Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


The era of books about eras
Exame - May 2008

THIS is the era of books about the rise of new eras. The debacle in Iraq, the decline in America’s worldwide reputation under George Bush, the credit crunch, the fall of the dollar, the rapid economic growth in China and India, the way in which record oil prices have strengthened countries such as Russia and Iran—all these developments have inspired authors to ponder what might come next. 

            It is a fair question. Notable books recently published in an attempt to answer it include Parag Khanna´s "The Second World", which considers that three empires (China, the European Union and America) are now going to dominate the world; Robert Kagan´s "The Return of History and the End of Dreams", which reckons the new era will be characterised by complexity and the unpredictable presence of many powerful countries; and the most widely publicised of all, Fareed Zakaria´s "The Post-American World", whose title you might imagine to be self-explanatory but for the fact that Zakaria argues that in this new world America will remain the single most powerful country.

            There is however a basic problem with the answer given by such books, one that is displayed by “The Post-American World” on its very first page.  Mr Zakaria is an Indian-born American who is editor of Newsweek International, and who writes columns and books on international affairs that display a sweeping grasp of history as well as being clearly and elegantly written. He says, on that first page, that the world has seen “three tectonic power shifts” during the past 500 years, by which he means great changes in the distribution of power that have reshaped international life.

First, he says, there was the rise of the Western world, which began in the 15th century. By the western world he presumably means Europe, since his second shift was the rise of the United States, which he dates from the final years of the 19th century. During the past 20 years, Mr Zakaria thinks this era has given America a global dominance unprecedented in world history. Many historians would consider the American period to be merely a subset of the European era, given America’s origins as a European colony. That would be awkward, however, for it would deprive Mr Zakaria of his book title and his chosen designation of the third power shift, one that is happening right now, towards a post-American era, which he also calls “the rise of the rest”.

            This era is otherwise known as globalisation, a period during which America’s long post-1945 effort to convince others of the merits of free trade and liberalised capital markets has finally paid off and is bringing economic development to scores of countries. But having talked of a 400-year Western era, then a 100-year American one, the evidence that this new era is a distinct one, a third tectonic shift, relies on statistics and anecdotes derived from a mere handful of years. We all know that in this time of the semiconductor, the satellite and the internet, the pace of change seems to have speeded up. But this jump from broad sweeps of history to instant contemporary analysis is rather jarring.

            The problem is that intellectuals want to  see themselves as grand historians, mapping trends in human affairs, but the closer they get to the present day the more they are in just the same position as journalists, trying to understand the very short term. Parag Khanna, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, started his research more like a journalist, emulating Arnold Toynbee, a great 20th-century British historian, by touring the world and reporting on what he saw in the 50 or so "second world" countries he visited, by which he means ones that are neither poor nor rich, but somewhere in the middle. Yet on the basis of that journey he too chose to come up with an over-arching theory, the idea that the world is now going to be dominated by the three big countries or blocs mentioned earlier: a declining and (he thinks) incompetent America; an admirably peaceable European Union; and a rising, bumptious and potentially aggressive China.

            The trouble with this thesis is not what it includes: these three are clearly important. It is what it leaves out. What about all the other countries in the world that are growing, are getting more powerful and that are going to want their voices to be heard? Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa, Mexico, Iran and many more are not going to buckle down easily to being dominated by three global "empires", to use Khanna´s chosen term.

A complex world, not a simple one

The real villain in all this is surely the Cold War. For more than half a century, intellectuals and commentators had the benefit of a simple way in which to describe and analyse the world. We could all be divided into Communists and capitalists, into supporters of the West or supporters of the Soviet Union. Even if plenty of countries did not fit this neat taxonomy, it was still a useful way of looking at the big forces around the globe. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-91, that simplicity was lost. Scholars have been looking for a substitute ever since.

         But what if the world is not in fact simple enough to be defined? The argument of Robert Kagan´s admirably short book is that it is not. We are not, as Francis Fukuyama infamously wrote, at "The End of History". Nor are we, as Samuel Huntington wrote, in a "Clash of Civilisations". Instead, we are in a messy world in which many countries are becoming powerful, in which many countries are becoming nationalistic and ambitious, and in which the rules of the game will be disorder and unpredictable behaviour.

         Unfortunately, even Mr Kagan cannot resist the search for clear lines and some simplicity. If there is any dividing line in today´s world, he says, it will be between democracies and autocracies--a notion that has encouraged the thought that America´s next task could be to set up a "league of democracies". Yet this would surely be a blunder. For although democracy does make India, Brazil and South Africa more sympathetic towards America and Western Europe than towards, say, Russia or China, it does not and cannot override their basic national interest: that of securing a prosperous and secure future for their citizens.

         In truth, this messy, multi-polar world is one that has been evident ever since the end of the Cold War. In that time, America’s stance has fluctuated, from the “reluctant sheriff” in the title of a 1997 book by Richard Haass, now head of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, to the “indispensable nation” cited by Madeleine Albright when she was Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, to the unilateralist approach adopted by President Bush. But the essential trend of the world has not changed in that time. Whether or not that makes the whole period a new era, or just a further phase of American leadership, is a question best left to historians in decades or even centuries to come.


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