Asia’s return to the center of world affairs is the great power shift of the twenty-first century. In 1750, Asia had roughly three-fifths of the world’s population and accounted for three-fifths of global output. By 1900, after the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America, Asia’s share of global output had shrunk to one-fifth. By 2050, Asia will be well on its way back to where it was 300 years earlier.
At the Cold War’s end, some pundits proclaimed that “geo-economics” had replaced geopolitics. Economic power would become the key to success in world politics, a change that many people thought would usher in a world dominated by Japan and Germany.
As Americans wrestle with the implications of revolutions in the Middle East as well as the rise of China in Asia, we need a better understanding of what it means to have power in world politics. Traditionally, the mark of a great power was its ability to prevail in war. But in an information age, success depends not just on whose army wins but also on whose story wins.
According to a United States State Department official, the concept of “smart power”-–the intelligent integration and networking of diplomacy, defense, development, and other tools of so-called “hard” and “soft” power-–is at the heart of the Obama administration’s foreign-policy vision. Currently, however, Obama’s smart-power strategy is facing a stiff challenge from events in the Middle East.
Global politics has become a contest of competitive credibility. The world of traditional power politics was typically about whose military or economy wins, but in an information age, power is also about whose story wins.
Will military power become less important in the coming decades? It is true that the number of large-scale inter-state wars continues to decline, and fighting is unlikely among advanced democracies and on many issues. But, as Barack Obama said in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, “we must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations—acting individually or in concert—will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”
Seen from Tokyo, America’s relationship with Japan faces a crisis. The immediate problem is deadlock over a plan to move an American military base on the island of Okinawa. It sounds simple, but this is an issue with a long back story that could create a serious rift with one of our most crucial allies.
The United States government’s National Intelligence Council projects that American dominance will be “much diminished” by 2025, and that the one key area of continued American superiority–-military power–-will be less significant in the increasingly competitive world of the future. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has called the 2008 financial crisis a sign that America’s global leadership is coming to an end. The leader of Canada’s opposition Liberal Party, Michael Ignatieff, suggests that US power has passed its mid-day. How can we know if these predictions are correct?