In the IHT Global Agenda magazine (June 24), three experts on geopolitics — Joseph Nye, Dambisa Moyo and Kishore Mahbubani — debated whether global power was shifting away from the United States, and indeed what defined power in the 21st century. Jean-Pierre Lehmann, professor of international political economy at IMD, a global business school in Switzerland, and founding director of The Evian Group, joins the debate.
The shift of power from West to East has become a common theme, especially since the onset of the 2008 financial crisis. We need some perspective.
It is an incontrovertible fact that over the last couple of decades parts of Asia have experienced high growth and considerable economic and social transformations, including significant reductions in poverty, increasing competitiveness, the rise of a middle class and massive urbanization.
But a number of Asian countries remain mired in poverty and some in turmoil, like Afghanistan, Myanmar, Laos and North Korea. And even among the “successful” Asian economies, great pockets of poverty, illiteracy and misery remain.
It is also an incontrovertible fact that the West is in decline. The term “the West,” however, is as misleading as “Asia” in making generalizations.
The differences between the United States and Europe are great and growing. Think demographics: The United States has a young and vibrant population, while Europe’s is aging and declining. Furthermore, since the end of the Cold War the ties of the trans-Atlantic alliance have badly deteriorated, as the former U.S. defense secretary, Robert Gates, recently proclaimed.
Having said that, diminishing American power is also an incontrovertible fact. The quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq, Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, massive indebtedness, among other developments, have greatly undermined U.S. power and prestige.
In the global economy, America’s position as number one is increasingly challenged by China: The International Monetary Fund expects it will overtake the United States before the end of this decade. China has already overtaken the United States as the world’s biggest manufacturing and trading power. It is also the world’s banker: Its $3 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves gives Beijing enormous financial clout, especially vis-à-vis Washington.
Nevertheless, America’s global leadership position — and especially its soft power — while weakened, remain paramount.
Asia is a geopolitical tinderbox. In one of the great ironies of history, Vietnam is seeking support from the United States in Hanoi’s escalating confrontation with Beijing in the South China Sea. All is far from quiet on Asian geopolitical fronts as many countries in the region, for example India, look for American protection.
The United States remains the magnet of the global brain drain, giving the United States a capacity to renew itself. Thanks to this constant new blood, the United States will not soon be dislodged as the global fountain of innovation and creativity. American universities and American firms, especially in high-tech, are places graduates from the entire planet aspire to join. It will take decades before Asia or any other part of the world can rival the enormous scientific space created by institutions such as M.I.T., Harvard, Yale and many others.
The United States remains the world’s beacon. Anti-Americanism notwithstanding, American shores keep beckoning. This is not due to any particular ideology. As the late historian Richard Hofstadter noted: “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one.” Contrast that pithy statement with the convolutions in which the Chinese Communist Party found itself as it just marked its 90th anniversary.
While prospects for the United States in its wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and possibly Libya may be bleak, one can be reasonably certain that ultimately, even if America loses the wars, as was the case with Vietnam, it will win the peace. As that helicopter took off from the roof of the C.I.A. housing complex in Saigon on April 29, 1975, vividly marking the U.S. defeat, who would have believed that three decades later Vietnam would be a member of the World Trade Organization, a thriving market economy and a close trading partner and ally of the United States, and that the “boat people” would be welcomed back with open arms?
America’s biggest threat to the world is not imperialism — even if it can sometimes, as currently in Central Asia, cause havoc; the greatest threat now, as in the past (the 1930s), is American isolationism. As the American economy flounders and unemployment rises, an anti-immigration, xenophobic streak is emerging. The U.S. failure to lead to a successful conclusion of the W.T.O. Doha agenda and other actions and statements in America give rise to justified fears of rising American protectionism.
Having been the world’s leader in globalization, the greatest calamity, for the United States, and the rest of the planet, would be if the U.S. now led the world into de-globalization. Asia is rising, Latin America may be rising; one hopes that Africa and the Middle East will rise. Ultimately, however, the successful and sustained rise of any and all of these regions requires that the United States continues to be open and global.
While it may be unfashionable to say so, the United States remains in the eyes of much of the world the indispensable and irreplaceable country.
Jean-Pierre Lehmann, a professor of international political economy at IMD, a global business school in Switzerland, and founding director of The Evian Group.