which “China exercises its dominance by either reversing its previous policies or failing to open areas of the economy that are now highly protected.” American economic dominance has been welcomed by much of the world because, like the mobster Hyman Roth in “The Godfather,” the U.S. has always made money for its partners. Chinese economic dominance may get a different reception.
Another problem is that China’s form of capitalism is heavily dominated by the state, with the ultimate goal of preserving the rule of the Communist Party. Unlike the eras of British and American pre-eminence, when the leading economic powers were dominated largely by private individuals or companies, China’s system is more like the mercantilist arrangements of previous centuries. The government amasses wealth in order to secure its continued rule and to pay for armies and navies to compete with other great powers.
Although the Chinese have been beneficiaries of an open international economic order, they could end up undermining it simply because, as an autocratic society, their priority is to preserve the state’s control of wealth and the power that it brings. They might kill the goose that lays the golden eggs because they can’t figure out how to keep both it and themselves alive.
Finally, what about the long peace that has held among the great powers for the better part of six decades? Would it survive in a post-American world?
Most commentators who welcome this scenario imagine that American predominance would be replaced by some kind of multipolar harmony. But multipolar systems have historically been neither particularly stable nor particularly peaceful. Rough parity among powerful nations is a source of uncertainty that leads to miscalculation. Conflicts erupt as a result of fluctuations in the delicate power equation.
War among the great powers was a common, if not constant, occurrence in the long periods of multipolarity from the 16th to the 18th centuries, culminating in the series of enormously destructive Europe-wide wars that followed the French Revolution and ended with Napoleon’s defeat in 1815.
The 19th century was notable for two stretches of great-power peace of roughly four decades each, punctuated by major conflicts. The Crimean War (1853-1856) was a mini-world war involving well over a million Russian, French, British and Turkish troops, as well as forces from nine other nations; it produced almost a half-million dead combatants and many more wounded. In the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), the two nations together fielded close to two million troops, of whom nearly a half-million were killed or wounded.
The peace that followed these conflicts was characterized by increasing tension and competition, numerous war scares and massive increases in armaments on both land and sea. Its climax was World War I, the most destructive and deadly conflict that mankind had known up to that point. As the political scientist Robert W. Tucker has observed, “Such stability and moderation as the balance brought rested ultimately on the threat or use of force. War remained the essential means for maintaining the balance of power.”
There is little reason to believe that a return to multipolarity in the 21st century would bring greater peace and stability than it has in the past. The era of American predominance has shown that there is no better recipe for great-power peace than certainty about who holds the upper hand.
President Bill Clinton left office believing that the key task for America was to “create the world we would like to live in when we are no longer the world’s only superpower,” to prepare for “a time when we would have to share the stage.” It is an eminently sensible-sounding proposal. But can it be done? For particularly in matters of security, the rules and institutions of international order rarely survive the decline of the nations that erected them. They are like scaffolding around a building: They don’t hold the building up; the building holds them up.
Many foreign-policy experts see the present international order as the inevitable result of human progress, a combination of advancing science and technology, an increasingly global economy, strengthening international institutions, evolving “norms” of international behavior and the gradual but inevitable triumph of liberal democracy over other forms of government—forces of change that transcend the actions of men and nations.
Americans certainly like to believe that our preferred order survives because it is right and just—not only for us but for everyone. We assume that the triumph of democracy is the triumph of a better idea, and the victory of market capitalism is the victory of a better system, and that both are irreversible. That is why Francis Fukuyama’s thesis about “the end of history” was so attractive at the end of the Cold War and retains its appeal even now, after it has been discredited by events. The idea of inevitable evolution means that there is no requirement to impose a decent order. It will merely happen.
But international order is not an evolution; it is an imposition. It is the domination of one vision over others—in America’s case, the domination of free-market and democratic principles, together with an international system that supports them. The present order will last only as long as those who favor it and benefit from it retain the will and capacity to defend it.
There was nothing inevitable about the world that was created after World War II. No divine providence or unfolding Hegelian dialectic required the triumph of democracy and capitalism, and there is no guarantee that their success will outlast the powerful nations that have fought for them. Democratic progress and liberal economics have been and can be reversed and undone. The ancient democracies of Greece and the republics of Rome and Venice all fell to more powerful forces or through their own failings. The evolving liberal economic order of Europe collapsed in the 1920s and 1930s. The better idea doesn’t have to win just because it is a better idea. It requires great powers to champion it.
If and when American power declines, the institutions and norms that American power has supported will decline, too. Or more likely, if history is a guide, they may collapse altogether as we make a transition to another kind of world order, or to disorder. We may discover then that the U.S. was essential to keeping the present world order together and that the alternative to American power was not peace and harmony but chaos and catastrophe—which is what the world looked like right before the American order came into being.