Adrian Hamilton: The competition of nations need not be a zero-sum game

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The Independent Online

The worst thing about New Year is the spate of articles propagating some theory or other about the rise of this power and the fall of that. This last year, this last decade indeed, has seen the Edward Gibbonses of our day scribbling with a vengeance. Even the estimable Ed Stourton joined in this week, arguing that the concentration on America's decline has blinded people to the other reality of the rise of China.

The hell it has. I can't count the number of books and articles that have appeared over the last 10 years predicting the ascent of China and India to challenge and even overtake the US as the world's sole superpower. The obsession with the rise and fall of powers has even spread into the study of history, with a flood of works on the growth and collapse of the Roman empire, with the lessons that holds for today.

It's a peculiar American disease, of course, this worry about where you stand in the competitive stakes for top dog of the globe. And it's easy enough to see why. From being the unchallenged hyperpower that bestrode the world like a colossus after the collapse of the Soviet empire, the US has tested that power and fears it has been found wanting, not just in military terms but in economic terms as well.

I blame the intellectual elite for this obsession with global status. Businessmen and politicians love it, the overarching themes, the bullet point presentations, the daring conjectures.You can earn a fortune on the lecture circuit, and sell an unholy amount of copies, declaring that you have found the secrets to the future.

It's not all nonsense, although it tends to be pretty close to it. China has achieved industrial take-off and is now clearly a major power. The recession of the last two years has reduced the wealth of the West, Europe as well as America, by as much as 5 or 6 per cent. It has increased the wealth of India, China and Brazil by an equal amount. Countries do rise and fall just as corporations do.

Although businessmen and political advisers like to see the world in terms of a zero-sum game, history does not. The more you know of the past, the more fragmented and the more particular it becomes. There may be patterns over time, but actuality is localised and usually contradictory.

Certainly you can argue, if you like, that we are in a period of renewed global power conflict, that the struggle for resources, the competition for global markets, the clash of the huge and burgeoning military expenditure of Russia, China and the US is bound to lead to ultimate confrontation.

Yet this is to see the world in Cold War terms, where every conflict immediately raised superpower involvement and confrontation. The mindset is still there in Washington and, to some extent, in London. You look at Iran's manoeuvrings and you interpret them as a grab for regional power which must be resisted. You observe the rise in Chinese activities in Africa and you see them in terms of a reach for global dominance. You watch Russia's invasion of Georgia and you fix it within the framework of a reassertion of the Soviet empire. You analyse the growing size of the European Union and consider what a force it might be if only it exercised its power as a unit.

It's the wrong way of looking at things. If there is a single lesson from the last decade, it was that you cannot view the world through an imperial prism. Europe hasn't become a superstate because it has failed through poor leadership (although it has that). It's because the nation states and their populations which make up the union don't share that vision.

Iran isn't a rising power bent on regional dominance of the Middle East, or even a religious force determined on galvanising a so-called "Shia Arc" in the Middle East. It's an Indo-European country of fearsome nationalistic pride which has always had problems getting on with its Arab neighbours, has a well-founded fear of foreign interference and is now beset by internal problems of its own after a disputed presidential election.

In the same way Russia is far more obsessed with gaining the maximum benefit from its energy resources while it has them than any dream of invading the Baltic states again. It may have the arms but its own economy is too skewed and sclerotic to warrant dreams of a Greater Russia rather than policy of influence and control of its immediate neighbours.

So too with China. It wants influence and access to resources but its chief concern is not outward expansion but the fear of decelerating growth and what that may do to its buregoning population heading to the cities for work.

That doesn't make China, any more than Russia or Iran, inherently stable or predictable. Just the opposite. Not since the 1930s have we entered a decade in which it is quite so difficult to predict just what kind of regimes will be in power in many of the main countries. The last decade has seen the cruel demolition of the idea of a liberal "end to history". We really don't know what will replace it in the clash of resurgent nationalism and battered globalisation that marks the new decade.

Add to this the tinder box of the Middle East issue, the pressures of climate change and the strain on resources and you have a recipe for almost continuous conflict. But they're not the kind of conflicts that need, as they have so often in the past, to lead inexorably to war. There aren't – at this moment at least – the competing ambitions to make it so.

Climate change is not without its solutions or mitigations. Economic growth in one country need not be at the expense of another. And you'd have to be a pessimist indeed to assume that the US has ceased to be an economic powerhouse or that the mind of man will no longer provide the kind of imaginative drive to find new forms of growth.

The political problem is the lack of structures and leadership to contain the instability that so marks the present time. At the beginning of the century it was possible to believe that order might be preserved either by the exercise of sole authority by the US, acting as a sort of global policeman, or by the UN, revitalised as a world agency. President Bush put paid to the former idea, the Copenhagen summit showed the weakness of the latter. The UN lacks the common will behind it, even from President Obama, who shows almost no interest in international institutions.

And yet forms, regional or global, will have to be found to bring people together, sort out disputes and find common ground if the coming decade is not to be one of ceaseless confrontations.

Uncertainty is not a bad thing. Indeed it is the parlance of history. But lack of any political desire to make it less so certainly is. If one has one wish for the New Year it is simply that politicians, after this last year of recession, lift their eyes from their own domestic pressures and work not for grand solutions but a practical settlement of issues as they arise, where they arise, working not from grand theory but local understanding.