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The Rise of the Rest

- August 4, 2008

p. At the end of the Cold War, international relations realists were on the defensive. Those who wrote about a return to a multipolar world of shifting alliances in Europe (John Mearsheimer) or suggested that NATO’s days were not numbered but its years were (Ken Waltz) seemed unable to accept that the world had changed in the early 1990s. With the United States perching benignly (that’s how it looked to Americans, anyway) atop the major global institutions and making the world safe for democracy, the liberals and constructivists began to dominate the discipline.

p. But now the popular media is full of stories of American decline, the rise of others (India, China, Europe, Russia), and renewed great power competition. Fareed Zakaria explains how we are in a “post-American world,” and Robert Kagan writes that history has returned as autocracies and democracies line up on opposite sides. According to a new survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 43% of Americans believe that the rise of China is a “critical threat” to U.S. interests (but for the time being still prefer a strategy of engagement). Perhaps we are finally “back to the future” as Mearsheimer put it nearly two decades ago? Will realism once again dominate IR as it did in the latter part of the Cold War?

p. No. Balancing just isn’t the main story of international politics as it was during much of the 20th century. Yes, the Chinese and Russians trumpet the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and U.S. officials fret about the Beijing-Moscow axis at the United Nations. But there’s no alliance that can counter NATO, and the United States has shown that when it perceives a necessity to act, it will do so with or without U.N. authorization. (It’s not just George Bush – Clinton bypassed the UN in 1999 to bomb Serbia.)

p. Even with an overstretched military and the subprime mortgage crisis, the United States remains the world’s dominant military, economic and even diplomatic power. And despite all the successes in Europe and China and the extraordinary unpopularity at home and abroad of the current administration, America still possesses more soft power than anyone else. Even so, as Naazneen Barma, Ely Ratner and Steve Weber deftly argued in the National Interest, much of what is going on in the world simply bypasses the West, but that doesn’t mean we’re talking about balancing, at least in the traditional sense of IR theory.

p. Unfortunately for liberal institutionalists, others have to buy into their conceptions of global governance for their arguments to work, just as constructivists have the most to say when a consensus around a particular international norm develops. We are seeing a breakdown in those kinds of consensus (and institutions) at the same time that America has lost so much of its legitimacy as a global leader. Perhaps it is time for a new theoretical tradition?