The foreign policy specialist—who has provided expert opinion to Barack Obama's campaign—talks with Andrew Coyne.
Q: Maybe we should start with the laying of blame. In 1949 the question was “who lost China?” One question that might be provoked by your book is: Who lost the world? Was it the “imperial overstretch” of the Bush administration? Was it the decade of drift under Bill Clinton? Or was it inevitable that America would lose its position of dominance, no matter what anyone did?
A: It was inevitable. Globalization did it, not Bush. What globalization does is resist centralization. You can no longer have central authority over anything, and that applies to America’s hegemonic position in the world as well. Power, technology, money, modernity spread everywhere—just about everywhere—which means countries have the resources now to do whatever they want. America is kind of waking up to that new world where it isn’t the only power. Globalization sets the rules, not America.
Q: Is that a message you can sell in the current American political climate? Can you sell, “We’re number three?"
A: I don’t think this is something that presidential candidates need to talk about in terms of where do we stack up, where are we winning, where are we losing. But what does have to be sold is a set of ideas and policies for how to manage American foreign policy and economic strategy in this landscape.
Q: Is your message perhaps as much directed at the Democrats as it is the Republicans? The rhetoric of the Democrats is still, “We will regain American leadership—we’ll do so through soft power rather than hard power, we’ll play nicely with others, but it will still be American leadership.”
A: Absolutely. The Democrats are actually just Republican Lite. They still believe that the world is there for the taking, it’s just a question of how you do it. Nonsense! It is not the case. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization does not care who the next president of the United States is; the European Union hardly even cares who the next president is. Russia doesn’t even care. Russia only cares about the price of oil. Whether Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or John McCain is the next president is a distant eighth priority for them.
Q: A skeptic might say you overstate the degree to which the European Union can be viewed as a superpower: they don’t have their own army, they can’t seem to cobble together a coherent foreign policy, and the more countries they take in the more incoherent they become. How do you answer that?
A: It’s a mistake to measure Europe against the coherence that is demanded of a singular unitary nation state. Europe is a different form of entity altogether—it’s a supranational, transnational, postmodern network empire. It’s actually a more appropriate structure for the 21st century than America’s structure is, in a way. They don’t have one army, they have many armies. They don’t have one foreign policy, they have many foreign policies. But can you demonstrate to me that there are areas where what one country does hurts the others rather than eventually helping them? When Italy builds a gas pipeline from Libya, does that hurt Denmark? No. I mean, the energy is going into the common gas market which is being developed. When Germany takes the lead on Russia and Spain takes the lead on Venezuela, is that a bad thing? No, not at all. When the French and the Spanish invest in migration centres in North Africa to create jobs there to diminish illegal immigration into Europe, is that bad for Germany and for Britain? No, it's good for them. I’m glad they don’t have a constitution. Why over-centralize?
Where the Pentagon has missile programs, the European Commission has reform programs. They’ve got their boots on the ground in the form of well-heeled diplomats who are in the ministries of every country from the Baltics into the South Balkans and Albania, all the way out to Azerbaijan. They are actually inside the ministries, fixing these countries basically from the inside out. And the reason these countries become members of the European Union, and you wake up one morning and there’s yet another member and you didn’t hear a shot fired, is because that works. Europe works.
Let me give you two more quick examples, because they’re the two most important ones in the whole world: Russia and China. America talks about missile defence, [which has made Russia feel threatened and therefore block NATO expansion. Has Russia ever been able to block EU expansion? No, because the EU isn’t doing anything threatening. I think that Europe will buy out Russia. Russia’s economy is not larger than France’s economy. Europe is by far the largest investor in Russia and not many other people have the stomach, necessarily, to go in the way Europeans do. So there is kind of this condominium that’s emerging between Europe and Russia. Also, because of Russia’s fear of China—because China is sort of gobbling it up from the east.
How much impact do you think America has on Chinese politics? They used to release political prisoners and all these things. They don’t do that anymore. Europe actually has influence on Chinese politics for a variety of reasons. Marxism came from Europe. The welfare state also comes from Europe. What does China want to be when it grows up? It wants to be a big Germany. It wants to have a giant welfare state, low inequality, potentially some form of parliamentary democracy and, you know, be peacefully integrated with its neighbours. That’s Germany today. And an industrial powerhouse. That’s what China wants.
When you go inside China and you travel around, who’s teaching them how to recycle? Who’s teaching judges how to be independent? Who’s actually training NGOs and working with them on a grassroots level? Obviously Americans aren’t doing that. They wouldn’t last a minute before they were caught and evicted. Europeans are actually welcomed there, and you see them everywhere openly operating.
Q: Is China as stable as you suggest? It’s sitting on top of simmering inter-ethnic rivalries, large parts of the country are essentially ignoring what they’re being told by the central command and just going their own way. Doesn’t it face some pretty difficult problems itself?
A: I don’t say China’s a roaring success, because it isn’t, but I give them the benefit of the doubt because in no country that I’ve ever been in in my life have I seen such serious, serious efforts to tackle each of these issues, and experimentation—I mean, do anything to try and solve these problems. You don’t see that even in India—a democratic, open, liberal kind of system.
What’s happened in Tibet and Xinjiang is very unfortunate, and I’ve spent a lot of time in those two regions and driven through them myself, and the sad thing is that although this unrest is happening and it’s capturing headlines and it’s really awakening passion, it is unfortunately about 30 years too late. Hopefully it will teach the Chinese government to find more inclusive policies, and come up with a better approach to dealing with those provinces, but the idea that Tibet or Xinjiang could ever become independent or have more autonomy than they do today is unfortunately an utter impossibility. It’s like America ceding Texas and California and the Rocky Mountains. It’s not going to happen.
You know, this is the equivalent, in terms of the macro-stability of the country, of the L.A. riots—it doesn’t mean that the country’s going to fall apart. I mean, Tibet and Xinjiang are the most strategically located provinces in China. Between the two of them they border ten different countries. So China can’t give that up, it needs that access. Kazakh oil is already coming in through Xinjiang. Roads and trade routes are already open through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan towards Afghanistan and Iran, and obviously the connection through Pakistan is vitally important for reaching the Arabian Sea. So there’s absolutely no hope whatsoever of changing their minds or having them see the light or relinquish control.
Q: Is Russia a possible wild card in all this? You lay out a situation in which Russia’s sort of gobbled up, whether through European purchases or Chinese expansion, but one thing we know about the Russians is they have a very elevated view of their place in the world. Is it possible that they could react in some irrational way that could totally disrupt this scenario?
A: They could act in highly irrational ways in the coming years or decades. Russia is the ultimate “swing state,” as I call it in the book. But to the extent that it remains a sovereign, unified and territorial entity that remains the largest country in the world, with a lot of oil and gas, it still faces two choices because of its demographics and because of its relatively small economy. Those two choices are get closer to Europe to maintain political stability, or become a petro-vassal of China. Because in its own right it isn’t going to be a global diplomatic player. No one is saying, “Well, let’s copy the Russian model,” or, “Let’s do things the Russian way.” It really could swing in a variety of directions. I paint a kind of Nixon/Kissinger scenario in my book, only rather than extracting China from Russia’s orbit it’s pulling Russia back from China’s orbit. And that’s what might happen in the coming decades as Russia wakes up and realizes, “We’re getting eaten alive.”
Q: Talk to me a bit about the concept of the Second World. You describe these states as being much shrewder, savvier players of the game than in the past, that they’re going to play the Big Three off against each other. Will they succeed in that, though, or will they come under inexorable pressure from one or another superpower to throw in their lot with them?
A: You can never say universally they’re all going to make it or they’re all going to be able to resist influence and encroachment from the superpowers, nor can you say the inexorable marching power of Europe/China/America is going to subdue them. Some are going to make it, some won’t. These are countries that are on their way to the First World, and that are being pulled back to the Third World at the same time. That’s why I called the book The Second World—not because they’re halfway, but because they’re just both at the same time, literally splitting the difference, or the difference splitting them.
The countries that are going to succeed are going to be the ones that practice what I call multi-alignment. They’re going to be smart at getting a lot of investment, trade, and political support from Europeans, a lot of stronger ties to China for low-cost goods as export markets and for cheaper weapons, and from the United States—you know, political ties, economic ties, and the like. Those that can play off all ties without giving way to any one are going to be the winners. Right now the winners look like they are Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey, Libya, Brazil. I’m confident in their diplomatic savvy.
Q: You raise the prospect that they may try to establish their own kind of movement.
A: Right, and it isn’t one, it’s many movements. I call it the Anti-Imperial Belt, but it’s everything—it’s the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, it’s when you see a summit of Brazilian and Arab leaders, a China-Brazil summit, an India-Africa summit. It’s when Ahmadinejad goes to Venezuela, or Chávez goes to Kazakhstan or to Malaysia and you see this weird hodgepodge of leaders getting together to talk about mutual investment, about coordination of energy prices, joint counter-terrorism or technology investments and initiatives. All these things that are going on, all of those are permutations and combinations of Second World alliances and axes that are forming, and there’s lots of them—there’s too many to count, basically. And that’s the real story of the Second World: it’s not necessarily America dominating them, Europe dominating them or China dominating them, it’s what they're doing in themselves, because they don’t need to play with America alone anymore. You know, America shows up, says, “We’ll sell you something,” and they say, “Ah, we already bought it." You see that happening everywhere.
Q: Should we talk about a G4, then? Can you talk about the Second World as being, in a sense, one of the big four players?
A: The thing about a “G” is being one of the powers that really sets the rules. Second World countries are shaping the agenda. Saudi Arabia can shape the agenda any day it wants, and it does when Bush shows up and says, “Raise production,” and they say, “No way.” So they can help shape and set the agenda but they’re not the ones proposing the rules, making the rules, enforcing the rules—and that’s where the credibility of superpowers, of America and Europe and China, comes in. No one says, “Well, if India’s going to set these rules, well, we have to do it.” If Europe decides, “We’re not going to invest in countries that don’t change their human rights norms,” or America says, “We’ll invade any country that does X,” that shapes the way the world behaves, right? The Second World countries shape the agenda but they are not the sort of repositories of the world’s rules. The superpowers are.
Q: Is NATO obsolete in this environment? Does the notion of a tri-polar world call into question the old model of transatlantic cooperation?
A: Yeah, I mean, we still see this 1990s model of NATO pushing eastward and then Europe coming in behind it. So that’s still happening, obviously, with the deepening agreements with the Ukraine, Georgia, Albania and the like. But the EU doesn’t need NATO. I mean, it needs NATO for airlift, on tactical occasions, but you could have that as just a U.S.-EU relationship, you wouldn’t need NATO for that.
Q: What’s to prevent this tri-polar scenario becoming, as it were, bi-polar? If China continues to grow and is perceived as being aggressive and threatening, does there not come a time where the two other poles—Europe and the United States, as liberal democracies—see an interest in joining together to meet that threat?
A: And this is the East-West question. The real East-West divide is actually yet to come. People have said the Cold War was an East-West conflict. I mean, that’s obviously quite silly because the Soviet Union didn’t represent the East: China, India, Japan, that is the East. And there are issues already when you see clearly that Europe and the U.S. are very much on the same page when it comes to China. Obviously human rights is one of them; another is intellectual property, where Europe’s trade deficit has just ballooned to be probably larger than America’s with China. So I can imagine, you know, a set of areas emerging where the U.S. and the EU cooperate more closely on China than they have in the past. Could there be an actual sort of reconvening of the West in light of the growing power and influence and alternative agenda that China and other Asians have? It could happen, absolutely, that’s the greatest fear that I express in the book.
A: Yeah, fear, because we don’t even have the structures to manage U.S.-EU relations, let alone U.S.-EU-China, let alone a hostile East-West rivalry. So without any of the diplomatic acumen or structures and institutions in place to handle it, of course it’s my biggest fear.
Q: Perhaps you could encapsulate your advice to the next president as to how to deal with this new world.
A: You know, for the American president, I try to point out very bluntly that no one really cares about American interests any more. I think we’ll continue to see that so long as other people have more and more money and power. So point one is, speak in terms of global interests and figure out what those are, and if you don’t know what they are, dialogue with others rather than pretending to dictate them, because no one’s going to listen. Number two: restructure the State Department so that you have more powerful regional bureaus, so that it’s not one day North Korea, one day Iran, one day Israel/Palestine, one day Venezuela, one day terrorism. It’s got to be all of them all the time.
The third point was about the global economy, about how is America going to sustain its own internal competitiveness and position with its twin deficits. It has to have more managed globalization, as the Europeans do, where it’s tougher to fire and downsize and lose jobs. It’s got to have a much more robust worker retraining.
And the fourth point is this G3, you know, have a dialogue about burden sharing and a division of labour globally with the other major powers.
But none of those sound all that immediate, those are conceptual. The immediate ones are definitely Iraq, Afghanistan—you know, war on terror issues. I fear that the first couple of years are going to be devoted to just cleaning up those messes, which may never be cleaned up, rather than this longer-term progressive agenda, because there’s only so many hours in a day.