Who is going to take the lead in the world?

Who is going to take the lead in the world? The start of the post-American era

By Prof. Bogdan Góralczyk, University of Warsaw, Poland 

Note: The original of this commentary appeared in Polish and is available at: http://www.obserwatorfinansowy.pl/tematyka/makroekonomia/czy-swiat-bedzie-jak-multikino/

President Barack Obama has kept his word and announced the end of the intervention in Afghanistan launched in 2001. This is the symbolic end of the age of US dominance. Although there is still no clear contender to take over this role in the global order, some already call this a new post-American era. The old powers come back into play,  writes Prof. Bogdan Góralczyk on the portal Obserwator Finansowy.

President Barack Obama has kept his word and announced the end of the intervention (ISAF mission) in Afghanistan launched in December 2001. This is the symbolic end of the age of US dominance. The US dominated but has not won, although there is no clear contender to take over its role in the global order.

There is much controversy about what lies ahead in this new era, which some already call post-American (e.g. Fareed Zakaria, Kishore Mahbubani and many Chinese authors, including Liu Mingfu and Zhang Weiwei). Charles Kupchan fears that we are facing the threat of ‘No One’s World’, while Amitav Acharya, an Indian-born scholar who has lived in the West for years and who lectures in the United States, in his recent essay with the much-telling title The End of the American World Order compares the coming age to multiplex movie theatres. He believes that we are dealing with the twilight of the ‘American-led liberal hegemonic order’ and that ‘the American World Order is coming to an end whether or not America itself is declining’. The Pax Americana which has undoubtedly existed since the fall of the bipolar order is simply ending, rather irrevocably. There will no longer be a single superpower or hegemon like the United States, and previously the United Kingdom and others before it.

The truth of many screens

The age of multiplex is coming, where ‘no single director or producer would monopolize the audience’s attention or loyalty’. Since 2008, we have been observing not only emerging markets – previously called the Third World, the South or developing countries – but also the revival of the former centres of power as well as past civilizations, such as China, India and Turkey. Thus, this new world will also be multicultural, since the new – or rather re-emerging – powers have their own value systems, different from that of the West. This is the aspect highlighted by John Ikenberry, one of the US strategic gurus, in his review of Acharya’s book in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs.

Will this more diverse, multi-polar world be better? It’s hard to say. There are ongoing disputes on this subject. What is important (also for us, in Poland) is that the era of absolute US dominance is rather irreversibly gone and there are some strategic conclusions to be drawn from this for ourselves. It is high time to remember that there are also non-European markets and other directions than just the West, which we focused on after 1990 – quite rightly at that time.

The return of Asia, a shock for the West

Amitav Acharya’s logic is inexorable. He takes the latest OECD data (he was writing his book towards the end of 2013), the EU report ‘Global Trends 2030’ and the report of the US National Intelligence Council under the same title, he adds the data from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the US Senate, and he gets the following result:

When applying the same calculation methods and measures, in 2000 the GDP of the United States was eight times higher than China’s. In 2010, it was only three times higher. At the same time, the share of emerging markets in the world GDP increased from 18 to 29 per cent, and according to the purchasing power parity (PPP) – from 34 to 45 per cent. If there is no unpredictable cataclysm, according to the European ‘Global Trends’ report in 2030 the list of the world’s largest economies will be as follows: China (23.8 per cent), the US (17.3 per cent), the EU (14.3 per cent), India (10.4 per cent), and Japan (3.5 per cent).

The American ‘Global Trends’ report lists the largest economies in the world in the same order, although with slightly different numbers. However, it also adds that in 2030 Asia, which has recently been the most dynamic area, will not only surpass the Euro-Atlantic world (i.e. the US and the EU) in terms of GDP but also will dominate in terms of population, military spending, R&D, and technological progress. According to the Asian Development Bank in Manila, which suggests that ‘the age of Asia is coming’, the share of the Asian GDP in the global GDP will increase from 39.9 per cent in 2030 to 52.3 per cent in 2050, while at the same time the share of the US (currently at 22 per cent) will drop to only 12 per cent. China will increase its share in the world GDP to 20 per cent, and India to 16 per cent.

Let us, however, leave the numbers and the methodology of the study aside. Predicting what will happen in 2030 or 2050 is just pure guesswork. In this context, we should always bear in mind the words of the Danish physicist Niels Bohr: ‘Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.’ In fact, we do not really know what the future will be, there are too many unknowns. The important thing, however, are the trends and processes that are already at work, and these – according to the Indian scholar – are quite clear in meaning and content. The age of Europocentrizm and Western dominance that has lasted since the Age of Discovery is coming to an end.

Old powers are back in the game, especially China and India, which – as indicated by the in-depth OECD and Angus Maddison’s data – even in the era of the Napoleonic Wars still generated about 40 per cent of the world GDP and only later fell into a deep crisis caused by colonization or the Opium Wars. Therefore, for them, for their elites and societies, what is going on since 2008 is nothing else than a return to the glorious days of the past, while for us in the West it is a shock. After all, according to our logic, it has always been otherwise. We lived in a highly developed and industrialized world, while they lived in poverty. We called their world ‘developing’ or ‘Third World’, while seeing ourselves as the First World.

Convergence or conflict?

It is an important and telling fact that this very important message coming from the current changes in the distribution of power on the global stage is strongly emphasized both by the Chinese authors mentioned at the beginning of this article and by those settled in the West but with Indian roots: Amitav Acharya, Kishore Mahbubani, Fareed Zakaria, or Parag Khanna. They know what they’re saying: the unipolar moment, the time of independent and hegemonic powers is over. Here comes the era of multiplex movie theatres, with their different programmes and multitude of options.


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