In the United States, there are many who believe that the 21st century should also be that of their country, the way the post-1945 world was till the 2008 Wall Street meltdown. Strategic thinkers spend countless hours of effort on devising ways of ensuring that Washington retain not simply its primacy but its dominance over world affairs. The fact that Hollywood has for long been the celluloid medium of choice for elites and the middle class across the globe has made the task of retaining US status as the prime power easier, as has the reality that the dollar is still the reserve currency of the world, with most international transactions taking place in that currency. This has enabled the US to use the money of savers in other countries to fund its lavish ways.
For a time, the Euro emerged as a challenger, but the strains within the European Union are these days becoming less possible to conceal, and hence the dilution of the “Europe Premium”, which lingered on across the globe more than a century after the 1914-1919 war which first weakened the relative position of that continent. Had the Chinese economy been as fast-growing as it had been till the send term of Premier Wen Jiabao, the Yuan ( RMB) would have emerged as a competitor to the dollar, but these days, the economy of China is slowing down, while its structural problems remain significant and difficult to resolve. However, the RMB has been placed inside the IMF basket of key currencies, a long-deserved move up the global currency ladder.
Whether for individuals or for countries, excessive ego and pride creates situations where action becomes rash and counter-productive. While the 2001 attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan was justified (although later tweaks in policy were less so), the invasion of Iraq by George W Bush in 2003 should have been followed almost immediately after the victory of US forces against the ramshackle military commanded by Saddam Hussein by a withdrawal from the country, leaving the people of Iraq free to fashion their own destiny. Instead, a semi-colonial administration was established under Paul Bremer, who knew less about Iraq than most schoolchildren.
The postwar disaster of US policy in Iraq was followed later by adventures elsewhere, the overall effect of which has been to weaken the US and the global economy and to lead the the conclusion by President Obama that his country could not alone impose its will over others, but needed to be more circumspect in geopolitical matters, a course that was the reverse of the muscular “intervene at all costs” policy of Senator John McCain. Since 2008 it became clear that US dominance was past. For at least the past two years, it has been obvious that the era of US primacy itself is coming to a close. Across the globe, players are active that are not in thrall to Washington, the most visible being Russia and its intervention in Syria. This columnist believes that Putin’s intervention was needed. A victory over Bashar Assad of the so-called “moderate opposition” would have led to the entire country being a safe haven for terrorists, rather than just the third of the country that is ruled by extremists now. The good news for the US is that it is still far and away the most advanced of the scientific and technological powers, and its economy is still the largest, at least a decade ahead of China, the challenger.
However, clearly the 21st century will no longer be American Century. Given the chaos of Iraq and the Wall Street meltdown, there has not even been an American Decade thus far during this period. Such a vacuum has given rise to calls for an Asian Century, with this continent taking over from where first Europe and later North America left off. However, despite its overall economic performance, the continent of Asia is riddled with countries that have lower than even moderate standards of human rights and freedoms. Even in India, the world’s most populous democracy, there are repeated legal assaults on freedom of speech, and to jail a citizen has remained as easy a task post-1947 as it was during the period when the Union Jack was fluttering above the Viceregal Palace in Delhi.
In many countries, there are restrictions of dress and diet, while overall, opportunities for advancement are much fewer for the economically disadvantaged than they are for the tiny fraction of the population which forms the elite. Public schooling and health is still in miserable shape, while there are hundreds of millions of desperately poor people in Asia, almost as much as in the rest of the world combined. In terms of intellectual attainmnts and technology, Asia still lags behind Europe and North America.
Whether it be the UK or other major economies in Europe, these have lost out by their obsessive focus on Europeans only as desirable migrants. A software engineer from Hyderabad would have contributed much more to an economy than a immigrant from some of the rural parts of Rumania, yet it is the latter that wins the right to enter and to work inside the UK, France or Germany. Unlike the EU, the US has been more open to immigration from Asia, and this has been to its benefit, no matter what Donald Trump may say. As for Asia,most countries in the world’s largest continent have extensive trade and other linkages with faraway countries, which is as it should be in this age of instant communication.
Hence, rather than an American Century getting replaced by an Asian Century, what makes more sense is to aim at a Global Century, when each part of the globe will be able to activate the synergies it has with each of the other parts. Those continents that sought to create barriers around themselves, such as Europe, will lose ground against those open to the entire world. This truth mandates the need for the 21st to be a Global Century.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.