by Moisés Naím
It was one of those turning points that just go unnoticed in the media. According to the Australian Treasury Department, on March 28 of this year the economies of the world’s less developed countries, taken as a whole, surpassed in size those of the richer ones. “We can now see it for what it was -- a historical aberration that lasted about 1½ centuries," wrote the Australian columnist Peter Hartcher, referring to the fact that, until 1840, China had been the world’s largest economy. “The Chinese look at this and they say, 'We just had a couple of bad centuries’,” wryly remarked Ken Courtiss, a renowned expert also quoted by Hartcher. Courtiss adds: "In the blink of a generation, global power has shifted. Over time, this will not just be an economic and financial shift but a political, cultural and ideological one.”
Will this be so? Taken together the comments of Hartcher’s readers inadvertently offer a revealing synthesis of a debate that is consuming politicians, generals and academics everywhere: Which nation will dominate the 21st century? Derek, for example, in Canberra, says: “I don't think we've got much to worry about... On paper China and India are power-houses, but most of their citizens don't even have access to sewerage or electricity. They are still basically third-world countries…” Another reader, who identifies himself as Barfiller, adds: “And let's not forget other 'emerging economy' considerations: border conflicts; water and resources rights; patents and other intellectual property; ethnic, religious and ideological differences; cultural diversity; historical arguments and wars; etc, etc. It won't be all sweetness and light for the newly developed nations.” Another reader, David, stresses the need to consider the “distribution of wealth within the populations of these countries. The difference between the 'wealth' of the average Chinese and their privileged comrades in the party is, in my opinion, an un-fillable gap (as per India). In China that's due to a deeply controlled corruption and in India, an indelibly, culturally/religiously controlled class division.” Thus, according to these opinions, China and India are countries too weakened by their poverty, their divisions and other internal problems to become the world’s leading powers.
But the problems of these rising countries are no longer exclusively their own. They affect others. Caledonia, a reader writing from Sydney, believes that the other readers fail to notice the danger that looms: “If China's economy comes crashing down, you will find yourself in an unemployment queue and feel lucky if you can get a job as toilet cleaner.”
Behind all these observations lie important assumptions about what makes a nation grow powerful enough to impose its will on others. This used to be the privilege of empires. Then it belonged to two superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union. And after the collapse of the latter, it was fashionable to say that we were entering a unipolar era in which a single superpower, the United States, would lead the world. This perception didn’t last long. The rise of China and other countries, added to American problems, caused the unipolar idea to fall out of vogue. But if it isn’t the bipolar Soviet-American world, nor the unipolar where the US reigns alone, nor the multipolar dominated by America, Europe and a rising Asia, then what sort of world is taking shape?
In recent years, the answers to this question have been influenced by the coincidence of the economic boom of the emerging countries and the financial crisis in Europe and the US. But now, as the economies of the larger emerging countries are slowing down, and some may even face a difficult economic situation that in turn breeds social and political turbulence, and as Europe is still crippled by its crisis, the debate will shift once again. And the more the common wisdom bounces around, as to what nation will be the world’s dominant power, a surprising answer will emerge as a likely possibility: none of them.