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The United States and Shifting Global Power Dynamics

Discussants: Nina L. Hachigian, and Parag Khanna
Updated: April 18, 2008


Foreign policy experts with a wide range of specialties—from economics to military power to diplomacy—foresee sweeping shifts in global power dynamics during the twenty-first century. One of the most pressing questions for U.S. policymakers is how to confront these power shifts productively. Here, two experts with new books on the topic debate how the United States should respond to rising hegemony elsewhere in the world. Nina Hachigian is a Senior Vice President at the Center for American Progress. Parag Khanna is director of the Global Governance Initiative and a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation.

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Parag KhannaMost Recent

April 18, 2008

Parag Khanna

I think we’re getting to core questions of grand strategy just in time for the debate to close! We have a realistic assessment of the range of rising powers and their interests. We have also assessed how this plays out across diverse regions and issues and in the context of an advancing globalization that creates opportunities and risks.

My book never once argues that, despite globalization, geopolitics remains zero-sum. To the contrary, I parse out the growing complexity of interaction on a case-by-case basis and show how America’s share of influence in key countries such as Saudi Arabia has been proportionate to its falling share of FDI in those countries. But of course, as the economic pie grows, so too do the opportunities to get back in on the action.

To the extent that our grand strategy will involve elements of promoting good governance and democracy, we will have to become far more irresistible as a political partner, offering incentives greater than those of other powers who do not attach any strings to their relationships. Even if you are agnostic on this issue, we are all aware that this is a perennial plank of American diplomacy and if we want to be even remotely effective at it, we have to up our ante in this arena of rising powers. This I believe is part of what you would call “non-military spending on national security,” a course of action I strongly advocate for the Middle East and Central Asia.

An equally important component of grand strategy will have to be a realistic division of labor with these rising powers, something both of us clearly emphasize. Whether the issue is climate change, public health, poverty reduction, post-conflict reconstruction, or counterterrorism, we do not have the capacity to solve these problems alone—nor can any other power. I argue that we need serious issue-based summit diplomacy among concerned powers (and other actors such as corporations and NGOs) to get moving quickly on these questions rather than (or in parallel to) allowing things to drag through their course in cumbersome multilateral fora. This last point is crucial: the missing ingredient to a globalized grand strategy is the U.S. foreign policy community cleverly leveraging the strengths, activities, and global footprint of the U.S. private sector and NGO communities into what I call a diplomatic-industrial complex. It is in changing our foreign policy process, as much as some of the goals, that our success lies.

Nina HachigianApril 17, 2008

Nina Hachigian

Yes, the topic is “shifting global power dynamics,” but we cannot “evaluate and react to rising powers” in a vacuum. We must consider the larger framework of American security and prosperity so we can judge the benefits or risks of geopolitical changes.

In our book, we examined every threat we could find linked to rising powers—security, economic, and ideological. We concluded that although pivotal powers’ growth effects American priorities in both positive and harmful ways, the benefits are more substantial, broad, and immediate, and the harms more nebulous, indirect, narrow, or distant.

If terrorists, nuclear proliferation, deadly pathogens and the climate crisis were not high priority threats, and we did not have a global economy in which pivotal power economic growth buoyed our own overall, then perhaps reacting with hostility or fear to a China, European Union, India, or Russia gaining power might make sense. But those are top tier issues, and therefore we conclude that strategic collaboration is the wisest course.

What is exciting about this debate is that we are post-Cold War thinkers. Mona and I graduated from college when the Berlin Wall fell; I am guessing you were in primary school. You, even more than us, are a true child of globalization. We all agree globalization has fundamentally changed the nature of big power relations, yet are we right to think that your writings still seem to reflect a zero-sum approach?

We offer a framework that gets beyond “when another country gains influence, that must be bad for America,” because that line of reasoning blinds us to the best way to secure American interests in this new world. Other powers’ growth will not keep us from having a successful future—it is what we do, or do not do.

All the big powers are friendly with Iran, but none wants it to go nuclear. The pragmatic solution is one that engages Tehran, and there are myriad specific plans for doing so. In Pakistan, do you really think China ranks among the top causes of problems for the United States? On the military, we advocate retaining a sophisticated military, but warn against overspending. America needs to shift resources to non-military national security.

One of the most surprising facets of writing the book was learning how interwoven domestic policy is with our standing in the world. The solutions to the dislocations triggered by the rise of other powers often lie in getting our own house in order. If we educate our kids, empower our workers, balance our budget, build our infrastructure, transform to a low carbon economy, and also lead in a new way, America will be able to thrive even in a more crowded world.

Parag KhannaApril 16, 2008

Parag Khanna

I’m less concerned with who is at the table than what they do when they’re there—and what fissures it reveals about where power lies in the world today. Even though I propose a G-3 in my book, it is not meant to be a formal “in-group” that will alienate the others; that would be as counter-productive as the proposed “Community of Democracies” (curious to know your views on that, by the way). Japan, Russia and India are the three main balancers in my book, so by no means am I opposed to their presence “at the table.” But bear in mind not even the G-3 exists yet, and it’s an important place to start given how much influence China already has around the world.

The topic of this debate is “The U.S. and Shifting Global Power Dynamics,” not how we should define security and prioritize threats. Like you, I personally see transnational threats such as terrorism as more immediate and urgent and requiring transnational cooperation. But the question at hand is how to evaluate and react to rising powers, their interests, and actions. In that context, it does matter a great deal that China and Russia provide backing to Iran, whose nuclear program all parties in the U.S. seek to deter, and that China increasingly provides weapons and aid to Pakistan (more than it has in the past forty years) in ways that could shift its military’s focus from the counter-terrorism/insurgency mission on the Afghan border. So my question to you is: How do we “lead the world community toward a pragmatic solution that others accept”? And what are those solutions?

We also don’t really differ on the question of primacy and dominance. I think my book is the most explicit of the lot today arguing that our dominance is neither feasible nor desirable, and an adjustment towards a global equilibrium of burden-sharing among all capable powers is the most pressing geopolitical priority. I rarely use the words “leadership” and “primacy” as if to claim that America has any automatic right to it. In the past several years I have observed a growing tendency in China and even the relatively timid EU to think of themselves as “exceptional” in the same way we do—something that is not logically compatible with our so-called exceptionalism.

A quick question: If I recall, you propose maintaining or increasing military funding—how is this in any way a contribution towards assuaging other powers, cooperating with them, resolving our current military dilemmas overseas, and cleaning up our act here at home?

Nina HachigianApril 15, 2008

Nina Hachigian

We have a minor disagreement as to which big powers ought to be at the table. We would include Russia, India, and Japan, along with China and the EU, and make it a "Core-6" grouping. It's not just a question of who is most influential now, but who has the capacity and ambition to support the world order or thwart it.

More interesting is a difference we might have in what constitutes security. We define direct threats to American security as outside agents that can harm our citizens. The only two forces that could take American lives on a large scale soon are terrorists, especially armed with a nuclear device, and a deadly pathogen like influenza.

Thus when you say, "I of course agree that we need to work with others wherever possible," that considerably understates the urgency of the matter. Our very lives depend on collaboration. British police officers and Chinese health officials, for better or worse, hold our fates in their hands. Further, we will not avoid a climate crisis—the potential security implications of which seem to get worse by the hour—unless every large emitter acts.

We have to prioritize, and these direct threats are more important than whether China or others are empowering some of the despicable regimes you list, much as that troubles us. Moreover, Beijing has shown it will act constructively under certain conditions—it has played a critical role in efforts to rollback North Korea's nuclear weapons program. On Iran, America is the country being isolated. Instead of worrying that we cannot get our way, America has to lead the world community toward a pragmatic solution that others accept.

We do think American leadership remains an important ingredient to solving many of the world's problems. It is easiest to see the need where we have not acted—such as on global warming. We are not advocating the kind of leadership America has exercised recently, though. Instead, we have to build consensus and motivate other powers to take responsibility.

We do not advocate that America seek specifically to retain its "dominance." The cooperation we need is undermined by a pursuit of primacy. Unlike you, however, we do not think that the question of American dominance is all that determinative. Of course, by pure logic, if other countries are getting stronger, then America is getting relatively weaker. The more important question is: So what? Will that negatively impact American lives? After an exhaustive survey, we conclude that it will not—if America finds a new way to lead, harnessing the power of others, and invests in fixing some of its core problems at home.

Parag KhannaApril 14, 2008

Parag Khanna

Thanks, Nina (and Mona too!) for laying out the vision of your book.

In my book, I take a tour of about forty strategic middle-tier countries to contrast the divergent diplomatic styles and approaches of the three leading imperial centers of gravity in the twenty-first century: The United States, the European Union, and China. Their influence can be felt in all corners of the world simultaneously—this is what makes them superpowers (albeit with varying degrees of military, economic, and other forms of power).

What must be understood is that unlike nineteenth or twentieth century territorial geopolitics, globalization is the new playing field of strategic competition. Countries were once conquered; now they are bought. A growing global economy has very much been a positive-sum game since at least the 1970s, but this has also meant the relative decline of America’s global dominance.

Of other major powers, Nina says “none are true ideological adversaries.” But the coincidentally common pursuit of stability and open trade does not add up to ideological alignment. What matters is whose vision of stability and how economic strategies play out in the real world. Presently, China provides military, financial, diplomatic and other lifelines to every single country America considers a “rogue state”— Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, Uzbekistan, North Korea, Burma, Zimbabwe, etc.—with no exceptions. European nations and Russia also have solid relations with some of these, showing how much more difficult it will be for America ever to isolate these countries. As I am not for pointless sanctions and impossible isolation, the lesson is that it is America that must learn from and leverage others’ policies and influence rather than the reverse. So when you assume that America can restore global leadership, I am keen to see examples of this.

I of course agree that we need to work with others wherever possible, but note how the European Union, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and even many Arab countries are already well along in building their own regional orders in which we play a diminishing role.

On core transnational policy areas—counter-terrorism, post-conflict stabilization, climate change, and development policy, proliferation, and states of concern—I propose that the United States, European Union, and China form a consultative G-3 to discuss common rule-making and norm-building together. These are the three leaders of the world’s diplomatic hierarchy; others follow what they say (not India or Russia, though it would be wonderful to have them at the table). This would be an assertion of leadership to bring about a world of shared responsibility and burden-sharing which both of our books envisage—but one that does not presume an American dominance that continues to fade.

Nina HachigianApril 14, 2008

Nina Hachigian

In our book, Mona Sutphen and I lay out a new paradigm for thinking about what we call the “pivotal powers,” China, India, Russia, the EU and Japan. America need not fear their strength. In fact, in order to keep Americans safe and prosperous, we need to work with these powers as never before. If America leads abroad and tackles its problems at home, we will continue to thrive in a more crowded world. 

Importantly, pivotal powers now want what we want—a stable world with open markets. None are true ideological adversaries. Though hot spots remain, no intractable disputes divide us. Nation states seeking order are on the same side against the forces of chaos—terrorists, climate change, disease, and proliferation. Only together can they defeat these rotten fruit of globalization. For instance, China allows American agents into China’s ports to help screen outbound shipping containers for smuggled radioactive devices. A climate crisis will come unless all the big emitters act.

Nevertheless, near panic dominates the debate about emerging powers, especially inside the Beltway—they are taking our jobs, luring away R&D, giving solace to enemies and reducing democracy’s appeal. There is truth in some of these claims. But remedies to these problems, more often than not, begin with domestic policy. For example, more innovation in China and India benefits America, as long as innovation continues here.  That requires investments in math and science education.

Thinking of big powers principally as competing rivals is not the right paradigm. Companies compete for profits. Countries do not. Nor is there a vast zero-sum head-to-head battle for influence. Policymakers need to shed the “us against them” Cold-War mindset.

We advocate “strategic collaboration” with the pivotal powers. The biggest challenge America faces is not their growing strength. It is convincing them to contribute to the world order—regimes and institutions that will tackle shared challenges like economic stability and nuclear proliferation. America still has to lead, but in a new way that encourages others to take responsibility.

Of course, we have to be prepared in case a hostile hegemon ever emerges. But we’ve been notoriously bad at predicting which powers will rise and which will fall, and we have little control over their trajectories.  We should strengthen the country we do control—our own—and seek the cooperation that will keep Americans safe and prosperous.

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