'None of the Above' Is Not a Full Credit Answer: From the Washington Times

Earlier this week I reviewed Charles A. Kupchan’s new book No-One’s World for the Washington Times.  A former staffer at the Clinton National Security Council, Kupchan drew the admiring blurbs and respectful public television appearances befitting his position. In books on world affairs, I usually start by looking up index entries for things like “Demographics” and “Population.” History, after all, belongs to whomever turns up for it — Thebans instead of Spartans in the 4th century B.C.E, for example, and Romans instead of Greeks in the 2nd century B.C.E, or Goths vs. Romans in the 5th century C.E., and so forth. These are not to be found in Kupchan’s present volume. A number of friends have asked me to cross-post the review here.


By Charles A. Kupchan

Oxford University Press, $27.95, 272 pages

The future isn’t what it used to be. Never in living memory have foreign policy pundits been father from consensus. China will rule the world, claims Martin Jacques’ 2009 book, or collapse, insists Gordon Chang. America will (or should) remain the world’s dominant power, argues Robert Kagan, or will go down in Armageddon, in Mark Steyn’s latest page-turner. A dozen recent tomes warn of Islam’s march to world’s domination, while at least one (my own) contends that Islam is dying, too.

There is information in the cacophony. Most of the world’s contenders for superpower status have choices to make that could assure their success or seal their doom. Things can’t simply continue as they are. At constant fertility, for example, China’s working-age population will fall by half by the end of this century, and more than half of Japanese will be over 60, according to the United Nations’ demographic model.

Into the fray wades now Charles Kupchan, a Georgetown University professor and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who proposes to split everything down the middle. If only everyone would be reasonable, Mr. Kupchan enjoins, we would accept that every country is exceptional in its own way and that no country can exercise global hegemony. Mr. Kupchan, who ran the Europe desk at Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, argued in a 2002 book that the European Union would leave America behind. Disappointed, he now selects “None of the Above.”

Democracy promotion tops Mr. Kupchan’s list of Western policy failures; he quotes Robert Kagan’s statement that Western ruling classes “have operated on the ideological conviction that liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government and that other forms of government are not only illegitimate but transitory,” and counters that “the equation of legitimacy with democracy undermines the West’s influence among emerging powers.”

That is true, as far as it goes, but Mr. Kupchan does not trouble to ask which autocracies might be stable and why. History belongs to those who turn up for it; an alarming number of countries may not. Demographics barely merits a mention in the present book.

Russia has stabilized for the time being, but its working-age population will fall by two-thirds by century’s end if the present trend continues.

Between 1981, when Ronald Reagan took office, and today, almost 400 million Chinese have moved from rural poverty to some degree of urban prosperity — the largest migration in modern history, and it was accomplished peacefully. Once the balance of China’s population has shifted to the cities, though, what happens next?

In place of traditional loyalties or Communist ideology, China has offered prosperity to the citizens of its polyglot, multiethnic empire. It will have to decide what it will be in place of the discarded Confucian empire. Will it revert to leftist populism or mystical nationalism? Or will the 10 percent of Chinese who now identify as Christians nudge China toward the West?

Underlying Mr. Kupchan’s complacency is a naive faith in the Whig interpretation of history. First there was the Holy Roman Empire, he reports, and then came the rising bourgeoisie, whose aspirations led to the Reformation, which led to the Enlightenment, which led to modernity. But unlike the “end of history” school, Mr. Kupchan does not believe that the rest of the world will walk the Whiggish way of the West. Instead, he has adapted the Whig interpretation to accommodate today’s academic regime of cultural diversity: Every culture has its own path to modernity, he avers.

The trouble with this way of looking at things is that modernity hasn’t worked out too well in its original Western home. Once continental Europe threw off the yoke of the church, it embraced the neo-pagan nationalism that motivated the world wars of the last century. Having failed both at Christianity and nationalism, the Europeans for the most part are sunk into an anomie that leaves them infertile and enervated. Their present sovereign debt problems portend much worse to come: By 2040, for example, 3 out of 5 Italians will be retirees, an impossible burden on state finances.

In the developing world, modernity is not a fixed state of affairs but a social and economic morphology whose ultimate outcome is not yet determined. Many non-Western nations will follow their own path to modernity, just as Mr. Kupchan believes, but for many of them, modernity will resemble the lion’s cave in Aesop’s fable, with many footprints leading in, but none leading out.

America confronts a world in which some of its competitors may flourish, while others become failed states. As the new contenders confront modernity, America’s example may be more pertinent than ever, provided, of course, that we Americans persist in setting an example.

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