As America’s government slashes defence spending, Asian countries are on the rise. The ‘Golden Age of the West’ is nearly over – but what kind of world will replace it?

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What the future holds

Less than a century ago, India was ‘the jewel in the crown’ of the British Empire. Its rulers were British viceroys, its national army answered to the British crown and its economy was dominated by imperial trade.

Last year David Cameron visited the Indian city of Mumbai for the second time in two years. But he is no imperial overlord: far from guiding or commanding India’s governance, he has gone to implore Indians to see the UK a ‘special partner’.

‘India’s rise is going to be one of the great phenomena of this century,’ said Cameron – and few would disagree. By 2050 India is expected to have overtaken the USA and become the second largest economy in the world.

Steaming ahead in first place will be China: according to estimates from the International Monetary Fund, China is set to have the world’s highest GDP as early as 2016. Perhaps the real date will be a little later; but when China does claim top spot, it will be the first time in over a century that the USA loses its place as the world’s economic powerhouse.

This shift is hugely momentous moment in world history. But in one sense it should not be surprising: China and India between them claimed over 50% of the world’s GDP for millennia, until the Industrial Revolution propelled Europe and America to superpower status in the 19th Century. Asia’s journey to the summit could be seen as simply a return to the norm.

Other nations too are on the rise. Brazil is now wealthier than the UK; some African economies are growing at a rate of over 20% per year. Meanwhile, Europe flounders in a crisis that could destroy its shared currency. The ‘Golden Age of the West’, which one economist describes as ‘a 500 year economic cycle’, is in its dying days.

Consequences

When the US army intervened in Afghanistan a decade ago, it did so without authorisation from the United Nations.

When it went to war in Iraq, UN officials claimed that the attack was a breach of international law.

But so great was America’s military dominance that neither the UN nor anybody else could stand in its way.

The US still spends twice as much money on its military as the next ten countries combined. Yet that is changing fast. As the American economy struggles, its military spending is being slashed by almost 10%; meanwhile, China’s army is increasingly large, well-trained and well-equipped.

The age when the USA and its European and North American allies were the unchallenged masters of global diplomacy is over. From now on, if the West wants change in other parts of the world, it will have to work with other nations – including those with different ideologies and systems of government.

This new, ‘multipolar’ world could be a very different place to the one we are used to. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Al Gore suggests that the world may become like an expanded version of 19th Century Europe, when a competing group of equally powerful countries created a ‘Concert of Nations’, acting together to ensure that no single power became too dominant.

For better or worse?

For far too long, many say, America has treated the world as its personal estate, intervening in other countries’ affairs at a whim and brazenly ignoring international opinion. It is high time that this meddling arrogance was checked: a world where power is more evenly dispersed will be a fairer, safer, more cooperative place.

But others are more cautious. We might resent US power now, they say, but we will look back on this passing age as a time of enviable tranquility: as other nations rise, the ‘Pax Americana’ will be shattered and we will enter a time of simmering tensions, bitter competition and perhaps even outright war.

There is darkness on the horizon.

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