At this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, the buzz was about Asia's growing power. One Asian analyst argued that by 2050, there will be three world powers: the US, China and India. He did not mention Europe, but underestimating Europe's power is a mistake.
Yes, Europe currently punches below its weight. It is fragmented, peaceful and normative in a world of hard power, but part of the world is not about military power. The use of force among advanced industrial democracies is virtually unthinkable. In their relations with each other, such countries are all from Venus, to paraphrase Robert Kagan, and here Europe's focus on law and institutions is an asset.
As for other parts of the world, a recent Pew poll found that many Europeans would like Europe to play a larger role, but to balance US military power would require a doubling or tripling of defense spending, and few Europeans are interested in such an increase. Nevertheless, a smart strategy for Europe will require greater investments in hard power.
The picture for Europe, however, is not as bleak as pessimists assume. Power is the ability to get the outcomes one wants, and the resources that produce such behavior depend upon the context. In functional terms, power is distributed like a three-dimensional chess game. On the top board are military relations among states, with the US the world's only superpower with global reach. Here the world is unipolar.
On the middle board are economic relations, where the world is already multipolar. Here, Europe acts as a union, and countries like Japan and China play big roles. The US cannot reach a trade agreement or settle anti-trust cases without the approval of the EU. Or, to take another example, Europe was able to lead the drive to remove Paul Wolfowitz from his position as president of the World Bank.
The bottom chessboard includes transnational relations outside the control of governments -- everything from drugs to infectious diseases to climate change to terrorism. On this board, power is chaotically distributed among non-state actors, and it makes no sense to call this world either unipolar or multipolar. Here, close civilian cooperation is important, for which Europe is well endowed. European countries' success in overcoming centuries of animosity and the development of a large internal market have given them a great deal of soft power. At the Cold War's end, East European countries did not try to form local alliances, as they did in the 1920's, but looked toward Brussels to secure their future. Similarly, countries like Turkey and Ukraine have adjusted their policies in response to their attraction to Europe.
Recently, the US National Intelligence Council published four widely different scenarios for the world in 2020: "Davos World," in which economic globalization continues, but with a more Asian face; "Pax Americana," where the US continues to dominate the global order; "New Caliphate," where Islamic religious identity challenges the dominance of Western norms; and "Cycle of Fear," in which non-state forces create shocks to security that produce Orwellian societies. Like any exercises in futurology, such scenarios have their limits, but they help us ask which three or four major political factors will help shape the outcome.
The first is the rise of Asia. The big question will be China and its internal evolution. China has lifted 400 million people out of poverty since 1990, but another 400 million still live on less than US$2 per day. Unlike India, China has not solved the problem of political participation. If China replaces its eroded communism with nationalism or ensure social cohesion, the result could be a more aggressive foreign policy and unwillingness to deal with issues like climate change. Or it may deal with its problems and become a "responsible stakeholder" in world politics.
Europe can contribute significantly to China's integration into global norms and institutions. In general, Europe and the US have more to fear from a weak China than they do from a wealthy China. Political Islam and how it develops will be the second factor. The struggle against extreme Islamist terrorism is not a "clash of civilizations," but a civil war within Islam. A radical minority is using violence to impose a simplified and ideological version on a mainstream with more diverse views.
Another major determinant of which scenario prevails will be US power and how it is used. The US will remain the most powerful country in 2020, but, paradoxically, the strongest state since the days of Rome will be unable to protect its citizens acting alone.
US military might is not adequate to deal with threats such as global pandemics, climate change, terrorism and international crime. These issues require cooperation in the provision of global public goods and the soft power of attracting support. No part of the world shares more values or has a greater capacity to influence US attitudes and power than does Europe. That suggests that the fourth political determinant of the future will be the evolution of European policies and power.
Joseph Nye is a professor at Harvard.
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