World in motion

Four new books by Mark Malloch Brown, Joseph Nye, Gideon Rachman and Richard Youngs watch the pendul

Zero-Sum World
Gideon Rachman
Atlantic Books, 336pp, £20

The Unfinished Global Revolution
Mark Malloch Brown
Allen Lane, 272pp, £25

The Future of Power
Joseph Nye
PublicAffairs, 320pp, £16.99

Europe's Decline and Fall
Richard Youngs
Profile Books, 240pp, £8.99

Why has the west's response to the Arab awakening been so plodding? The short answer is that its leaders - from Barack Obama to David Cameron to Silvio Berlusconi - have struggled to adapt to an international system that is refusing to obey the old rules of geopolitics. The eruptions of people power across the Arab world embody two trends in global politics: the diffusion of power from states to citizens and the shift of power from west to east. Each of these books - although they were written during the financial crisis rather than the convulsions on the Arab street - tries to make sense of these ruptures. Together they show that we are entering a phase of history where globalisation creates competition rather than co-operation between great powers, where the spread of democracy rolls back the influence of the west, and where globalisation drives the return of the state rather than its retreat.

Many recent books have explored the economic causes and consequences of the financial crisis, but Gideon Rachman's Zero-Sum World offers the best description of its political impact. Rather than starting in 2008 with the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Rachman takes us back to 1978, when Deng Xiaoping launched China's "opening and reform era": the beginning of "the creation of a globalised world economic and political system". During the US-dominated "age of optimism", the embrace of democracy, free markets and new technology seemingly transformed global
politics into a co-operative sphere defined by the quest for a "democratic peace" - the idea that no two democracies went to war - rather than an aggressive balance of power. Rachman's core contention is that the 2008 crisis brought this era to an end.

“It is no longer obvious that globalisation benefits all the world's major powers," he says. "A win-win world is giving way to a zero-sum world."

He predicts a shift from a world of plenty to one of scarcity, where the US and China bicker over matters such as economic imbalances, climate change, nuclear proliferation, migration and natural resources. Rachman argues that the US is no longer powerful enough to lead the world, but the EU's model of global governance is designed for fair weather only and unable to co-opt the nationalistic, sovereignty-obsessed great powers of the future.

Where Rachman concentrates on the shift of power between states, Mark Malloch Brown's The Unfinished Global Revolution looks at
globalisation through the awakening of citizens. Malloch Brown brilliantly describes a new global politics that is "migrating beyond the grey confines of national parliaments and cabinets to a global bazaar where rock stars may conduct deals on global debt with bankers and dictators and where emerging powers like India and China will seek to push aside former colonisers as they set up their stalls". While Rachman looks at how the great powers embraced and then turned away from globalisation, Malloch Brown sees the past 30 years as a time of conflict between the rights of citizens and those of states. He discusses with passion each small, hard-won step to tilt the balance in favour of the individual.

What makes Malloch Brown's book so compelling is that it is no theoretical disquisition, but a memoir written by one of the new dispensation's most innovative practitioners and perceptive theorists. Taking the reader through his time as a journalist, UN staffer - dealing with the Cambodian refugee crisis, genocide in the Balkans, the 11 September 2001 attacks and the Iraq war - and political consultant to leaders in developing countries, working for the likes of Cory Aquino in the Philippines and the anti-Pinochet forces in Chile, he shows how individuals have been able to surf the wave of globalisation, using the internet and media to take on nation states as equals.

Malloch Brown, too, climbed almost to the very top of the international power tree - as deputy secretary general of the United Nations - without ever having worked for a national government (the British government opposed his appointment to such a senior UN job). Yet he seems just as proud of helping to start non-governmental organisations such as the International Crisis Group as of anything he did through formal institutions. Ultimately, this is a story of a dream deferred; he ends by offering a sombre account of the backlash against the diffusion of sovereignty. His own story undercuts the positive vision outlined at the beginning: after the UN, he left a job as a statesman without a state at George Soros's Open Society Institute to become a "minister of state" at the fag end of the last Labour government.

But the real twist to Malloch Brown's story came after the book was written. The people power that overwhelmed tyrants in Tunisia and Egypt is every bit as invigorating and intoxicating as many of the events he describes. The big change is that - unlike the campaigns against Ferdinand Marcos and Augusto Pinochet which he supported - these are revolutions of a post-western world, where no one waves or burns American flags. These "dignity revolutions" are motivated by a desire for national emancipation rather than an attempt to join the west, or to promote western ideas or global norms. They illustrate the paradox that, as the world becomes more "western", the influence of the west could decline.

As power moves from west to east and from the palaces of dictators to the street, it is not just the identities of power brokers that are changing: so is the very meaning of power. No one is better placed to explain these trends than the scholar-statesman Joseph Nye (assistant secretary of defence under Bill Clinton and now, once again, professor at Harvard's Kennedy School). The Future of Power contains important essays on both "cyber power" and "American decline", but what is most useful is Nye's subtle exegesis of the mechanics of more conventional forms of power. He shows how the battleground between great powers is shifting from the military to the economic realm as a result of nuclear weapons, the squeamishness of developed populations and the growing nationalism of developing countries ("France conquered Algeria with 34,000 troops in the 19th century but could not hold the colony with 600,000 troops in the 20th century").

Nye skewers the claim of neoliberal economists that, because economic decision-making is highly diffuse - with individual households and firms making most spending decisions - it makes no sense to speak of economic power. As he points out, "the long list of instruments states use to structure markets includes tariffs, quotas and rules that control access to their markets, legal sanctions, manipulation of exchange rates, creation of natural resource cartels, 'chequebook diplomacy' and aid for development, among others". He describes how the game for many states is to try to make others more dependent on you than you are on them, using market asymmetries to gain political clout. Given that over half of the world economy is controlled by countries that follow a system of state capitalism rather than liberal capitalism - in which governments dominate critical domestic sectors - it is important for western powers to prepare for an increasingly zero-sum economic competition.

Nye's book is also an attempt to rehabilitate his concept of "soft power" from the success that has led to it being misused by scholars, statesmen and journalists across the world. He shows that the difference between "hard" and "soft" power is not a primitive distinction between military force and diplomacy/develop­ment. His definition of hard power includes any attempts to coerce or bribe other players (which is why aid and trade can act in much the same way as military force as instruments of hard power). Soft power, by contrast, is defined as "non-material" methods to co-opt other powers, particular the ability to set an agenda. Thus, the soft power of the west resides most powerfully in its ability to frame how global issues are viewed (through control of the media) and how they are discussed (through control of institutions from the UN to the World Bank).

This means that many matters that do not interest the west do not get to see the light of day. "Agenda-framing focuses on the ability to keep issues off the table," Nye writes, "or as Sherlock Holmes might put it, dogs that fail to bark." Where his otherwise impressive book falls short is in his reluctance to acknowledge the marked shift in the balance of soft power as former colonies actively challenge the ability of the west to act as supreme moral arbiter.

So, where do Britain and the rest of the EU fit in to this new world? Half a decade ago, there was a widespread sense of Europe as a rising power. Today, many commentators doubt whether the EU will survive the 21st century, let alone dominate it. Richard Youngs, in his short and punchy Europe's Decline and Fall, claims cogently that European nations will no longer play such an important role in determining the nature of the international political and economic system, prevailing political values, the shape of world trade, and the outcome of bargains on security, or environmental and energy challenges.

His main argument seems to be that the EU has been a victim of its own success in the post-cold war period, during which it managed to bring about the democratic transformation and integration of a dozen former communist countries. This achievement has led the EU to have an "irrational belief" in the "exportability of its own institutional forms". Youngs quotes an EU official who says that, "by drowning the world in EU rules, we
bureaucratise away centuries of conflict"; then he points to the absurdity of believing that China's embrace of EU standards on toy safe­ty will lead it to adopt a more EU-friendly foreign-policy stance.

Youngs's argument about enlargement has some force: it was a miracle in historical terms, but offers few lessons for how the EU can deal with rising powers such as China or declining ones such as Russia. However, in its relentlessly negative assessment of Europe's record, it fails to acknowledge how hard it is to exert influence over other sovereign states. Set against his absurdly high standards, the foreign policies of Beijing, Delhi, Moscow or Washington would not fare any better.

In fact, his book overstates Europe's decline in power while understating the political challenge to the European way of doing things. On the level of resources, as Nye points out, the world is still bipolar - and the US and the EU are the two poles. In terms of economic power, Europe has the world's largest market, and represents 17 per cent of world trade, compared to 12 per cent for the US. Less well known is that Europe is the world's second military power, with 21 per cent of the world's military spending compared to 5 per cent for China. As the biggest market, the EU should be better placed in an age of geo-economics than one of geopolitics. To translate its assets into influence, however, it will need to behave more like China and the United States.

Western leaders are confused today because they assumed that the trends of the 1990s would continue indefinitely. These books show history as a series of cycles. In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, we were told we were at the end of history, when western values would be unstoppable. In 2001, with the 11 September attacks, pundits predicted the end of the nation state and the privatisation of violence as well as economics. In 2011, after the financial crisis, the end of the west itself is being predicted. The resolution of each crisis seems to contain the seeds of the next. What will the world look like in 2021?

Mark Leonard is director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of "What Does China Think?" (Fourth Estate, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 21 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The drowned world