Coming Soon to Earth: A Superpowerless World

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 5/13/2011 08:33:00 PM
Hegemony is quite an Anglo-Saxon obsession. You can certainly argue that this debate primarily rages in places that previously were (here in the UK) or have been (the US) ascribed such status. A few posts back, I discussed Barry Buzan's interesting pop culture take on American decline via the example of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. Actually, I only heard of this notion by attending his recent lecture "A World Without Superpowers: De-centered Globalism." Sadly as many of you probably know, Professor Buzan will be retiring soon. Yet, prior to that, he's unveiled quite a fascinating work charting the forthcoming plight of international society.

For Barry Buzan (alike many other observers), the hullabaloo over superpower status rests on both material capabilities and social standing. We all know how the Soviet Union fared with those come 1989. We also know how the United States has fared since the global financial crisis of 2008 that effectively saw the end of the Washington Consensus--or at least left it terminally damaged. Certainly, the American Dream so central to US identity has taken a major knock; so much so that most Americans no longer believe in it.

So what does the future hold? He argues that the arguments we commonly encounter are too simplistic. On one hand we have the scenario of America maintaining its status as the sole superpower. On the other hand, we have various scenarios of American decline combined with the rise of the rest resulting in conflictual situations. The problem, he says, is that these scenarios are too Amerocentric. Instead, he believes there is a third scenario in which we end up with a world without any superpower.

According to him, there is a secular trend that supports this notion: at the end of WWII the world arguably had three superpowers; during the Cold War there were two; after 1989 there was one. So, it is a natural progression for us to have no superpowers in the near future. Zip. Zilch. None. Nada.

Of course, I invite you to watch the YouTube clip or listen to the podcast to be clear on his differentiation between a superpower (of which there will be none) and a great power (of which there will be several in various regions) as well as his take on why China in its current form is neither able nor willing to be a superpower. Among other things, he believes that the onset of the industrial revolution coupled with certain technologies provided unique conditions for the emergence of superpowers. We certainly don't know whether the future hold another paradigm shift into a new mode of production that will enable the creation of another superpower. But, for me at least, his story is both positively plausible (it has a good chance of coming true) and normatively desirable (in that we won't have others trying to impose their way of life on us).

As a sneak preview, he comes up with five policy suggestions based on his latest work which point to a more heterogeneous world of de-centered globalism or the restoration of more geographically dispersed world power that is more in keeping with previous historical epochs:

  1. There is no need for the US to see off challengers to its superpower status since there are none. Besides, its status as the sole remaining superpower is socially indefensible and its material conditions unsustainable
  2. After the collapse of Communism and the fall of the Washington Consensus, countries should be more ideologically open. Humility can be reflected in tinkering with the workings of free-market capitalism and see if they succeed or fail in producing the good life.
  3. Great powers--a step below superpowers--should look at their regions in gaining legitimacy and stability in international society. That is, great powers should prioritize relations with each other less than those with their neighbours (this is the decentering).
  4. That said, all great powers need to understand the substrate of ideas and institutions they agree on so that different modes of capitalism can peacefully coexist. Moreover, doing so is conducive to handling collective actions problems via an interaction culture.
  5. The West, particularly the US, needs to acknowledge that they no longer own the future. While some satisfaction derives from shaping the world's political, economic and social form. Not all of this was all good or well done, therefore rest of the world should be allowed to adjust socioculturally to the Western legacy.

It sounds like music to my ears, clearly. Let us wish Barry Buzan all the best in whatever endeavour he undertakes, but I for one hope that he can more fully develop this notion of de-centered globalism before moving on!