Two recent books offer insights into how the world might change in the coming decades as U.S. hegemony fades and the world becomes increasingly defined by multipolarity. Shaper Nations represents one of the best snapshots yet of this emerging era, focusing on countries whose economic and military capabilities make them increasingly significant in their regions and beyond: Brazil, China, Germany, India, Israel, Russia, Turkey, and the United States. None of the contributors considers any of these states, including China, to be a “revisionist” power, one that seeks to upend the rules and institutions of the existing order. Rather, shaper nations are themselves shaped and constrained by domestic politics, regional rivalries, and historical memories and grievances—a fact that will make world politics increasingly messy and dysfunctional as such countries become more influential. Paradoxically, today’s rising states combine greater international influence with profound domestic weaknesses and unsettled national identities. Legro speculates that shaper nations will create a global order that is less global and less orderly: as rising powers focus on their own development and neighborhoods, they will deliver fewer public goods.
A multipolar world might also prove to be a dangerous place: many of history’s bloodiest wars have been conflicts between ambitious rising powers seeking greater sway in the world and declining leading states struggling to hold on. In his impressive collection, Paul leads an interdisciplinary group of scholars in exploring how rising powers and more established rivals have dealt with this dilemma in the past. The best example of peaceful accommodation is the United Kingdom’s acceptance of a rising United States in the late nineteenth century. In contrast, Europe’s inability to integrate post-Bismarck Germany in the early twentieth century stands out as the most disastrous case of failed accommodation. The book also surveys the contemporary efforts of Brazil, China, and India to find their way in the U.S.-led global order. Interestingly, that order has made it easier for rising states to join and assume leadership roles, but prevailing norms of sovereignty, territorial rights, and the rule of law have made it harder for the great powers to cut deals with smaller rivals over spheres of influence. The book makes clear that long-term shifts in power among states do foment insecurity and conflict, but diplomacy and steady strategies of reciprocity and self-restraint can bring countries back from the brink of war.
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