Power to the East? Sort of..

A global power shift has been occurring over the last decade from West to East, that fact is undeniable. To calculate this arithmetically in a hypothetical case study, let us assign total world power a numeric value of 1000. In the 18th century, Asia held roughly half the percentage of global output, that is roughly 500 units. One could reasonably claim then that Asia had a strong hold on global power in the mid 1700’s. However, Asia missed the great industrialization period that led to booming economies in both Western Europe and the United States. By the end of the 20th century, Asia’s share of global power had been reduced to the equivalent of 200 units.

Over the last two decades, as Asian economies have prospered and their cultures have spread rapidly across the globe, thanks to a globalized world with low information barriers, Asia looks to reclaim its historic share of global power, say 500 units, a point Joseph Nye illustrates well in The Future of Power. So what does this shift of power mean for the future of world politics given the European Union’s dire straits today? Where does its current trajectory lie? There are two important things to note here: Firstly, financial crises are cyclical and it’s only a matter of time before Europe gets back on its feet. Asia went through its own financial crisis in 1997/’98, and today all those East Asian economies have recovered and are thriving. The American political scientist John Mearsheimer wrote in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics that the 1997/’98 Asian financial crisis brought out a stronger, more united region by fostering a “new geopolitics” in the region. In the aftermath of the crisis, the European Union may come to a similar result.

Secondly, those who suggest the European Union’s demise is inevitable should be weary of making such overarching judgements so soon. As Paul Krugman noted in the New York Times the other day, Europeans are increasingly rejecting the austerity measures forced on them by the Merkel-Sarkozy duo (the latter no longer holds the Presidency). First the Greeks and now the French. It’s simply a matter of time before Europe favors pro-growth policies and recovers from its slump.

The European Union, despite its current setbacks, continues to be viewed much more favorably as an intermediary actor to solve international disputes than any other international actor. Europe’s embrace of soft power tools and strategic culture of public diplomacy over hard power mechanisms has increased its global appeal over the last four decades. One financial crisis may damage its reputation in the short term, but will hardly tarnish it, as some commentators claim.

Meanwhile, in China, the region’s economic power house, the country continues to face its own internal challenges; from human rights and democratic protests to wide scale corruption and internal party struggles within the Community Party. In the last year alone, we’ve watched the unfolding of the high-speed train crash scandal, the case of the ruthless and corrupt Communist Party Chief Bo Xillai caught out and most recently, the blind dissident Chen Guangcheng made international news for speaking out against false imprisonment and persecution. Hardly, a country running smoothly. China’s retreat from the Indian Ocean after a more aggressive posture in early 2009 is proof that China is not ready to lead nor play the role of a serious global power.

Japan, another major economy in the region has little interest in playing a more serious role in global politics, not to mention its domestic focus on recovery after the Fukashima nuclear disaster.

My point is that the so called ‘old-world order’ still matters. And Europe will be back.


About amalvarghese
Amal Varghese is a Contemporary Debate Columnist for Access at the Australian Institute of International Affairs

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