A Zero-Sum Future?

February 7, 2011 — Gideon Rachman joined us for a discussion of his new book, Zero-Sum Future: American Power in an Age of Anxiety.  Rachman is the chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times.  Previously, he worked for 15 years with The Economist.  He has written extensively on American foreign policy and globalization.  His book discussed the changing global economy and power structures in international relations and the possible challenges America faces in this new future.

Walter Russell Mead and Robert Sutter provided commentary on Rachman’s arguments.  Mead is a professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College and author of Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World.  Sutter is a visiting professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.  His most recent book is US-Chinese Relations: Perilous Past, Pragmatic Present.

Rachman began his remarks by explaining the central question behind his research-what are the geopolitical consequences of the global financial crisis? According to his research and analysis, the financial crisis introduced new tensions and rivalries to the international system.  These tensions and rivalries altered relationships from a win-win scenario to a zero-sum scenario.  The superpowers of the world are now being confronted by emerging powers which causes concern on the domestic front.  Rachman pointed out that Americans in particular are now wondering if a richer and more prosperous China will result in a less wealthy and prosperous US.  He concluded his remarks by offering suggestions on what a rising China means for the US, specifically future concerns for security in the Pacific and a shift in the balance of power in the region.

Following Rachman’s remarks, Mead broadened the scope of the discussion by offering historical analogies to today’s China.  He explained how there have been past challengers to the international system, but they have failed.  He offered Germany’s rise in the early 20th century as an example while also pointing out the differences between a violent German rise and a peaceful Chinese rise. A fundamental difference that he noted is China’s rise in the region is counterbalanced by the emergence of a more prosperous India and a growing South Korea.  Therefore, he concluded that as long as regional actors in Asia can limit China’s expanding influence with the assistance of the US as an offshore balancer, the destabilizing effect witnessed in Europe during the early 20th century will not play out in Asia. 

Sutter continued this point by first emphasizing the importance for the US and Western powers to remain calm when addressing China’s rise, and second, highlighting China’s lethargic attitude towards its expansion.  He explained how China is acting in its own self interests and is not plotting a grand scheme to uproot the current international order.  It possesses no desire to establish itself as the guarantor of stability or development.  This is evident in their minimal commitment to international institutions.  Compared to the US, China contributes far less monetary assistance to the UN as well as international peacekeeping operations.  When analyzing the large-scale picture, China is rising in a region that it does not control, and the US remains the number one guarantor of stability and development in the region.

During the question and answer period, questions were raised regarding the perceived weakening of US influence.  Mead stated that the perception of a weakening US influence comes down to a failed concept of “trilateralism.”  US allies, Japan and the European Union, underwent difficult economic times which severely undermined their ability to undertake leadership roles in the international environment.  Mead supported this point by highlighting the question Henry Kissinger raised-who do you call when you want to speak with Europe?  Recommendations as well as questions regarding the future path of US foreign policy were also discussed.  Overall, the panel agreed that the US will remain first among equals for the foreseeable future. 

Security for a New Century is a bipartisan study group for Congress. We meet regularly with U.S. and international policy professionals to discuss the post-Cold War and post-9/11 security environment. All discussions are off-the-record. It is not an advocacy venue. For more information, please call Mark Yarnell at (202) 224-7560 or write to [email protected]

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