February 19, 2012 8:14 pm

The US can learn to deal with chaos

This call for a grand strategy in Washington asserts there is nothing inevitable about absolute American decline

Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, by Zbigniew Brzezinski, Basic Books, RRP£17.99 ($26)

 

America is hurtling towards inexorable decline, China is rising fast and Europe is drifting to the margins of influence. Alternatively, the US is destined to remain the preponderant power, China will eventually falter and Europe is set to sit, well, on the sidelines. Either way we can be assured that history will travel in straight lines.

Except that it doesn’t. Think back a few years. If there was anything that could be called received wisdom among foreign policy experts it was that unrivalled US hegemony was safe for half a century. Then came the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the global financial crash. Now commentators are falling over themselves to predict accelerating US retreat.

The prognosis for Europe has likewise been turned on its head. At the opening of the millennium the European Union seemed a confident role model. The assumption was that the postmodern multilateralism symbolised by the euro would be exported to rising nations and regions. Now there are questions as to whether Europe itself can hold together.

The big upside of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s analysis of global affairs is that it doesn’t fall for simple arguments. While others saw the collapse of communism as the end of history, Jimmy Carter’s former national security adviser has long been alert to the wrenching shifts in the distribution of power – within states and between them – that have been reshaping the global landscape. He was writing many years ago about the “political awakening” that is now transforming the Arab world. He eschews the binary choices – China up, America down, or vice versa – that are the staple of much foreign policy punditry.

Bzrezinski is not afraid of complexity. This latest book shows his alertness to the myriad twists and turns of history and the breadth of his geopolitical understanding. He is as comfortable writing about Belarus as Brazil. Where others see black and white, he identifies the many shades in between. If there is a downside to this approach – and it is a small one – it is that cramming all this complexity into a short book can sometimes leave his readers with a headache.

The message of Strategic Vision is that the shape of the global order – or disorder – in coming decades will depend critically on the extent and deployment of American power. It’s quite possible to imagine a future in which economic weakness and political deadlock at home persuade the US to retreat from its role as global referee. But a more self-confident America would claim its place as the pivotal nation, reinvigorating and extending what we call the west and acting as a stabiliser in the east.

Relative US decline is unavoidable as China, India, Brazil and others climb the great power rankings, but Brzezinski sees nothing inevitable about absolute decline. The challenges are familiar: rising deficits and debts, political stasis in Washington, widening social inequality and a crumbling national infrastructure are among them. On the other hand, America still has some pretty impressive strengths. These range from its favourable geography (compare America’s friendly neighbourhood with that of China), abundant natural resources, helpful demography and manifest cultural, economic and technological advantages. So nothing is preordained. The US has a choice.

This choice, the author shows, is every bit as important to the rest of the world – to the rising states as well as traditional allies – as it is to Americans. If the US cedes its place as the hinge of the global commons it would not have one pre-eminent successor. Even on its present trajectory, China will lack the will and capacity to bear broad international responsibilities.

More likely the result would be a period of chaotic upheaval as new and existing powers adjusted and existing security arrangements broke down. The risks of conflicts – especially in Asia – are plain to see. It’s not at all obvious given the tensions between, say, China and India, that the rising powers would be beneficiaries of such disorder. As one chapter heading puts it: “The World after America: by 2025, not Chinese but Chaotic”.

Brzezinski’s call is for a grand strategy in Washington that at once acknowledges the claims of the rising powers – China particularly – and sketches out a new architecture for the global system. America “must be the promoter and guarantor of greater unity in the west, and it must be the balancer and conciliator between the major powers in the east”.

There would be nothing easy in such a task. How to draw Russia and Turkey into a wider western community? How to balance friendly engagement with a constructive China with hedging against an over-assertive one. All in all, quite a tall order, the more so in a US where the long term is often defined as the day after tomorrow. But someone has to look ahead.

philip.stephens@ft.com

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