Finding True North in a Nonpolar World

04/18/2013 02:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2013

The most popular narrative of how the global balance of power is shifting emphasizes the end of the United States' "unipolar moment" and the return of a multipolar order in which rising powers vie for influence alongside the European Union and the United States. Such a reversion depends upon the assumption that the traditional role of the nation-state will remain unchanged. This is not likely to be the case. As Richard Haass, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations notes, the state is increasingly challenged from all sides: above from global organizations, below from militias and empowered citizens, and from the side from nongovernmental organizations and corporations.

A world with power "in many hands and in many places" is a world that is not multipolar but nonpolar, "dominated ... by dozens of actors possessing and exercising various kinds of power." A world in which nation-states are but one form of actor in international relations represents a "tectonic shift from the past." In this nonpolar world, America will remain the indispensable nation: when power, as Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter explains, will be based on the breadth of a country's network across global institutions, no country has the legitimate right to sit at more tables where decisions of consequence are made than America. It is both an Atlantic and Pacific power, with an unquestioned position as a stakeholder in Latin America; it continues to enjoy respect for its contributions throughout Africa while its Indian diaspora is fostering closer relations with New Delhi; as the world's largest economy -- and even as its eventual second largest -- it will play an important role in economic stability; as one of the world's leading producers and consumers of energy, it will occupy a special place in energy policy; as the world's most capable military it will still be looked to as the primary guarantor of global stability.

Indeed, one counterintuitive consequence of America's relative decline is that it may actually be endowed with greater international legitimacy. To paraphrase John Ikenberry, an America that can no longer rule (either by choice or perception) can still be one that can lead -- with potentially more nations willing to follow when they have the real discretion to choose for themselves. This emerging reality of power based on networks and less by absolute size, will doubtlessly frustrate a Beijing which will potentially be less powerful than it would have been in the traditional order. It is seeing the rules of the game get more complicated just as it appeared ready to dominate under the old ones. These rules are not being contemplated to thwart China's rise but they are a consequence of it. Ensuring that Beijing has the confidence to navigate this new dynamic is essential to their continued engagement. But engagement on part of the United States does not imply the elevation of the relationship with Beijing to that of an institutionalized G2 as some have proposed. Asia specialists Elizabeth Economy and Adam Segal write, "elevating the bilateral relationship is more likely to lead to quagmire" that exacerbates gaps in values, interests, and capabilities than to a successful partnership. It would also risk undermining a deepening relationship with India, a country with ultimately as much boundless promise as China whose support of the liberal order is essential.

The U.S. cannot engage China alone. It is significant then, that according to Peking University professor Wang Jisi, a transformation is taking place in China's diplomacy in which it is becoming "less country-oriented and more multilateral and issue-oriented." A China that speaks the same language on the issues of our time, even if the constraints of its political system and stage of development limit its ability to act, is unambiguously positive. It means that there is a chance, like China's embrace of global trade to commit itself to domestic economic reform, that Beijing's reformers could selectively use global agreements on health, the environment, and other domains to advance necessary reforms at home.

America's role as the world's indispensable nation is by no means guaranteed. America must reconcile its demands for sovereignty against the benefits and protections that come from deeper global integration. What little the U.S. cedes in sovereignty is more than returned in greater prosperity. The United States must embrace transnational governance or risk emboldening China to act on its own terms as a free agent half-in and half-out of the global system.

At home, the United States faces significant challenges manifested in declines in social mobility, a weak education system, underinvestment in infrastructure, a self-defeating immigration laws, and needlessly dysfunctional politics. A commitment by the United States to its own domestic renewal promises important geopolitical dividends: a robust, yet humble America simultaneously checks any inclinations by Beijing towards arrogance in its conduct abroad, while also undercutting a popular current of Chinese thinking that a declining America will purposely seek to thwart China's rise.

There is an ideological conflict at play between the West and China, but the irony is that what the West confronts in China is a state without an ideology at all. We face a world either increasingly bound by shared values or one that succumbs to the destabilizing competition of realpolitik. Important changes are taking place in Chinese society that are positive for the liberal order -- but China may destabilize the global system before the evolution of the country's values impacts the conduct of its foreign policy. The breakdown of the liberal order risks a world less free, less stable, and less prosperous. The challenge China's rise presents to the liberal democratic order is significant, yet it is manageable to the extent that US foreign policy toward China is able to keep the challenge as an indirect consequence of China's rise and not direct antagonism prompted by antagonism from the West. With deft diplomacy and a vigorous commitment to domestic renewal, the United States can ensure that the emerging new liberal order will not be stillborn.