No One's World: An Interview with Dr. Charles Kupchan

GJIA recently sat down with Georgetown University Professor Dr. Charles Kupchan to discuss how he sees global power shifting in the coming decades and how the United States should adjust to this change.

GJIA: In your book, No One’s World, and elsewhere, you have argued America is entering a period of relative decline and new powers are emerging, particularly among the BRIC countries.  You maintain that these countries have different values and interests than the United States and that this will pose a challenge to American leadership.  As these new states arise, do you expect this to be a period of conflict or peace?

CK: I think that the period of transition can be managed peacefully as long as the players in question get a good handle on the nature of the transformation.  I am not someone that believes that America is in decline in the absolute sense.  Immediately, when these types of debates begin, everyone starts swinging the word “declinist” around.  I want to make clear that I think the United States is going to snap back and that it will return to robust growth.  It is an immigrant county, an entrepreneurial country, and it has some of the best universities in the world.

I see the current moment of malaise in the U.S. as just that: a moment.  The bigger picture is that when the country snaps back, it will find itself in a world that is in the midst of profound change, with power diffusing to new quarters, and the ordering institutions that have been managed by Europeans and Americans for about 200 years will be more unwieldy and there will be a need to make them more representative and legitimate.  That is going to be a difficult process, but I do not believe that conflict is foreordained.  I think that the problem of management and maintaining a rules-based system will be magnified in a world in which there is no longer a clear captain at the helm.  However, as long as we see this transition coming, and work in a consensual fashion with the emerging powers, I think it can be managed peacefully.

GJIA: Given these shifts in global power, what advice do you have for U.S. policy-makers on how they should adjust policy to ensure that this transition occurs peacefully?

CK: Well the first recommendation would be to acknowledge that the world is going through a historic moment of change and to engage in a national conversation and international conversation about that.  I do not think that is happening primarily because we have been in an election season.  American politicians like to talk about the long-term durability of American primacy, but I think beneath the surface Americans, elites and the public alike, are ready for an honest conversation about the nature of global change and so I would say let us have it, bring it on, do not be scared of it.  I think in many respects, the elites are misreading the public. I think the public understands the world is changing and in some respects welcomes it because it may mean a less costly role for the U.S. in the world.

The second recommendation would be to acknowledge that the rules-based system we have built needs adjustment.  I think that’s important because many in the foreign policy community, even if they see the global distribution of power changing, continue to believe that the consequences of the reallocation of power and wealth will be minimized by the universalization of the Western order.  I do not think that it is going to happen that way.  I think that the West is going to have to renegotiate key issues with the emerging powers, ranging from the foundations of legitimacy, to sovereignty, to when and under what circumstances intervention is justifiable.  All the big issues I think will be on the table. I think the U.S. needs to be ready to engage the emerging powers on these big ticket items.

A third point would be to invest in the capability of both global institutions and regional institutions.  I think the big global institutions need adjustment to remain relevant.  But as the G8 goes to G20, as the U.N. Security Council expands, those institutions are more likely to become unwieldy, and therefore I would also invest more in regional bodies, which may in some respects be the most important institutions in the coming decades.  ASEAN, Gulf Cooperation Council, African Union, EU, Mercosur, UNASUR: I think that over time, we will see these types of group links become more important.

GJIA: You said you expect the U.S. to snap back and that it’s not in absolute decline. At the same time, some of the new emerging powers still face some significant challenges. Just to take China as an example, its growth has been slowing recently, it faces significant demographic and environmental challenges, and questions have been raised about its political stability. How confident are you that we will see continued growth from these emerging powers in the coming decades?

CK: I would say the only thing we can say with certainty is that all the current projections will be wrong and that is because projections are always wrong. China will have good years and bad years.  The U.S. will have good years and bad years; We will go through a period of turmoil and then we will get back on the saddle.  So I think we are going to see non-linear developments in all regions and among all emerging powers.  The main point is that I do not think that there is one country or model that represents “best practices” and will prevail over the rest.  I do not think one can say one shoe fits all feet.  So I would not pronounce the American laissez-faire capitalism superior to all alternatives.  I would not pronounce Chinese state capitalism as superior to the alternatives. I would not pronounce European social democracy as superior either.  They all have their advantages and disadvantages.  That’s why I think the 21st century is going to be a very diverse place where these different approaches to commerce and governance compete in the marketplace.  I don’t think there will be one particular model that dominates.

Dr. Charles Kupchan is Professor of International Affairs in the School of Foreign Service and Government Department at Georgetown University and the Whitney H. 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.

This interview was conducted by Matt Sullivan a second year student in the Masters of Science of Foreign Service program at Georgetown University and an editor of the Georgetown Journal’s online content.