Reputational Security and Shared Problems: Seeing the World beyond the Unilateral Superpower

I certainly think that the world is at a crossroads.  I agree that at this point the United States does not have the kind of unilateral advantage that characterized the immediate post-Cold War world, but to be honest I do not see the world today simply in terms of a post-American era.  I think we are at the end of the era in which ANY single nation or state can define things because no one nation can hope to address the problems faced by our world.  The climate crisis, economy, migration, pandemic, and many other problems are bigger than any one country.  It is unhelpful to see the world in terms of the unilateral superpower. 

I think that the US will remain the foremost western country but that its power needs to shift to a much more collaborative approach.  Maybe Americans should not feel too sad about this.  One feature of this era is that the approaches to politics and the economy that were uniquely American in 1945 are now found in many places.  In fact, some of the things that Americans were once very proud of are easier to find elsewhere.  I think here of social mobility, equality before the law and even optimism.  Maybe the Swedes, Germans, or Canadians are better ‘Americans’ today in the ways that really count than the Americans themselves.

I think that the rise of China is the great geopolitical fact of our times, and the world needs to do a much better job of studying and understanding China.  With this said, I think China still has a long way to go.  It is reaching out to build relationships through the Belt and Road initiative, but we don’t see the kind of soft power of international admiration for values and culture that the western powers still enjoy.  I feel that the European Union is widely underestimated by analysts in terms of its soft power.  Despite its current problems arising from the erosion of democracy among its Eastern members it is clearly more admired than any of the other contenders.  Ironically, part of its appeal is that it is not viewed as intimidating or especially unified internationally.  Its 300 or so individual cities and regions each have something unique to offer the world. 

The European Union’s diversity is a strength and the Chinese government’s attempts to restrain diversity and present an artificially unified self-portrait to the world is a great weakness.  My feeling is that Russia is significant but cannot be in the same league as China.  One has only to compare GDP to see that.  Russia’s significance comes from positioning on the global stage, and often today that role is one of the disruptor, defying present convention.  I would rather see it finding new significance as a partner, as has been the case in the scientific realm in the past.  We should not forget that unlike China, Russia is a net destination for both students and migrants.  It plainly still enjoys great soft power in many places.

The power I see as most likely to decline going forward is Japan, where there so many indicators of economic stagnation and a decline of interest in those crucial markers of international engagement like learning of foreign languages.  South Korea, in contrast, I expect to have a larger role going forward.  I have been fascinated to see a trend in recent opinion polls to show mounting admiration of Canada.  Last year young British and young American people both told one poll that they trusted the government of Canada more than their own government.  How fascinating is that? 

My first reaction on learning about Biden’s team was that they were familiar from the Clinton and Obama periods, however they — like Biden — have been through a learning process, and are getting used to the much more competitive global environment that we have since the Ukraine crisis.  My sense is that the Biden team is well aware of the need for a collaborative approach and I have been glad to see the early efforts to address the damage done to core relationships in the Trump years.

I have no doubt that Biden will do better in his approach to Iran if only because of his willingness to work with the EU and permanent members of the UN Security Council.  The situation right now is fascinating — like watching a kind of dance — with the US looking for a return to the deal and Iran looking for relief from sanctions but neither wanting to move first.  I suspect Iran’s elections are holding things back as everyone will want a settlement that can endure for the foreseeable political future.   

To me the great danger is in our failure to cooperate effectively to address our shared problems.  I believe that a good reputation is essential not just for prosperity but for security also.  This is why I have written about Reputational Security.  I believe that the best reputations in the coming decades will come from playing a part in addressing these shared problems.  It is plain to me that the media has been weaponized by states and individuals with a vested interest in conflict, and that peace will require a media disarmament process along the same lines as the process to limit conventional arms.  The US and USSR did this in the later 1980s but the process has been forgotten.  All sides in the great divisions of our era need a chance to speak about this, and to listen too.  I have no doubt they will hear surprising things!

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