The distribution of global power is fast changing. That much is certain. China and other developing nations are quickly ascending the pecking order. Meanwhile, the three pillars of the Western world - the United States, Europe, and Japan - are beset by a prolonged economic downturn and disaffected electorates.
But despite widespread recognition of the changing global landscape, opinions differ widely as to which country will emerge on top. As the twenty-first century unfolds, who will lead the pack?
Many analysts foresee a twenty-first century that will belong to China, whose decades of impressive economic growth make its steady rise seem unstoppable. Most American politicians, with the backing of commentators such as Robert Kagan and Robert Lieber, are quick to dismiss the prospects for a changing of the guard, insisting that U.S. hegemony is alive and well. They contend that the U.S. economy will snap back and that America's military superiority is untouchable. The dark horse candidates are India and Brazil. India will have the world's largest population by about 2025, while Brazil is blessed with abundant resources and a benign geopolitical environment. Both have democratic governments that may give them the legitimacy and good governance needed to make it to the top.
The absence of consensus over which country will oversee the coming world is just as it should be. That's because the twenty-first century will not be dominated by any country. The United States will do just fine, but the era of Western primacy is coming to an end. Meanwhile, none of the world's rising nations will have the combination of material and ideological strength needed to exercise global hegemony. And although ascending nations have forged a new grouping - the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) - to coordinate their policies and aggregate their muscle, they do not share a coherent vision of what comes next. They know what they do not want: the continuation of a world dominated by the West. But they are very unlikely to arrive at a common view of what they want instead. This century will not belong to the United States, China, India, Brazil, or anyone else; it will be no one's world.
The United States, due to its economic resilience, rising population, and military superiority, will make it into the top ranks for decades to come. Nonetheless, the supremacy that the United States and its Western allies have enjoyed since World War II is fast fading. During the second half of the twentieth century, the Western allies usually accounted for over two-thirds of global output. They now provide about half of global output - and soon much less.
In 2010, four out of the top five economies in the world came from the developed West - the United States, Japan, Germany, and France. Only one developing country - China, at number two - qualified for this exclusive club. In 2050, according to Goldman Sachs, the United States will be the only Western power to make it into the top five. China will be number one, followed - at a significant distance -- by the United States, India, Brazil, and Russia.
Key aspects of this reordering are poised to occur sooner rather than later. China's wealth is expected to surpass that of the United States by the second half of the next decade. The World Bank foresees the dollar, euro, and China's renminbi as co-equals in a "multi-currency" monetary system by 2025. Goldman Sachs predicts that the collective GDP of the top four developing countries -- Brazil, China, India, and Russia - will match that of today's leading industrialized nations by 2032. The United States will no doubt find its way out of the ongoing slump. But it will bounce back into a global economy in the midst of a dramatic change in the pecking order.
If China is poised to sit atop the global economy, why not expect a Chinese century? The appeal of China's brand of state capitalism - its competence and performance - is offset by its lack of democratic legitimacy. China's success also depends on assets that many other countries lack - a communitarian ethic with deep roots in Confucian culture, a meritocratic leadership and bureaucracy, a vast labor pool, and a top-notch industrial and transportation infrastructure. Moreover, although Beijing will surely seek to extend its sway in its own neighborhood, China's ethnocentrism suggests that its hegemonic aspirations may well be only regional, not global, in scope.
Like China, India has an expansive labor pool at its disposal. And its embrace of democracy gives India an international appeal that China lacks. But India's democratic institutions are also a liability. Lethargic bureaucracies, social stratification, biting inequality, and striking linguistic and ethnic diversity make the Indian government weak and ineffective; New Delhi enjoys none of Beijing's purposeful efficiency. Indeed, India's private sector has thrived in spite of, not because of, its democratic institutions. The lack of good governance will ensure that India's rise is slow and bumpy.
India also resides in a dangerous neighborhood that will hem in its geopolitical ascent. Rivalry and territorial disputes with China, overt hostility from Pakistan, and proximity to Afghanistan and Iran will constrain New Delhi's statecraft and prevent India from straying too far from home.
Brazil is in important respects best set to emerge as a global trendsetter. It is a stable democracy, blessed with ample, land, labor, and natural resources. At least for now, Brasilia has found a developmental path that combines economic openness with redistribution programs aimed at alleviating inequality. And Brazil faces no geopolitical rivals and resides in a region that has been remarkably free of inter-state war.
But Brazil is not headed for the top ranks; its economy is expected to be five times smaller than that of China in 2050. And Brazil's benign location in South America cuts both ways. Its relative isolation will enable Brasilia to remain aloof from the fray set to ensue in Eurasia and the western Pacific as China, India, Russia, and Indonesia ascend. But its distance will also limit its influence in this geopolitical heartland. Brazil is destined for regional hegemony, not global ambition.
Each of the world's main emerging powers is following its unique developmental path and pursuing its own interests, at least for now making the BRICS grouping little more than a talk-shop. Its summits regularly produce calls for a more equitable and representative global order. But BRICS members have yet to articulate, either individually or collectively, what that order might look like. And if and when these nations do fashion their own visions of a new global architecture, they would likely prove disparate and incompatible, denying "the rising rest" a consensus capable of coordinating their statecraft.
At least during this decade and the next, the United States will have more say than the BRICS in managing the coming redistribution in global power. But instead of fighting against the inevitable tide of change and seeking to extend the era of U.S. hegemony, Washington would be much wiser to help guide no one's world toward new forms of collective governance and cooperation. Widening the circle and peacefully arriving at the next world by design is far preferable to a competitive anarchy arrived at by default as multiple centers of power and the differing conceptions of order they represent vie for primacy.
Charles A. Kupchan is Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University and Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of No One's World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn (Oxford University Press, 2012).