See who will run the world in the "tens"

In 1999 the United States ran the world. By 2009 pretenders had grown more assertive and power more dispersed. To navigate these shifting tides this small country will need to keep its wits about it.

Four events shook the United States in the decade after 1999: the dotcom crash in 2000, ending investors’ digital euphoria; the islamist terror of September 11 2001; the banking crash of 2007-08; and Chinese and Indian intransigence at Copenhagen.

When the double-noughts decade opened on January 1, 2000, computers didn’t go gaga and planes didn’t fall out of the sky. But planes did plunge out of the sky 21 months later when demonic men aimed them at New York’s twin towers and the Pentagon.

Americans ignored the economic significance of the dotcom crash and pumped up another financial bubble from even flimsier fabric. But they could not shrug off 911, as the Americans’ back-to-front date system calls it. The world’s most powerful nation became the world’s most frightened.

Fright spawned revenge — against Iraq, which had not been party to 911 but had defied the president’s father, had pretensions to nuclear weaponry and had oil. Hyperpower United States easily demolished Saddam Hussein’s state but failed to crush terror and failed to spread American democracy.

Just a fortnight ago Americans were given a reminder and their government has grown even more frightened. The United States can easily demolish states but can’t dismantle the terror networks, which concoct their poisons in dark corners of failed states and globalise them through modern communications.

But are the terrorists the vanguard of the United States’ (and the “western” world’s) greatest challenge? Is the “clash of civilisations” between liberal democracies and Islam posited by Samuel Huntington the 2010s battleground?

More credibly, the challenge comes from east and south Asia.

Foremost is China, which is reconstituting its time-honoured empire, autocratic, organised and corrupt.

It is doing this first by building its economy: cheap manufactures, sophisticated manufactures and heavy investment in science and technology. As a result, in the 2010s we will find many new or influential ideas — in science and about institutions — are generated in a very different culture from the trans-Atlantic fountainhead of the past 500 years.

With economic power comes hard power — military capacity — and with that comes soft power, the capacity to influence international forums. It was widely acknowledged that no deal was possible at Copenhagen on climate change if the United States and China did not agree.

That is the “G2” — group of two. The old G8 is now a talkshop of 1950-90 bigwigs, mostly chest-puffing middle powers. Copenhagen showed the G77 — actually around 135 countries — is incoherent, with huge differences of economic structure and status and geopolitical perspective.

More important is the G20, in which India, China and Brazil are critical. And that — or what it evolves into and parallel groupings for specifics such as climate change and trade negotiations — points up a long-overdue reconstitution of the United Nations Security Council.

That is a markedly different world from the one Helen Clark bargained in. John Key will need his instincts honed and his antennae keenly tuned. Foreign Affairs Secretary John Allen’s decision to build a strategy team in his ministry is timely and necessary.

Not least, Key and Allen will need a strategy, including teaching Mandarin, for managing the relationship with China as a new kind of vassal state. For a clue as to how difficult that will be recall the problematic relationship with our United States kin when we went anti-nuclear and substituted internationalism for alliances.

Take comfort: the United States is still formidable. Despite its 2000s foreign policy mistakes, which need much mending, and its deep economic woes, which may take a decade to cure, it retains enormous military power, unparalleled capacity for innovation, vast resources and a flexible society. And this is not a zero-sum game.

The world is not on the path to a G1 of China, at least not in the 2010s. China’s rise — and that of Korea, south-east Asia and India — is undeniable. But Asia has a long way to go to justify its boosters’ hyperbole. We have time to adjust.

And on the way Asia must traverse some bumpy terrain. Water scarcity could stall or slow economic growth. Food security will likely be a periodic problem through the 2010s because the technology for new crops and techniques will be unevenly distributed. Populations will go on growing and mass migration is likely to continue. If anything, the world is likely to become more unequal, raising the potential for intra-national and international tension and even war. Ascendant powers often generate conflict.

New Zealand is distant and safe, wet and food-secure. How to make opportunities of those advantages in a world that is being remade will be the 2010s test.