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Review by John Coffey

Charles A. Kupchan, No One’s World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn New York: Oxford University Press, ISBN-13-978-0199739394, 2012, 258 pp., $27.95 list, $18.45 on Amazon, $12.07 on Kindle

Caesar had a slave follow his triumphal chariot through Rome, calling out, “sic transit gloria mundi.” Nothing lasts forever, and all political regimes pass. The paramount question of our time is whether America is in decline and, if so, what the consequences of that may hold. The stakes are high for America and the world. For seven decades America has been the indispensable provider of collective global goods, sustaining a liberal international order bringing peace and prosperity to much of the world. Optimists maintain that with sufficient political will American hegemony can continue.1 Pessimists variously see America’s ascendancy eclipsed by China, or place faith in a sunny view of globalization, or claim that a reconfigured West can help fashion a universal democratic culture.2 Others paint a darker future for the world without a benign American imperium.3 Charles Kupchan of Georgetown University foresees a different post-American world without a hegemonic power, but one which need not descend into a Hobbesian state of nature.

According to Kupchan, multiple power centers with diverse political cultures and distinct versions of modernity will occupy the new global landscape. No power will dominate this multipolar world: “The twenty-first century will not be America’s, China’s, Asia’s, or anyone else’s; it will belong to no one.” The “rising rest” will not adopt Western values and institutions (liberal democracy, industrial capitalism, secular nationalism). Consequently, to avert international anarchy the U.S. and EU must lead in forging a new consensus accommodating a pluralistic modus vivendi, a problematic task to which we shall return.

For Kupchan political culture explains Europe’s ascendancy. The West’s rise between 1500-1800 was due to unique historical conditions in the world. Medieval Europe’s political fragmentation opened political space for the formation of an urban bourgeoisie, which became the engine of economic development and the scientific/industrial revolutions. Competing centers of power, geography, and the Protestant Reformation fostered religious and political pluralism, propelling Europe’s ascendance and the genesis of modern representative government. These conditions created a dynamic middle class and liberal political order absent in the Ottoman Empire, China, India, and Japan, where hierarchical societies stifled socio-economic dynamism and political pluralism and, in the Islamic world, fused the sacred and secular domains. By the twentieth century European development and imperial expansion globalized the Western order; after World War II America inherited the mantle of global leadership from Britain. The fall of the Soviet Union seemed to herald the West’s ultimate triumph, even, to some, the end of history.

Kupchan predicts a more level global economic/military playing field will emerge over the next several decades, enlarging the rising rest’s geopolitical ambitions and their military capability to achieve those goals. The West’s path to modernity is not inevitable, he argues, and identifies five disparate versions of modernity that will vie for preeminence: Chinese communal autocracy, Russian paternal autocracy, Middle Eastern theocracy, African rule by strongmen, and Latin American left-wing populism.4 Kupchan disputes Robert Kagan’s view that geopolitical alignment follows the political form of a regime rather than culture and geography, arguing that even democratic states such as India and Brazil won’t hew to the West’s lead. Rising states are positioned on different political trajectories shaped by culture, level of socio-economic development, and geography, leading to global dissensus: “The next world will not march to the Washington Consensus, the Beijing Consensus, or the Brasilia Consensus. It will march to no consensus. Rather, the world is headed toward a global dissensus.”

Faced with the prospect of global dissensus as well as the renationalization of Europe and political dysfunction of America described by Kupchan, it seems futile for the author to call for the West to revitalize itself to manage the international turn to multipolarity. His guiding principles are unexceptionable: rebalance resources and commitments, economically and politically, to restore national solvency; adopt a more realistic (i.e., modest) conception of what can actually be accomplished at home and abroad. To this end he offers a set of domestic recommendations, useful yet unlikely to achieve much, if the U.S. fails to put its domestic house in order by raising taxes and reducing entitlements, an issue inexplicably ignored by the author.

The author would restore solvency to foreign policy through what he calls a policy of “modest retrenchment” and “selective engagement.”5 Some of his proposals are not feasible, while other steps are already underway. Kupchan’s first recommendation is for America’s allies to shoulder greater responsibility for the common defense. Desirable as this may be, it will not happen. A self-absorbed, pacifist Europe has reduced defense spending 15% since 9/11, with only 5 of 28 allies (including the U.S.) meeting an agreed 2% of GDP spending on defense. The Euro crisis will bring more severe cutbacks. Uncle Sam now foots over 75% of NATO’s military bill. Former Defense Secretary Gates observed that NATO has become a “two-tiered alliance” of fighters and freeloaders and warned that American patience for supporting partners who won’t help themselves is running out.6

Collaboration with allies and partners is always useful, where possible, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explains how the U.S. is already pursuing measures recommended by Kupchan, such as fostering regional institutions and working with ad hoc partners to address different problems.7 The Strategic Guidance issued by the Defense Department in January, 2012, also implements elements of “modest retrenchment” called for by Kupchan, such as reducing America’s overseas footprint and avoiding the “bottomless pits” of regime-change/nation- building.8 As Robert Lieber argues, however, in a dangerous world with weak allies and undependable multilateral cooperation the U.S. cannot manage threats by farming out its responsibilities. America must be able to go it alone. No substitute exists for U.S. engagement and leadership.9

What of “selective engagement?” The author is surely right that a sustainable foreign policy will require America to trim its sails. Meddling in other states’ domestic affairs and pursuing the fool’s-errand of democracy promotion will forever preclude a balance of means and ends and ensnare the U.S. in the chimera of regime-change. Accordingly, Kupchan believes we must recognize that liberal democracy is not the only game in town. “Responsible governance,” he says, a state that promotes the welfare of its citizens, is enough for legitimacy and good international standing. Respecting states’ sovereignty and the political differences among them appears to imply restraint, but there is perhaps less here than meets the eye.

Kupchan asserts, on the other hand, that we must oppose tyranny, predatory and aggressive regimes, and states sponsoring terrorism or exporting WMD. He sharply qualifies respect for sovereignty by endorsing Kofi Annan’s notion of “responsibility to protect,” the moral obligation to intervene in other countries to alleviate widespread suffering – for example, the humanitarian venture in Libya. Kupchan echoes Joseph Nye, who hails the Libyan war as “smart power” in action.10 It is difficult to see how moral custodianship of the world reflects what Kupchan calls a “more modest conception of America’s role in the world.” Armed humanitarian intervention, particularly with the predictable result of anarchy, and opportunistic regime change will make America a meddlesome global cop, indeed. History will forever remain replete with cruel tyrants and their atrocities. Where does humanitarian war-making end? Is Syria next? Sudan?

What begins as counsel for restraint becomes in Kupchan’s rendering of it a busy, intrusive foreign policy. Yet he never explains how we get from here to there in the new world order. If Western ascendancy will be replaced by a truculent global lack of consensus resistent to leadership, why would the rising rest follow the West’s lead in managing the transition (assuming the West could reach consensus on the foundational principles of a multipolar order)? Europe is a spent force, spiritually and politically. Despite its grave fiscal crisis, America remains the only country that matters everywhere in the world and that possesses global appeal. Provided that it puts its fiscal house in order (at this point uncertain), there is no reason to doubt that American hegemony can last for the foreseeable future. None of the rising rest possesses global appeal. Who, after all, aspires to emulate China, or India, or Brazil? In the end, Kupchan envisions a halcyon age of amity and unity. If the West, he claims contrary to his own analysis, can help bring political pluralism and economic dynamism to the world, we can avoid geopolitical anarchy and lay the foundation for “an era of global comity.” Far likelier, if America fails to reinvigorate its economy and its global hegemony fades, the world faces a nasty, brutish Hobbesian fate.End.


1. See Robert Kagan, The World America Made (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012); Robert J. Lieber, Power and Willpower in the American Future: Why the United States Is Not Destined to Decline (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

2. See Christopher Layne, “The Global Power Shift from West to East,” National Interest (May/June, 2012), 21-31; Aaron L. Friedberg, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011); Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008); Zbigniew Brzezinski, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power (New York: Basic Books, 2012).

3. Michael Mandelbaum, The Frugal Superpower: America’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era (New York: Public Affairs, 2010).

4. Kupchan underestimates the vulnerabilities of the Russian and Chinese models, not to mention the fact that China holds no appeal for any of its neighbors, including communist ones. See John Coffey, review of Allen Lynch, Vladimir Putin and Russian Statecraft, American Diplomacy (Jan., 2012); and review of Aaron Friedberg, A Contest for Supremacy, American Diplomacy (Feb., 2012). Tin-pot African dictators matter to no one, except their hapless citizens, and Latin America’s orientation is mixed. That leaves Middle Eastern theocracy, which appeals to no one else and whose prospect of historical regression hardly promises a credible version of modernity.

5. Similar arguments for foreign policy retrenchment to bolster financial solvency and domestic investment may be found in Richard N. Haass, “The Restoration Doctrine,” American Interest (Jan./Feb., 2012), 48-56; and Joseph M. Parent and Paul K. MacDonald, “The Wisdom of Retrenchment: America Must Cut Back to Move Forward,” Foreign Affairs (Nov./Dec., 2011), 32-47.

6. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, “The Security and Defense Agenda (Future of NATO),” Brussels, Belgium, 6/10/11.

7. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, “The Art of Smart Power,” New Statesman, 7/18/12; also Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, “Shangri-La Security Dialogue,” Singapore, 6/2/12.

8. “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” Department of Defense (Jan., 2012).

9. Robert J. Lieber, op. cit.

10. Joseph F. Nye, Jr., “From Lone Ranger to Smart Arranger,” Politico, 4/7/11.

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John Coffey
John Coffey

John W. Coffey received a Ph.D. in American history from Stanford University and taught for 20 years. He served in OSD Policy at the Pentagon from 1986-88 and as a civil servant at the Commerce and State Departments for 15 years, retiring from State in 2005. He has written widely on foreign and defense policy.

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