Today's date:
Summer 2008

China and the Rest Are Only Joining the American-Built Order

G. John Ikenberry is the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University in the Department of Politics and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Princeton — Kishore Mahbubani is a good friend and he is one of the smartest and most insightful public intellectuals on the scene today. So it is a pleasure to exchange ideas with him.

Mahbubani and I clearly have major points of agreement. These include many of his general themes: that the rise of Asia is perhaps the seminal macro-historical event of our era; that we are witnessing an extraordinary renaissance in Asian societies; and that Asia has a lot that it can bring—experience, resources, a huge portion of humanity—to the collective management of world order.

But I disagree with Mahbubani on other themes he advances, particularly his argument that the West is somehow impeding or resisting the rise of Asia. I also disagree with the thesis that sometimes works its way into Mahbubani's writing, namely that the "rise" of Asia entails the inevitable "decline" of America or the West as a producer of global order and governance. Most of all, I disagree with Mahbubani's tendency to cast the debate about the coming global order as a struggle between East and West.

The real struggle is between those who want to renew and expand today's rule-based global order—which America itself championed for most of the postwar decades—or move to some sort of less cooperative order built on spheres of influence and power balances. These fault lines do not map onto geography nor do they split Asia and the West.

I agree with Mahbubani that the international distribution of power is shifting with the rise of Asia, but I do not see a great transformation in the organizing logic or principles of international order following from it.

To put it bluntly, I do not see Asia offering anything new or distinctive in the organization and governance of the global system. I do not see a lot of new ideas about how global rules and institutions should be transformed. I do not see an "Asian way" of world politics. I do see efforts—legitimate efforts—to get seats at various tables. But the tables are not newly designed Asian tables. They are just tables, many of them dating from earlier decades when the United States really did shape the rules and institutions of the global system.

What I found missing in Mahbubani's book was a discussion of what a more powerful Asia might actually do with its power.

Indeed, what is most striking about the rise of Asia is a silence on the big questions. This is clearly the case with China, which has been quietly working with and within existing frameworks of global cooperation. Arguably, over the last seven years, it is the US—not China—that has been most "revisionist" in its global orientation. China is more worried that the US will abandon its commitment to the old, Western-oriented global rules and institutions than it is eager to advance a new set of Asian-generated rules and institutions.

So the idea of an "Asian century" is misleading. The notion behind this sort of grand thinking borrows from the old great power image of world politics. Great powers rise and fall. In this old-fashioned vision, America had its moment and now it is giving way to China.

But this misses my big argument: that the US was not just a powerful state, it also built an international order. That order still exists—and indeed it has expanded to encompass much of the world. China—and Greater Asia—are rising in power but they are also integrating into this international order.

The order that America helped produce is unlike orders produced by earlier great powers. Compared with earlier orders, the American-led order is "easy to join and hard to overturn." Today this order is not really an American order or even a Western order. It is an international order with deep and encompassing economic and political rules and institutions that are both durable and functional.

The key point is that there is no alternative "Asian international order" that China and the rest of Asia are attempting to call forth—doing so if only the West would, as Kishore urges, gracefully make way for it. In my view, Asian countries want to join and help run the existing global system, not overturn it.

It is here that I make a series of arguments about how the US should think about the rise of China and the future of the West. I laid out my thesis in the January/February 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs.

Essentially, I make three points. One is that the best way to shape the terms of China's—and Asia's—rise is to reaffirm and rebuild the Western-led postwar rules and institutions that define the current world order and through which the US has exercised leadership all these years. This order has been—in contrast to past international orders—relatively easy to join. It is an international order that has—in contrast to past international orders—spread wealth and economic growth relatively widely. This international order has also been one—in contrast to past international orders—where political voice and influence have been widely shared among states. This Western system is America's greatest asset and we should strengthen it and by so doing strengthen the incentives China will have to integrate and join rather than oppose and seek to overturn it.

A second point is that, ironically, China may well be tomorrow's greatest supporter of the American-led postwar system. That system provides rules and institutions for openness and nondiscrimination. These are features of order that China will want going forward as its growing economic weight will be greeted by efforts by others (including some governments in the West) to close and discriminate. Rule-based international order is not a Western fixation. It is a system of governance that all states—East and West—have some interest in maintaining, China not least. China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO). Is the WTO a Western institution? I am not sure this is a useful question to debate. It is a functional institution that states—East or West—have incentives to join.

Finally, I argue that America's unipolar position will slowly wane. And so, today, the US should be asking itself: What sort of international order do we want to have in place in 2040 or 2050 when we are relatively less powerful?

I call this the neo-Rawlsian question of our time.

It was the famous political philosopher John Rawls who suggested that political institutions should be designed behind a "veil of ignorance"—that is, under conditions where the architects of the institutions did not know precisely where they would be within the resulting socioeconomic system. This thought experiment forced the institution builders to design institutions that would safeguard their interests regardless of where they ended up—weak or strong, rich or poor.

The US needs to engage in a similar thought experiment. We should try to lay down rules and institutions today—or reaffirm the old ones—so that we can protect our interests when we are less commanding in our global presence. I don't know if Rawls would approve, but I borrow his inspiration.

My answer is that the US should want to invest today in renewing and expanding a global system that will give it the best opportunities to be safe and prosperous when the rest of the world looms larger.

In the age of rising Asian power, reports of the death of the West are greatly exaggerated. It is the grand liberal ascendancy of the last hundred years—and the quiet revolution of the postwar liberal international order—that define the logic and choices of global order in the 21st century.

This is true regardless of whether Asia and the West are rising or declining or just standing still.