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Foreign Policy

Arrival of the 'Post-American Era'

Aug 21 , 2017
  • He Yafei

    Former Vice Minister, Ministry of Foreign Affairs


Many scholars argue about what era we live in now, but the answer is clear and simple. We have entered a “Post-American Era,” meaning that the so-called “Pax Americana” and the American century is over. We are witnessing not just the arrival of the new era, but also a quickening pace of the epoch-making process. As a result, the world order is undergoing a dramatic metamorphosis. Chinese President Xi Jinping said that from a historical perspective, mankind is moving into a new era of great development, great changes, and great readjustments. This new era begins with the end of Pax Americana and its accompanying U.S. domination of the world. If we had to pin down a watershed year that points to the start of the new era, it could possibly be 2008, when the world financial crisis broke out with devastating economic and political consequences. 2017 could also be in the running as the point at which the on-going process of global transformation into the Post-American Era began. As the world adjusts to the realities of this new age, how did we get here and what are the major characteristics for future global relations.

A rise in populism due to economic inequality of neo-liberal order

In the first decade of the 21st century, the U.S. was forced to reprioritize its strategic objectives with the “global war on terror” on top of the list. With wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and a financial crisis all in one decade, America suffered huge loss in both hard and soft power. For this reason, the “Asia-Pacific Rebalance” strategy surfaced in the Obama administration. With China always as its main target, the U.S. stance changed from passive military deterrence to active involvement—from the South China Sea and the East China Sea, to China’s relations with ASEAN, Japan, and India.

Globalization has undergone unprecedented transformation, and “re-globalization” will be an important feature in the Post-America era, with forces both for and against globalization battling on a collision course with a higher degree of intensity than before.

Ironically, this time around, the U.S. has reversed course and become a strong voice for populism and anti-globalization. President Trump’s decision to dump the Paris Agreement on climate change is a typical case. “America First” by itself is not a problem, but when it is pursued at the expense of other countries, it will create a serious issue for the international community. This “Great Role Reversal” began at the start of the Post-American era and must be closely observed as it determines what sort of role America will play in the transitional period of a shifting world order. It is important to note that such a role reversal is not limited to North America; populist candidates have also emerged in Europe, beginning with the U.K.’s mid-2016 referendum to leave E.U., which placed the European integration project in jeopardy. 

This round of globalization, beginning in 1950s, has brought economic prosperity to the world for more than seven decades. The liberalization of capital is a centerpiece of this ideology where capital should be made available where it is needed most for economic growth. Unfortunately, capital invariably goes where profits are greater, ultimately disregarding the social inequality it creates along the way. 

One critical factor that has fueled populism all over the world is the widening gap between rich and poor. The balance of market efficiency and social justice needs to be maintained for a better distribution of benefits of globalization. That responsibility must be borne by governments and other important actors in society; it is futile to rely on market alone to do the job. Economic neo-liberalism places market, capital, and privatization above everything else and has caused extensive harm to the economies of many countries that adopted it as its guiding economic ideology. 

What are the characteristics of a Post-American Era?

The most obvious characteristic of a Post-American Era is a reconfiguration of the global power balance, with developing nations gaining strength year by year. The so-called “Great Convergence,” a phrase crafted by the IMF on the basis of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), is becoming a reality. IMF predicts that the GDP of high-income countries would drop from 64% to 39% of the world’s total. In the same timeframe, the GDP of Asian emerging economies and other developing countries would rise from 12% to 39%, with China comprising 21%. As America continues to debate the direction of its economy while emerging countries grow, it appears the “Great Convergence” concept will be a defining aspect of this new era.

Moreover, the ideological and theoretical framework that typically provides guidelines and matrices for global economic growth and political progress is fundamentally shifting. With the collapse of economic neo-liberalism and its “Washington Consensus” recipe for economic reform, the ensuing void of overarching political and economic principles has been troubling countries for the last decade. Mankind is yearning for new thinking, new parameters, new ideas, and new plans of action in global governance. Increasingly, the world’s attention is turning east, specifically, toward China.

There are many viable reasons for China to become the focus of the world in the emerging Post-American Era. It cannot be denied that China rose from a poor country in the 1970s to the second largest economy today, and inevitably could catch up to the U.S. in terms of its GDP. But global attention is not solely because of the economic miracle China created, but rather the unique model of economic development China adopted and still embraces.

Given this success, China has been more proactive in playing a leadership role in global governance. China’s consistent support for global free trade and its decisive role in promoting the Paris Agreement on climate change—with or without American participation—are a few examples of China doing the heavy lifting as a responsible power in the Post-American Era.

Offering profound insight into the future of global governance, President Xi’s thoughts on both domestic and global governance, developed with aspects from Marxism combined with the reality of China and globalization as a whole, have become increasingly popular in many countries over the capitalist-rooted ideology of the U.S. and the West. This shift in global thought is another salient feature of the Post-American Era.

Even Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist for President Trump, noted after President Xi’s speech at Davos and President Trump’s inaugural speech that, “comparing [the] two Presidents’ speeches, you will find two entirely different world views.” Henry Kissinger said more generally that the international system is going through its most fundamental changes in 400 years, recalling the last structural change to be the 1648 signing of the Treaty of Westphalia that concluded the Thirty-Years War in Europe. The late U.S. national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski echoed Kissinger’s words, commenting that, “The center of global power has transferred from both sides of the Atlantic to the Far East.”

As the world order morphs, the Post-American Era holds the promise of a better future while also bearing uncertainty and the potential for instability due to a concurrent rise in geo-political risks.

The U.S. will no doubt remain the most powerful country for years to come. The end of Pax Americana does not mean the U.S. has automatically lost its top position in the world—only that the world is no longer unipolar. America’s reaction to the arrival of the Post-America Era is no different from previous hegemonic powers. It ignores the reality and continues to wave the banner of “America First” and “American Exceptionalism,” refusing to believe the Pax Americana is beginning to crumble. The U.S. anxiety over the growing power of China and other developing nations has prompted it to redouble its efforts to counterbalance these rising powers.

How is China approaching “re-globalization”?

On both globalization and re-globalization, China will continue to provide steady and sturdy support. China has benefitted a great deal from globalization, and is one of the few countries that has successfully maintained a good balance between market efficiency and social justice, with the market and the government each playing different yet complementary roles.

The best example to illustrate China’s devotion to globalization and re-globalization is its series of principles, doctrines, policies, and ideas on global governance proposed by President Xi Jinping in the past five years. Among others, “the Belt & Road Initiative,” multilateralism with UN at its core, and a global partnership network are designed to build a stronger international community. “Sharing” is at the heart of the idea of common development and common prosperity that can address the issue of the gap between rich and poor.

The Post-America Era will have to face the challenge of maintaining peace and security for the world. There are two main aspects defining this challenge: geopolitical entanglements and risks of major power conflict, and the overall dysfunction of the international security infrastructure.

The increasing geopolitical entanglements and possible confrontations among major powers require political wisdom and persistent peaceful efforts by all countries involved to find both short-term and long-term solutions. In particular, the so-called Thucydides Trap should be avoided. In this vein, China and the U.S. have reached a basic understanding through frequent dialogues between heads of state and other consultations at various levels.

Additionally, the slow disintegration and dysfunction of the global security system based on military alliances between the U.S. and its allies are posing problems. The system designed and maintained by the U.S. and its military allies decades ago has frayed and is incompatible with the globalized and interdependent world in which we now live. On the other hand, with the UN Security Council as the sole globally mandated organization to maintain world peace and security, the international collective security system as such has often been side-tracked or ignored.

China has proposed the idea of knitting a network of global partnerships that is open and equal in nature in order to foster more effective collective security through cooperation on all fronts. So far, China has established different  kinds of strategic partnerships with other countries as well as regional organizations, totaling 97 by the end of 2016. This new vision of security cooperation offers great potential and has been welcomed by many countries.

In sum, the Post-American Era has arrived and is here to stay. Our world of today facing triple challenges, on top of one another: geopolitical crises, the crisis arising out of globalization, and the continuing world economic crisis. They may not be dire yet, but if nothing is done in these areas, they could likely evolve into dramatic calamities. The world order is nevertheless shifting towards a fairer, more equal direction. The global governance system has to adjust accordingly. It is time for all countries, major powers in particular, to take these global challenges seriously and act carefully and forcefully.

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