Saturday, 5 March 2011

“Zero-Sum Future” by Gideon Rachman (Simon & Schuster)


American Power in the an Age of Anxiety

From the chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times comes a stark warning about a gathering global political crisis. Successive presidents have welcomed globalization and the rise of China. But with American unemployment stubbornly high and U.S. power facing new challenges, the stage is set for growing rivalry between America and China. The European Union is also ripping itself apart. The win-win logic of globalization is giving way to a zero-sum logic of political and economic struggle.

The new world we now live in, an age of anxiety, is a less prosperous, less stable world, with old ideas overthrown and new ideologies and powers on the rise. Rachman shows how zero-sum logic is thwarting efforts to deal with global problems from Afghanistan to unemployment, climate change to nuclear proliferation. This timely and important book details why international politics is now more dangerous and volatile—and suggests what can be done to break away from the crippling logic of a zero-sum world.

In Zero-Sum Future Gideon Rachman provides a timely and very well-written volume on the state of the world today, and the dangers inherent in the rise of increased zero-sum thinking in global politics. The book offers good summaries of all the major issues and the major political and economic developments in key regions of the world. Despite the blurb, one of the books strengths is also that it does not solely focus on the US and China, but provides a broad picture of international development and history.

Rachman argues that “the international system has... entered a period of dangerous instability and profound change,” and that it would be a big mistake to believe that it is possible to go back to international business as it was conducted before the crash of 2008.

Zero-sum logic, Rachman writes, has prevented meaningful agreements on a whole host of important global issues, from combating global warming, nuclear proliferation, and also shortages in food, energy, and clean water. The United States, China, the EU, and the major developing economies all hesitate to move first – for fear of crippling their domestic economies, and so boosting the relative power and wealth of rivals. A similar competitive rivalry blocks the world's ability to find cooperative solutions to nuclear proliferation, with the major powers manoeuvring for advantage rather than acting decisively to combat a common threat. Zero-sum logic hovers over other big international challenges, such as shortages of energy, food, and water as the world's biggest powers struggle to secure resources.”

Rachman paints a bleak potential picture of the international system:

“Among the biggest risks is the danger of a major new war in the Middle East, provoked by a failure to rein in Iran’s nuclear program. The debt crisis in Europe or trade wars, triggered by American anger at Chinese mercantilism, could plunge the world economy into a severe new downturn. The inability to stabilize failing states could see countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan slipping further into violent anarchy, with dangerous consequences for the rest of the world. Over the longer term, a failure to deal with climate change could provoke the most serious international crisis of all – leading to flooding, famine, mass migration, and even war.”

“Crises such as these,” Rachman writes, “threaten the future of the whole world. Yet the world’s major powers are unable to deal with them cooperatively” because “a damaged and dysfunctional world economy and the growth of new international rivalries – in particular between the United States and China – are increasingly trapping the world in zero-sum logic.”

Rachman split his book into three main sections: the “Age of Transformation” – 1978-91 – which saw an embrace of globalisation and the spark of China’s and India’s rises; the “Age of Optimism” – 1991-2008 – which spans from the collapse of the Soviet Union through to financial crisis of 2008; and the the “Age of Anxiety” – 2008 and onwards. After outlining these three ages, Zero-Sum Future “explains why international politics are about to get more dangerous and unstable”, and finishes with a couple of chapters aimed at offering solutions for “what can be done to break away from the dangerous logic of a zero-sum world.”

Age of Transformation

This section effectively deals with the closing decades of the Cold War, and those figures and events who help refashion the world in what was believed then to herald the “end of history” and a shift towards democracy and increased market economics. “Together with Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping, [Margaret] Thatcher and [Ronald] Reagan were the dominant figures of the Age”, and Rachman explains in succinct detail how these four figures effected the development of their own countries and also the world. This was a good, clear section, with chapters on the economic and political revolutions, evolutions, and developments in China, the UK, the USA, Europe, India, South America, Russia, and Eastern Europe, which summarise nicely the key issues and events of this age.

The final chapter in this section explains the importance of the Gulf 1991 War, which would have a considerable impact on the US’s place in the world – “America’s revived willingness to contemplate war was a defining feature of the Age of Optimism.” The “easy victory” of the Gulf War gave American politicians an “intoxicating glimpse” of a new world defined by an “unanswerable combination of American technological, military, economic, ideological, and political power. The unipolar moment had arrived.”

Age of Optimism

The Age of Optimism was a time of democracy promotion and expansion of free markets, led by a confident America and Europe. If Fukuyama’s “end of history” was correct, would this end come about naturally, or did it need a helping hand? It would, of course, fall on the US to provide said help – in some ways, this kind of logic is how the neoconservative movement came about, as they believed the world wasn’t moving quickly enough towards universal democracy and market economics.

“While faith in the universality of democracy was never in fact universal during the Age of Optimism, there were other parts of the liberal internationalist creed that really did seem to have conquered the world in the years between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the financial crisis of 2008. The most important idea of all was the faith in market economics.”

“The whole neoconservative philosophy exemplified by Krauthammer’s speech in 2004 was based on an unexamined assumption of continued American economic supremacy.” It appeared that this was somewhat justified, as the American-led revolution in technology suggested the US would lead the way. Technology, Rachman writes, “turbocharged globalization” and “America’s tech boom was crucial to banishing a fear of national decline that had hovered stubbornly over the 1980s.”

American politicians believed that economic globalization and free markets were a “force for prosperity and peace around the world. But where markets failed to bring peace, prosperity, and stability, the United States was prepared to intervene with military might.” By the end of the Bush presidency, however, America was becoming “much more conscious of the limits of its own power” and its ability to implement change around the world. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had turned into “long, bloody, and unpopular slogs”, calling into question the validity of a America’s supremacy.

“During the Age of Optimism, globalisation and American power underpinned the international system. Liberal internationalists were confident that the world of prosperity, freedom, and stability was expanding, while the areas of poverty, dictatorship, and anarchy were gradually being rolled back.” The power seemed to lie in the West, with its strengths in economics, technology, and military. This all ended with the 2008 financial crash, and the United States in particular “faces fundamental challenges to its global position.” No longer was there much faith in the ideas of exporting democracy, thanks to the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also thanks to the growing acceptance of China’s authoritarian model (what Stefan Halper calls the ‘Beijing Consensus’).

Rachman offers good descriptions and explanations of the counter-theories and ideologies of the time – particularly the opposing, Asian perception of power and international political development, as exemplified by the writing and policies of such luminaries as Lee Kuan Yew and Kishore Mahbubani, who suggested that the Western-held beliefs in the spread and benefits of democracy may not apply to China – “An early transition to democracy in China might not be conducive to global peace as Western theorists liked to believe”, and if Chinese authoritarianism helps create a massive Chinese middle class, how can this be considered ‘bad’?

The rise of globalisation in the world also, naturally, gave rise to those who oppose it, particularly in Europe and some elite American circles.

“In the heyday of liberal optimism during the Clinton years, it was easy to point to the most attractive forces driving globalization forward: new technologies, the spread of political freedom, the power of market economics, the creation of common interests between nations, even the wisdom of farsighted politicians. But in the post-9/11 world, the Bush administration decided to reassert and demonstrate the most fundamental force underpinning the international system – American power.”

Age of Anxiety

With the end of the Age of Optimism, four new forces are reshaping international order. First, the emergence of genuine global challenges – climate change, terrorism, and global economic imbalances. The second is the faltering and controversial drive for new forms of global governance to deal with these problems. Third is the growing confidence of the world’s authoritarian powers, especially in Russia and China. And finally, the potential wave of new failed states.

“The emergence of these new forces, combined with the weakening of American power, is replacing the win-win world of the Age of Optimism with a zero-sum world, in which the world’s major powers are increasingly and dangerously at odds with each other.”

The 2008 financial crisis has “undermined what was regarded as the very basis of American power and spread a new sense of American vulnerability”, and also impacted its ability to project power. This sense of vulnerability is exacerbated by other nations’ reduced willingness to bow to American leadership, let alone seek it, on some of the most important issues facing the world today.

In the chapter entitled “A World of Troubles”, Rachman gives us an overview of the great issues facing the global community today – the Great Recession, climate change, resource shortages, poverty and population, failed states, terrorism and nuclear proliferation; and he also writes about the search for global solutions and the impediments to successful negotiations. Specifically, this is the rise in zero-sum thinking in international relations.

US & China

Much of the final quarter of the book looks at the US-China relationship, and how it is changing in the Age of Anxiety (although both, obviously, feature throughout the book). Some readers might bemoan the focus on the relationship, but Rachman is right to do so; as he points out, correctly, the US-China relationship is one between the two most significant and power actors on the international stage – upheaval within or caused by either will have ripple effects across the globe, in every sphere and international arena. Rachman evinces concern about the toughening stance and combative rhetoric emanating from Beijing – a “mixture of pride and defiance, cooperation and confrontation” – that adds more uncertainty to this already volatile international atmosphere; and China’s (and Russia’s) new found alternative source of legitimacy: nationalism. In the wake of the 2008 crash, tensions are heightening in US-China relations, and top officials are openly questioning the relationship. Nationalism is on the rise in both nations, as American workers start to question the promise of the liberalising effect of increased wealth on the Chinese, and Chinese come to view America as stifling China’s growth and development.

“If zero-sum logic strengthens in international relations, the U.S.-Chinese relationship will become much more adversarial,” and as a result, “the most important question hanging over the international system... is the future of China.” Rachman takes the reader through the issues that face China – from democratisation (too soon to write it off, but don’t hold your breath, and when it arrives it might not be what we were hoping for); China’s likely continued growth and development; that China has already become, for all intents and purposes, “the world’s biggest player” by almost every metric (save, most significantly perhaps, military capabilities); and also China’s increased participation in UN peacekeeping missions, relaxing its long-held suspicion of, and opposition to foreign powers interfering in other nations’ internal affairs. “A better Chinese-American relationship might then serve as a foundation for breaking free from the zero-sum logic that is afflicting international relations as a whole.”

Rachman does refer to other key areas and regions in international politics, also, discussing how zero-sum thinking, protectionism, and nationalism are on the rise globally, and not just between the US and China – for example, the author highlights increasing tensions in Europe, and the possibility that fractures in the EU will only grow, putting the communal relationships in severe risk of collapsing.

“Most of my career has been spent reporting on a world where things were steadily improving... It doesn’t feel that way now.”

Overall, I would say this is an accessible, well-written and -structured book on the evolution of international order from the 1970 to the present. Each chapter is clearly defined and succinctly written (there were only a couple of instances when I thought the author skimmed the surface too much, and didn’t delve deep enough). Rachman’s style is excellent, as can be expected from a life-long journalist, and he infuses his discussion with personal reflections from those areas he was stationed to – never making the issue about himself (something many journalists are all-too-prone to do), but instead enriching his analysis with a personal account to illustrate the problem or issue being discussed.

The book is an indictment of the zealous faith in the power of markets to solve the great problems of today and the last half-century, and Rachman does an exemplary job of laying out the evolution of the ideas and problems. “It is increasingly obvious... that there are many dangerous international political and economic problems for which there is no obvious market solution.” It is possible, posits Rachman, that this will lead to greater international cooperation, giving rise to the “world government” idea beloved by some, and despised and feared by others. If the US or some form of global government cannot step up to solve problems, the author is concerned about the possibility of a rise of an “axis of authoritarianism”, with China, Russia, Iran and Venezuela serving as regional centres of power and influence. Rachman’s hope, I believe, is to fire a warning shot against the encroachment of zero-sum thinking that will derail the continued growth and development of the international community. Hard choices have to be made, by all concerned, but there remain considerable (perhaps, in the short-term, insurmountable) hurdles to clear before real progress can be made on the issues that will affect, if they do not already, every person on the planet.

Rachman’s ultimate conclusion is that “Eighty years after the Great Depression, a strong, successful, and confident America remains the best hope for a stable and prosperous world.”

Given how much of the book is dedicated to the past, I found the title a bit misleading, but that is a very minor complaint that shouldn’t be considered an indictment on its content (in the UK, the book is published as Zero-Sum World, by Icon Books, and this is a far better title). If you come to the book with the idea that you’re getting an overall picture, then this will be very satisfying. Rachman’s conclusions are clear, and well explained, and actually suggest some hope, although do not shy away from a pragmatic acceptance that things might get worse before they get better.

The level of depth and analysis might disappoint some academics, but the book would serve as an excellent introduction to the world today and how we got here, and is therefore very highly recommended for anyone interested in acquiring a greater understanding of the forces that have driven international economic and political change for the past half-century.


See Also: Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World (2009); Zachary Karabell, Superfusion (2009); Joseph S Nye, Jr., The Future of Power (2011)


[UK Edition]

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