By William Pfaff
MARRAKECH, Morocco—As those bewitched (or intimidated) by China’s contemporary growth and new political claims know all too well, the world has been run by the Western powers since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. World pre-eminence once belonged to China, from the high civilization of Hsuan Tsung in the eighth century to the Sung Dynasty in the 10th, as it once did to the contemporaneous Arab Caliphates, at a time when feudal Europe was a backwater. But times change (as modern American tea partyers, among others, are noticing).
The practice of those who run the modern world is to hold conferences to talk about what’s happening, what the future is likely to bring and what if anything can be done about it. These, in my professional lifetime, have always been conceived, organized and dominated by Westerners, mainly American and West European. Since 1973, when the rise of Japanese economic power made it imperative, Japan has been incorporated into these discussions, but has rarely asserted a claim to share the management of global affairs.
In short, the modern world’s political and economic systems have been controlled by the West since at least the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, which ended the Holy Roman Empire that was Rome’s successor and established the modern system of individual sovereign states, and the beginning of the 19th century and the Congress of Vienna, which ended the Napoleonic system. What was left of the great Christian and Muslim empires was finished off by the first and second world wars.
The Cold War proved to be a fluke, taken seriously because of the existence of nuclear weapons and the modern addiction to ideological violence, and finished in 45 years. It was a trivial historical event.
It left the United States to conduct what must now be concluded the misrule of what remained, with military interventions to “create democracy,” so that America’s own survival as a functioning and competent democracy must now be considered in doubt.
Americans today are in deep distress about their national future, with a belief (plausible, but in my opinion without serious substance) that China is shortly going to take the place of the most powerful state in the world.
Today, China is near to becoming the nation with the largest gross domestic product. Since most of what China produces is of foreign design or technology, this could be compared with saying that China produces more coal than any other country on earth. So what? It is quality of civilization and culture, and the nature of a nation’s actions in international society, that affords historical greatness.
Nonetheless, an epoch of Western world political domination is coming to an end. This is not simply an end to imperialism (new or old), but quite possibly the beginning of a probably long decline in the West’s primacy in industry, technology and scientific innovation. The political rise of Asia is obvious. China, Korea, India, Pakistan and the major Arab states (leaving out Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and rising states elsewhere) now are major influences upon the future not simply in their own regions but in the world. The American military eruption into Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, if it continues to fail, could easily end by destroying America’s global claims.
Europe has played a largely passive role in all of this since the two world wars, and the future of the European Union remains very different to assess, on the political level at least. But in Western Europe there is now serious recognition that the world is assuming an entirely new shape in which the Europeans, collectively or as individual nations, will be part of a system in which Turkey, Iran, China, Japan, Korea, a new Russia and certain Latin American and other states will have an importance they have not possessed since 1940, and in which the present institutions of global “governance”—the U.N. system of functional organizations, the economic assumptions embodied in the post-Bretton Woods and “Washington consensus” economy, the G-20 and its parallel meetings—are clearly inadequate to the new era, intellectually as well as organizationally.
In Marrakech, the third World Policy Conference has just concluded, in which nearly half the participants were from countries other than those of Western Europe and North America. This is all but unprecedented for a meeting with such eminent contributors and speakers. Although current events and politics intruded into the discussion, particularly concerning the economic crisis and the emerging powers, the program dealt with basic matters affecting the common future: food, population, climate, health, monetary and financial governance, energy and cyberspace. The affair, which is annual, is the work of the French Institute of International Relations, and its director, Thierry de Montbrial. It has been needed, is overdue and will make a difference.
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy,” at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2010 Tribune Media Services Inc.