Not that long ago, the world was ideologically divided between two great powers, the democratic capitalism of the United States and the authoritarian communism of the Soviet Union. The two competed tirelessly, each sure that its system was the best model for the world to follow.
Today, by contrast, there is a constantly shifting alignment of nations. New centers of power are emerging; older ones are changing. This realignment is a central reality facing American foreign policy. The world is more fluid than it was in the Cold War, and more so than it’s been for decades.
Shifts in power are to be expected in a dynamic world with rising populations, struggles for power, expanding economies, increasing competition for resources and the megatrend of globalization and widespread turmoil.
The most obvious shift is the emergence of China, with its 1.4 billion people and its remarkable economic progress. It is ascending to become a global power. But other countries are also taking on new roles. India is on the rise. Iran, South Korea, Brazil, Poland, the Czech Republic, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Turkey are intent on becoming regional, if not global, players.
At the same time, the world’s older powers are changing.
The European Union is still the largest U.S. trading partner and the biggest market for American investment. But Europe is turning inward, divided over integration and refugees, and in a period of stagnation. Europe struggles to become a more robust political union with a common defense and foreign policy capability.
The United Kingdom is stepping back, consumed by Brexit and cutting its defense budget and its foreign office. France struggles with economic and political unrest.
Russia is not a world power, but it is a regional power, largely because of its rich oil and gas supplies — not to mention its stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Trying to regain its position as a global actor, it seeks to expand its influence through diplomatic maneuvering, subversion, and the use of force, as in its annexation of Crimea.
But the overall trend is a shift toward Asia, with geopolitical power becoming more widely dispersed and China, India, South Korea, and Japan rising in prominence. In short, Asia is the region that will shape the 21s Century.
This shift is taking place as the United States has been occupied in the Middle East for decades. Now we are beginning to pay more attention to Asia, which is the major engine of world economic growth, home to more than half of the world’s population and many of the world’s fastest-growing businesses.
In 2011, with the world climbing out of a recession, President Barack Obama told Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation members that the success of the Asia Pacific region would be key for America to put its people back to work. With the growing economic role of Asian countries, it is not surprising that the U.S. has pivoted toward Asia.
The rise of China has become a focus of American foreign policy. The growth of China’s economy — lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty — is one of history’s remarkable stories. By most estimates, China will overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy within the next few decades. By some measures, it has already caught up.
We don’t know where these realignments will take us or how long they will endure. We may shift to a bipolar alignment, with a U.S.-China rivalry its primary feature. Or we may end up with multiple centers of power.
But we are in an extended period of changes in the distribution of global power. The United States remains the world’s strongest nation. But our lead is lessening, and these realignments will have profound but uncertain implications for America and its role in the world.
By Lee H. Hamilton