Francis Fukuyama once hypothesized that the end of the Cold War signaled the end of history, describing the seminal moment as "the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." Charles Kupchan flips this theory on its head in his new book, No One's World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn, by arguing that the only thing coming to an end is post-Cold War unipolarity.
Kupchan, a former Clinton national security adviser, has written a book quite audacious in scope considering it covers over 500 years of world history and outlines a grand vision for the next century. The U.S., he posits, will be forced to make room on the world stage for a variety of governing models such as China's state-capitalist autocracy and the Arab Spring nascent democracies - forms that do not strictly adhere to traditional Western concepts of modernity.
But it is critical to understand the unique circumstances behind the divergent paths taken by the West and "the rest." Kupchan provocatively suggests that the West's rise was a function of time and place, driven more by singular geopolitical conditions and happenstance than intrinsic superiority. In fact, for centuries the East considered Europe a backwater. However, between 1500 and 1800 the world's center of gravity moved westward from Asia and the Mediterranean Basin.
The weakness of Western institutions was actually an asset given the diffusion of power led to a fragmented society amidst which the middle class was born and "horizontal alignments" were sustained, which proved to be an essential precursor of liberal democracy. The West also benefited from the dissipation of central power that accompanied the turbulent struggle between Church and monarch. Ultimately, the Reformation put Europe on the path to religious tolerance and pluralism, as dissent and socioeconomic ferment fostered political liberalization. The Reformation's impact cannot be overstated, as Kupchan writes:
...the Reformation set the stage for the intellectual advances of the Enlightenment by exposing religion, and ultimately politics, to theological, moral and rationalist inquiry. The intellectual ferment that made possible Europe's eclipse of other regions was, at least initially, unleashed by religious dissent.
In contrast, Ottoman rulers maintained strong central control and strict "vertical alignments" throughout the empire, "prohibiting the emergence of autonomous sites of wealth and power that were agents of change in Europe." Plus, because the mosque and state were so intertwined there was never an "Islamic reformation."
However, fast forward to present day and a distressing confluence of factors have gradually chipped away at Western dominion. Economic stagnation, due to military overreach and divisive domestic politics, has propelled the U.S. towards bankruptcy.
Meanwhile, globalization has had a counterintuitive impact on the West. In such a dynamically interconnected environment countries that embrace laissez faire economics seem to suffer from a loss of control while well-run autocracies prosper. The forces unleashed by this phenomenon have been unkind to pluralistic societies which value freedom and personal gain versus those that value solidarity, stability and communal welfare, like China.
China has flexed its muscle economically to become the best of the rest and is destined to surpass America. U.S. financial mismanagement has resulted in $14 trillion of debt - or 90% of GDP - and China owns $1.2 trillion of it. Economic vitality is critical because there seems to be a direct correlation between material primacy and ideological dominance, and despite America's preeminent military status, its global influence has waned.
Point being, it would seem Western liberal democracy isn't necessarily the alpha and omega or the "final form of human government." The rest of the world doesn't seem as willing to listen to our sermons on ideal governance, especially when it doesn't fit their specific value systems and especially when the U.S. doesn't have its own house in order.
Kupchan prescribes remedies focused on rebuilding the homeland, balancing commitments with means while restoring economic and political solvency. The U.S. needs to abandon its role as global Leviathan for it can no longer afford the resource drain and reputation stain. Surgical use of the military is paramount as opposed to occupation and nation-building. Humility, restraint and retrenchment are the watchwords that should carry the day. And, devolving responsibility to countries like India, Brazil and Turkey will have a positive twofold effect of freeing up resources while building strong alliances with these emerging powers.
Kupchan stresses that the U.S. will still be the strongest nation among equals and is best-positioned to lead the global turn. In the end, according to the author, the U.S. is left with two choices: (1) work together with these diverse regimes to define the new world order or (2) expect competitive anarchy. In short, if the inevitable seismic transition is not effectively managed, the U.S. risks finding itself not at the end of history - but on the wrong side of it.
Follow Michael Hughes on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mhughes3500