A Post-American World in Progress
Why emerging powers didn’t lead in 2011 and won’t in the coming year
The past year has been filled with tumultuous events—the Arab Spring, the euro-zone crisis. But the most striking trend of 2011, one that will persist in 2012, was one that got little notice: the emerging powers that weren’t.
By now everyone knows that a new and rising group of nations, including China, India, Brazil and Russia, are reshaping the globe. Yet if 2011 demonstrated anything, it was the inability of these countries to have much influence beyond their borders. They continue to grow their economies, but they all face internal and external challenges that make them less interested and less capable of exercising power on an international or even regional scale.
Let’s start with China. Chinese growth continues to be robust, though clearly the government is worried about the inflationary effects of the massive stimulus program it implemented after the financial crisis, which has created a boom-bust cycle and inflationary pressures across the country. The regime, however, is expert at dealing with economic challenges; political ones are harder. China faces a transfer of power in 2012 that is unprecedented. About 70% of the country’s senior leadership— the top 200 or so members of the Central Committee—will be replaced by autumn. The new leaders—Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang—are the first generation that was not personally blessed and selected by Deng Xiaoping, the architect of modern China. Perhaps as a result, we are beginning to see factions develop within the Chinese Communist Party along regional, functional and ideological lines. The change comes at a delicate moment. Beijing’s foreign policy assertiveness over the past two years on the South China Sea and related territorial issues has provoked other Asian powers to stand up to China, band together more closely and ask openly for American involvement in the Pacific. The result is that Beijing is now quieter on the regional stage. Global leadership is unthinkable. No Chinese leader today has the authority or the inclination to make big, bold decisions that would involve, say, shoring up the euro or initiating a new East-West climate compact.
India is even more obsessed with domestic affairs than China is. With a bewildering array of local and regional pulls on it, the central government has had little scope for foreign policy—or indeed any policy. Facing opposition on –every front, with state and national elections looming, the coalition government of Manmohan Singh is like a patient on life support grabbing for the oxygen mask, simply trying to survive.
Goldman Sachs’ Jim O’Neill noted in late December, on the 10th anniversary of his coining the term BRIC, that the greatest disappointment among those emerging stars has been India. Indian growth rates are declining, its currency is the worst performer in all of Asia, foreign investment is slowing, and government policy has alternated between populism and paralysis. In this context, foreign policy has been almost entirely secondary, confined to regional issues like Pakistan and Afghanistan, and even in those showing little in the way of leadership.
The other emerging powers face their own challenges. Russia has presidential elections in 2012, though the outcome is predetermined. Still, it faces new political dissent on a scale not seen since the rise of Vladimir Putin. Abroad, it has a skeptical Europe on one border, an expansive China on another and a hostile and increasingly radical Muslim population on a third. Brazil is in better shape, though its economy actually contracted in the third quarter of 2011. (If that happens in the fourth quarter, it will technically be entering a recession.) And its moves to become a regional leader have run up against a Mexico that is determined not to be forgotten or dominated. Turkey has been the one emerging power that has successfully projected influence in its region, but there are natural limits to that influence. The rise of the rest is real, but the emerging powers are not ready for prime time.
The U.S. has been able to fill the leader–ship vacuum quite effectively in some places. It has deftly expanded its role in Asia; continues to forge strong ties with India, Brazil, Indonesia and Turkey; and has maintained a good relationship with Russia on nuclear-weapons reduction. But American influence is not what it used to be. During the Mexican and Asian crises of the mid-1990s, the U.S. managed global economic problems almost unilaterally. Today no one expects or believes that Washington could solve the euro-zone crisis or direct the outcome of the Arab Spring. It is a post-American world out there, one characterized more by the absence of great powers than by their presence.