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This chapter is from the book

Polycentricism

Sustainable economic growth increases individuals' and governments' confidence. Ideas once expressed only amid casual conversation are now incorporated in official statements.

Over the past five years government officials around the world have repeatedly expressed a particular way of thinking about energy security. The world tends to view energy security issues through the lenses of developed economies. These economies were able, through government actions, to establish an energy status quo that, though it's been stable, was based on the premise that developed-economy leaders could dictate the politics of the international energy trade. At the same time, smaller nations, because they lacked the financial and economic muscle, weren't invited to participate in the decision-making process. They had to go with the flow.

Today China and India are at the forefront of a global effort to change this arrangement. Chinese and Indian political elites now exercise their right to strike energy deals according to their own interests and needs rather than the geopolitical considerations of others. Although this doesn't mean the sensitivities of their partners are discarded, the fact remains that it's incomprehensible to Indians, for instance, why their relationship with Iran is used by the US as a pressure point, particularly as more than 12 percent of India's oil imports come from Iran. To Indians the issue for the US is purely geopolitical—namely, the nuclear threat that Iran may in the future pose to Western interests. India has co-existed with an extremely unstable and economically deficient neighbor with a nuclear arsenal for a long time. This country, Pakistan, has offered its expertise on nuclear weapons, under the guidance of the notorious A. Q. Khan, to an assortment of rogue states, while all the time being an ally of the US in its "global war on terror."13 Indian officials, as well as many Indian businesses, have often yielded to US pressures on these issues, against their will, because the US is a necessary ally and economic partner. But US actions are increasingly viewed in India the same way Western commentators view "resource nationalism." In other words, states that control natural resources are applying pressure to consumers via threats to cut supplies.

The US usually uses access to its markets as well as access to nuclear and other technologies as negotiating levers, what government officials and elites describe as "strategic interests." India will soon have enough standing to defy similar US requests that it considers contrary to Indian interests, particularly if Indians don't perceive their actions as threatening regional and global security and stability.

China and Russia are the main proponents of the concept of polycentricism. Their call is to return to the more stable situation that prevailed in the immediate aftermath of World War II, during which the US wasn't venturing around the world à la Gulliver, trying to "take care of business." The emerging Asian powers envisage a more subtle, diplomatic approach as the best road forward. Political scientist G. John Ikenberry expressed a similar idea in 2001. He noted that

  • The institutional model of order building is based on a potential bargain between unequal states after a war...what makes the institutional deal attractive is that the leading state agrees to restrain its own potential for domination and abandonment in exchange for greater compliance by subordinate states. Both sides are better off with a constitutional order than in an order based on the constant threat of the indiscriminate and arbitrary exercise of power.14

The Chinese, for obvious reasons, have been very vocal in assuring the world that its rise will be peaceful. Its official policy position, expressed in a white paper on defense, indicates that China

  • [W]ill encourage the advancement of security dialogues and cooperation with other countries, oppose the enlargement of military alliances, and acts of aggression and expansion. China will never seek hegemony or engage in military expansion now or in the future, no matter how developed it becomes.15

The US has been heavily involved in Asia since the mid 1800s, when marines landed in Guangzhou to protect American citizens from Chinese mobs. It became the dominate force in the region after its conquest of The Philippines in 1899. Forty-five years later the US ended World War II in Asia by guaranteeing that Japan had no choice but to surrender and making it essentially a vassal state. The US turned the island into a stationary carrier from which the rest of Asia could easily be accessed. As Professor Yoshihide Soeya of Keio University has said, there are three traumas from which the Japanese people are still reeling: defeat in the war, occupation by Americans, and the solidification of their country's subordination to the US.16

Nevertheless, the US, acting as the guarantor of regional stability, served Asia well. Its presence worked for the region overall, as long as communism was seen as a threat and the Japanese atrocities of old, mainly in China and Korea, were still fresh in people's minds. Neither of these conditions is present now. China's economic ascent is seen as a positive for the region, and the majority of Asian governments are more than willing to cooperate with China; a developing Chinese economy is good for their own economies. China is, after all, a neighbor state that will be there forever. Good relations are the right way to go.

The US has responded negatively to geopolitical change and the idea of polycentricism. America's ideas about its own exceptional status and the universality of its values are expressed prominently in dealings with other states. Although these ideas and the policies crafted to further them aren't new, the way they've been carried out over the past 10 to 15 years, combined with the economic rise of China, has created notable discomfort for governments around the world. Many countries are starting to identify with John Adams' words about the British and their handling of peace negotiations: "The pride and vanity of that nation is a disease; it is a delirium; it has been flattered and inflamed so long by themselves and others that it perverts everything."17

George H. W. Bush, whose gentlemanly approach to diplomacy advanced US interests around the world without eliciting serious opposition, noted in 1975 while in China as the head of the United States Liaison Office (USLO), that

  • The American people do not have any concept of how others around the world view America, we think we are good, honorable, decent, freedom-loving. Others are firmly convinced that...we are embarking on policies that are anathema to them.18

Although this is the nature of international politics—not everyone looks at an issue the same way or has the same interests—it is still the case in America that people are genuinely puzzled when they find out that others don't necessarily see eye to eye with the US on a lot of issues. But geopolitical and economic developments are gradually laying this mind-set to rest. Probably—eventually—the US will once again adhere to the principles of its founders, who erected their constitutional regime on the sound proposition that power must be checked and balanced.19

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