The American Interest
Democracy, Development & the Rule of Law
Published on January 28, 2013
Life in a G-Zero World

The nature of world politics has changed more rapidly in the past four years than anyone expected. From the fall of the Berlin Wall up to the financial crisis of 2008, the United States had enjoyed a unprecedented period of hegemony. A decade ago, the US defense budget by itself was larger than the combined defense budgets of all other countries in the world combined, and the US felt free to launch a “war of choice” in Iraq.
While the US remains the dominant military power, its weakened financial condition today means that it is much less willing to use it. The Obama administration’s reluctance to take leading roles in the crises in Libya, Syria, and now Mali are evidence of a shift to a much more passive role. And with the ongoing euro crisis, it is not clear than the European powers are going to fill in this void anytime soon.
What is world politics in this G-O world going to look like? The issue is most acute for Japan and other countries that have been close US allies, that will face critical choices as American power retreats.
After the end of the Second World War, the United States constructed an international system in which it unilaterally provided a number of key international public goods. This system began with its network of alliances in Europe and Asia, built to contain the Soviet Union. By paying for the lion’s share of military security in both regions, it allowed its allies to focus on economic growth–something particularly true for Japan, which was able to keep military spending under one percent of GDP throughout this period. But the US provided other public goods as well. These included the open system of world trade that started with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and evolved into the World Trade Organization, as well as a host of regional and bilateral trade liberalization measures.
It is clear that no other power is going to step in to fill this role of structuring world politics on a grand scale. It does not necessarily imply, however, that the world will turn into a chaotic free-for-all. What occurs after the retreat of US hegemony will depend critically on the behavior of American partners and their willingness to invest in new multilateral structures. The dominant role of the US in years past relieved American allies of the need to invest in their own capabilities or to take the lead in solving regional problems. They now need to step up to the plate.

This has already been starting to happen in Europe and the Middle East. The Obama administration’s unwillingness to get sucked into new engagements after the Arab Spring has led Britain and France to take on the primary burden of military power projection in Libya, with the US playing a background role providing logistics and intelligence support. This same scenario looks like it is unfolding today in Mali, where the French have intervened to stop the Islamist advance into the south of the country.
The critical test of a new security structure will be in Asia, however. China’s rise as a superpower is the most complex challenge faced by the international system today, comparable to the rise of a unified Germany after 1871. That earlier challenge was mishandled and ultimately led to the First World War. If we are to avoid this situation occurring in contemporary Asia, we have to give careful thought to new mechanisms for dealing with Chinese power in the future.
China’s new assertiveness with regard to its territorial claims both in the South China Sea and against the Senkakus/Diaoyus reflects its growing power. Prior to 2008, China downplayed these issues and indeed bent over backwards to seem non-threatening to its neighbors. But with its continuing economic growth and the apparent weakness of the world’s other major powers, its ambitions and claims have expanded in the manner of many other great powers before it.
No one in Asia has any interest in letting these territorial disputes get out of hand or to escalate into military conflict. All of them are theoretically solvable in a multilateral framework including China, since the underlying interests are more symbolic than real. But to get to the right negotiating framework requires a great deal of diplomacy that has not so far materialized, and is threatened by growing nationalism on all sides.
China understands very well that its rise threatens the interests of many of its neighbors, and its recent diplomacy has been aimed at preventing them from acting collectively to contest its territorial claims. Thus it has told the states of ASEAN that they cannot discuss territorial issues multilaterally among themselves, but only on a bilateral basis with China where Beijing can dominate. The United States has been trying to urge ASEAN to adopt a common position, which was both justified and necessary, and has provoked Chinese anger in turn. But despite efforts by Vietnam, the Philippines, and other ASEAN states to present a common front, Beijing so far has been able to undermine their solidarity. The most recent ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh failed to reach agreement due to Cambodia’s opposition, which acted on China’s behalf.
The situation in Northeast Asia is even worse. There should be a broad strategic commonality of purpose between Japan and South Korea in dealing with China over the long run, since both are democracies, allies of the United States, and similarly vulnerable to Chinese pressure. Yet Japan has found itself largely isolated in the region as a result of the persistence of the historical issues between itself and its neighbors. There is plenty of blame to go around on all sides for this fact, but a more skillful diplomacy would have put the historical questions to one side in the interests of long-term strategic cooperation.
The Obama administration has acted very appropriately in “pivoting” towards Asia, in reassuring its regional allies, and in defending the right of countries potentially threatened by China to talk among themselves about common solutions. But one of the consequences of its financial situation is increasing constraints on its ability to fulfill its commitments. While the US will be reallocating some existing military forces to Asia, the long-term trajectory of the US defense budget is trending downwards. The regional military balance has already shifted toward China more than many American allies would like to admit. Moreover, while the basic American commitment to Tokyo under the US-Japan Security Agreement remains sound, the willingness of the Obama administration to risk military conflict with China over some uninhabited islands in the middle of the Pacific is not at all clear.
The appropriate response to these changing circumstances should not be greater unilateralism on the part of Japan, Korea, or any of the states of ASEAN. In particular, the new Abe administration risks alienating the very friends it will need, including the US, if it insists on defending a certain nationalist narrative of the 20th century. Individually China’s neighbors are too weak to face this rising power on their own. A new kind of multilateral structure is required, not to isolate and “contain” China, but rather to build bargaining leverage so that the territorial issues can be settled peacefully with China’s cooperation. In the end, everyone is going to have to deal with the reality of growing Chinese power, and find ways of accommodating it even as they defend their core interests.
The American-led international system that emerged after World War II involved the outsourcing of German and Japanese sovereignty to other powers. In Germany’s case, it went to two multilateral organizations, the European Union and NATO, in which Germany remains firmly embedded. In Japan’s case, sovereignty was outsourced to the US alone under the Security Treaty. The persistence of the historical issues has prevented the emergence of a broader multilateral framework to act as a backstop to American power; yet this is exactly what is needed today. There is an opportunity to fill in the G-zero world with new structures not invented in Washington, but that will take leadership and foresight from Japan and Asia more broadly.

  • Anthony

    “A new kind of multilateral structure is required…. In the end everyone is going to have to deal with the reality of growing Chinese power….”

    G-zero world is aspect of economic and social challenges facing United States, Europe, and Japan while underlain by post World War II Mid East contretemps interwoven with a new cauldron of vistas (African Sahel as well as other parts of Africa).

    We need more than scholarship Francis Fukuyama to overcome impending aspects of G- zero world. Leadership and foresight speaks to governance. When and how to begin where many fear to tread runs concomitantly with changing nature of world politics referenced.

  • Jim.

    It’s always curious to me that otherwise intelligent people to the Left of (American) center still think that the pittance Europe spends on defense is sustainable. Europe can spend little because the US spends much; if the US cuts its defense spending, Europe will get a very rude surprise as to how abysmal their defense spending is, in this world.

    Considering that Europe spends little because America spends much also makes me wonder how otherwise intelligent people in America can look at Europe and say, “See, that’s how much America should spend on defense!” It’s like they believe fairies (or perhaps little green unicorns) will protect us.

    I wonder, will Europe cut its social spending to bring its defense spending up to the necessary levels to provide “a broader multilateral framework”? Somehow I doubt it.

    The fact is that America needs to get its social spending under control (making ever-more promises is NOT the way to do this!) by either eliminating spending increases for some length of time, or imposing actual cuts. The world is a dangerous place, Europe cannot be counted upon, and even the smallest change in power-sharing has the potential blow up in our faces.

    • jc

      The problem with your argument is that it doesn’t contain a single grain of intelligent thought, and only one grain of fact – i.e. that Europe and the US do spend different amounts on their militaries. Assuming, however, that the US’s spending is correct and needs to be matched by Europe is argument by conclusion, one of the gravest and most shameful of all intellectual failures. In fact Iraq has demonstrated that the US got very value for its military dollars, the British and French are managing their optional wars very well, and it is hard to see why Europe should need to confront China or protect Israel or South Korea. If you think Europeans need to spend more then you need to point out the actual threat (China? Zombie Hitler? Aliens? And that’s in order of increasing plausibility…)

      • pashley

        Actually, in Libya, the French had to call for help almost immediately. A west European intervention in Syria is not in the cards.

        Not to say anyone should try to match the US’s bloated national defense budget. And Europe is even more broke broke broke than the US.

    • Peter

      Right on, Jim. Yes, Europe has been sponging off U.S. defense spending for generations now. Who doesn’t know that?

      But that party is fast ending. The U.S. public, if not our elite, are tired of carrying pompous Europeans who do little but complain about America and what we do or don’t do. Plus, we can’t afford that generosity any longer.

      As for the future, it seems Europe might be so degraded from its massive welfare state spending that it might not be able to function as a true player in the world as the U.S. withdraws its security blanket.

      Obama has been a disaster in domestic policy. But give the devil his due, Obama’s ‘leading from behind’ foreign policy is a preferable to that of, say, warmongering John McCain and his neo-con allies.

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  • http://kavanna.blogspot.com Kavanna

    Europe’s fantasy was the “post-historical paradise” — but that’s so 2003, folks.

    Jim is right: Europe is spending so little, because we spend so much, on defense. The US doesn’t have many real allies — South Korea, Israel, anyone else? The rest are dependencies, not allies.

    Politicians needs to make real decisions about priorities. Ranking, deciding, moving out — these are the essence of leadership. Only in government, with an unlimited ability to borrow money, can you get away without this.

  • dan berg

    What EXACTLY are we so nervous about? Will China “take” S. Korea? They never have. Viet Nam: tried that. New Zealand? Hawaii? My question is: China is a rising threat because….?

    • ltlee

      Good questions.
      China’s rise is often compared with “the rise of a unified Germany after 1871.” Is this comparison fair? There was no unified Germany before 1871 and a unified Germany constituted existential threat to other European countries. In contrast, China was, more often than not, the regional superpower during the last two thousand years. Europe’s failure to find a way to coexist peacefully had led to WWI and WWII. In contrast, East Asia with China as its regional superpower has found a way to coexist for at least one thousand years if not longer. A G-0 world is probably a better world.

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  • steve

    WE are weakened financially because of the policies pursued by the current government. Even the WP did a study on our current deficits and found that with increased unemployment benefits, bailouts, and lost tax revenue, our deficits should not have exceeded $660 billion. 4 years of 1.3 trillion or higher???? The current regime has moved the baseline budget into uncharted territory. This is decline by choice. A pro-American, pro-Western, and pro-growth regime will change this direction. Destiny is choice, hopefully we will stop maing the wrong one’s soon enough.

  • venze

    A well documented and analyzed article. Verily, China’s meteoric rise has caused concern in balancing the global power equation, particularly when neighbors are worrisome of its growing economic if not military prowess.

    Nonetheless, Beijing cannot afford to antagonize any nation, not when it is still deeply troubled by endless domestic issues. (btt1943, vzc1943)

  • http://miguelnavascues.com Miguel

    Very insightful article.
    But I Don’t believe that Europe Will expend more on military if Us would do less.
    Europe is trapped in its own Wonderland. Impossible to hope any thing.
    Item More: Don’t think about Europe as a political unit. It is not, less today, with all the mess created by the Euro.

  • LESD

    Seems like I might have heard this argument somewhere before. “Every Nation for Itself” has been in bookstores for awhile now.

  • Sam Hall

    “Yet Japan has found itself largely isolated in the region as a result of the persistence of the historical issues between itself and its neighbors. There is plenty of blame to go around on all sides for this fact, but a more skillful diplomacy would have put the historical questions to one side in the interests of long-term strategic cooperation.”

    Those issues are not just in the past. Look at the situation of the Zainichi Community (and other Koreans) in Japan today.