January 15, 2024

Source: Bigstock

The prophets of international relations are eager to offer us different visions of the future. For some, American decline is destined to give rise to a new era of multipolarity. Others assert we’re already living in a bipolar system, with Beijing and Washington occupying center stage. Still others insist the unipolar moment never ended and won’t anytime soon. None are correct. We aren’t heading toward a world filled with new great powers drawn from the ranks of yesterday’s Global South; or a globe-spanning U.S.-China Cold War; or even another few decades of U.S. hegemony. The defining feature of tomorrow’s international system will not be competition among great powers, as occurred in previous centuries, but an impoverished facsimile of those past titanic struggles. In the future, an assortment of weak states will pantomime at being global players, even as they squabble for minor, local gains against the backdrop of a fading America.

Discussion of American decline isn’t new, but the tenor of the conversation has changed since 2016, which capped a year of setbacks for the West’s ruling managerial elites. In their paranoia over the threat of “populism,” the managerial societies of the West have shown a willingness to eschew the niceties of liberal democracy in a desperate attempt to shore up their own power, with dire consequences for political trust and social cohesion.

“So, what comes next? Probably nothing particularly good, or, thankfully, particularly bad.”

In the United States, the right widely accepts that the ruling party not only tolerates lawlessness, but actively supports it when carried out by its ideological and political allies—creating what is sometime called an “anarchotyranny.” One aspect of the anarchotyranny has been the intentional stoking of racial tensions, which continue to escalate. To make matters worse, democratic backsliding and ethnic political mobilization, obvious features of today’s America, are key correlates of civil war onset—something many Americans, including some elected officials, are actively cheering for.

Other nations sense our vulnerability. They chafe at American hubris and seek opportunities to chasten Washington. The BRICS (powers consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa expected to dominate the global economy by 2050) have received much attention as an alternative to the U.S.-led order. In August of 2023, the BRICS invited Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to join the bloc.

Conscious of escalation and searching for easy wins, these states probe for weak points. They sometimes act boldly in contravention of U.S. goals, as Russia did when it invaded Ukraine, hoping for an easy win. The Russian army’s poor performance there gives the lie to years of fearmongering regarding the “Russia threat”—exposing Russia for what it always was, a third-rate military power incapable of efficiently conquering even a fourth-rate power on its very doorstep. Even if Moscow eventually scores a pyrrhic victory in Ukraine, the lesson here is that Russian troops aren’t going to be goose-stepping their way through Warsaw anytime soon. Rather, Moscow’s self-castration has ensured it can do little more than irritate Washington through such performative acts as deploying mercenaries to countries no one cares about.

And what of China, the supposed next superpower? For all its accomplishments, China remains a second-rate, or even third-rate, power—one that may already be past its peak. In all the ways that matter, China lags. Its education system, praised for churning out “engineers” and “scientists,” seems incapable of fostering real creative genius. Chinese patents—voluminous though they may be—are mostly junk generating relatively little value.

Beijing faces other challenges to its ascent. Its much-talked-about demographic troubles could derail the country’s slowing growth, but what is less noted is the dangerous and shortsighted concentration of power in the hands of one man. For decades China’s rise was carefully managed by a collective, technocratic leadership. Xi Jinping’s move to crush the old cliques and position himself as dictator creates a single point of failure in the system and new information flow problems that may already be manifesting as an increasingly ham-fisted foreign policy.

And what of the other powers? To describe them as largely inconsequential is to overstate their importance. Does anyone believe Iran, which remains thoroughly in the ranks of the developing world, will rise beyond anything other than regional problem child? Can you picture a flotilla of state-of-the-art Iranian warships making a port call in some far-flung harbor to assert Tehran’s influence? And South Africa? With every passing year it slides further into chaos—reminding us just how quickly an economically prosperous, technologically sophisticated country can destroy itself. And of course, there is Brazil. As Charles de Gaulle noted wryly, “Brazil is a country of the future…and always will be.” In each case, the states destined to inherit the world order are riven with internal problems and bereft of useful allies. Ask yourself, is inward-looking India—still battling insurgents even as it combats horrendous poverty—going to have the competence and capacity, to say nothing of the will, to project power outside its borders?

So, what comes next? Probably nothing particularly good, or, thankfully, particularly bad. If the late 19th century contained the seeds of system-changing wars, we can at least take comfort in knowing that such conflicts are not on the horizon today. Tomorrow’s world won’t be brimming with international competition between true great powers headed by hard-nosed men leading dynamic economies and energetic societies. Rather, the mid–21st century will look more like the Fifth, which saw the establishment of barbarian kingdoms in the power vacuum left by Rome.

For Washington, the foreign policy challenge of the future won’t be navigating a world of rivals, but rather, accepting that in a world of thrift-shop powers, international security can be achieved on the cheap.


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