Earlier this month, President Obama returned from his Asia trip with few visible accomplishments and another chorus of complaints about the loss of American leadership. Meanwhile, the United States faces challenges on multiple fronts. Leave aside the Middle East, a perennial challenge for U.S. Presidents, and there’s a common theme. In Eastern Europe, a re-energized Putin is pushing, hard, against the spread of the western-backed order into Ukraine. In East Asia, President Obama had to devote yet more resources and energy to re-assuring nervous allies about American commitments to defend their interests against the backdrop of China’s increasingly assertive rise. And even normally pacific Brazil hosted a global conference, NetMondial, designed to advance the process of wresting governance of the Internet away from the U.S. Department of Commerce and private regulators. Are we, finally, seeing a unified BRICs challenge to the “West”? Or even, as some have claimed, a Russian-led anti-Western bloc?
Not so fast. Far more divides the BRICs than unites them. China, India, and Brazil still need the West. If the BRICs are unified at all, it’s out of a common perception of the strength of the West and a shared interest in limiting the West’s ability to dictate the terms of international play. That is, the BRICs often see themselves on the defensive against a still-powerful West. Here’s the irony: unlike America’s homegrown declinists, the rising powers recognize that the United States, buttressed by its allies, is still an enduring economic and military heavyweight.
That’s almost certainly true even of Russian President Vladimir Putin who saw the Western order spreading into Ukraine and Russian interests losing out. But Russia is the odd man out in the BRICs grouping. Russia is only a ‘rising’ power in that it’s been recovering from the astonishing depths of economic collapse that accompanied the end of the Soviet Union. Already a high-income country and already possessing key geopolitical tools—a large army, nuclear weapons, and a veto in the UN Security Council—Russia’s focus for the past fifteen years has been on restoring its devastated economy. Its integration into the western-led order has only ever been hesitant and partial and it’s the only one of the BRICs that actively tried to use the global financial crisis to weaken the West. This endeavour was blocked—by China.
China, India, and Brazil—the big three—face a different dilemma. As G. John Ikenberry has noted, these countries grew within the liberal order and have deep stakes in its stable continuation. They’re also quite dependent on the cooperation with the West for stabilizing far-flung regions on which they rely for energy and other imports. This limits their impulse to challenge the United States.
China, of course, has more influence than the other two and is asserting itself in its own region. But it, too, faces serious constraints. Its economic integration with the United States is one such constraint. It also faces deep vulnerabilities in its global position, in particular in its energy import needs, and this compels cooperation with both the United States and Europe. China will continue to work with Russia where their interests overlap, but the notion that China is going to be led by Russia into an anti-Western bloc is risible; China has far too much to lose.
The experience of rising power challenges on many fronts is not going to be limited to the Obama Administration; it’s the new normal. There isn’t a concerted or a unified challenge here, but each of the rising powers in their own way has an impulse to rivalry and interests in carving out more space in the international system. But for India, Brazil, and even China, their interest is to shape not break the international system; they have too much riding on its stability.
And then there’s the fact that they simply don’t have the strength to replace the United States in its role as guarantor of the stability of the international system. They rely on cooperation with the West, not out of some sense of fealty to international norms or goodwill to the west or the desire to live in a post-Westphalian, 21st-century international system. They cooperate with the West out of interests, and because they’re too weak to secure their interests through their own power.
Confronting this reality, the Obama Administration is right not to overreact to rhetorical, marginal, or symbolic challenges. In the case of each power, there’s a blend of an impulse to rivalry and interests that drive restraint. The United States has to calibrate the relative weight of rivalry and restraint driving each power’s policy and temper the response accordingly. Of all the BRICs, only Russia appears to have finally decided to weight strategic rivalry over the economic and transnational interests that drive restraint.
The U.S. Administration’s long game often reflects this. But the Administration is losing in terms of the media and public perception of the battle—partially because of domestic critics and the fact that foreign policy will now be heavily in play as the Republicans try to position themselves to weaken the putative Democratic nominee, former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. And therein lies the problem for the Administration: perceptions do matter.
The Obama Administration needs to hammer home these key messages. The United States is an enduring, not a declining or retreating power. There is no mortar in the BRICs and the challenge they pose is partial and constrained. The United States will stick by its allies over the long term—but it’s also willing to partner with individual members of the BRICs on initiatives to forge broader coalitions for action, be it on Internet governance, maritime security, or territorial defense. Over the long run, America’s ability to work with states from all walks of political and economic life, including China, along with its still-impressive suite of allies, will be crucial to its strength. Indeed, that’s what I call America’s “coalitional power”.
How to tackle the gap between perceptions and reality? As Julianne Smith has argued, “Point to the fundamentals. Repeat. Repeat again.” Just so. The BRICs are a divided grouping whose challenge to the United States and the U.S.-led order is fractured and partial. The United States has more than enough power to resist challenges where necessary and should have the courage of its strength to accommodate where productive. The challenge from the rising powers will endure for years to come; but the United States is an enduring power and the international system is still ours to lead.
This piece was originally posted on
Canadian International Council