Illustration by Ellen Weinstein
Since the fall of the Soviet Union just over two decades ago, the United States has been the world’s one and only real superpower. But is the era of American primacy coming to an end? Alexander Cooley, Barnard’s department of political science chair and the current Tow Professor of Political Science, is examining the possibilities with a new course he’s developing for next year. The course considers shifting post-western political power in regions, such as Central Asia and the Middle East, around the world.
Cooley notes that the 2008 world financial crisis and the resulting recession have exposed some of the frailties of the U.S. economic system. Meanwhile, he adds, China’s economic prominence has risen. “The financial crisis really marked China’s emergence as a [world] economic power,” says Cooley, who posits that it also signaled the emergence of a new era in global politics in which the United States, and the West in general, no longer reign supreme. In his view, the implications of that are enormous. The key question driving the course, which Cooley envisions as a limited-enrollment lecture course, is what will that new world look like—or, as he puts it, “What’s the future of a post-American liberal order?”
To answer that question, the course will explore the impact that the rise of China and other emerging world powers might have on a variety of issues, ranging from economic aid and development assistance, to the spread of democracy and human rights. Moreover, he plans to look at how the shifting global order is playing out around the world. One major focus will be resource-rich Central Asia and the five so-called central Asian “Stans”—Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan.
As Cooley, a leading authority on Central Asia, notes, the region has recently become a prime hot spot for American, Chinese, and Russian rivalries—and thus offers an ideal microcosm for studying a new political landscape. “It’s really an arena for what the post-Western world will look like,” says Cooley, who wrote about the international jockeying for regional influence in his newest book, Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia, published by Oxford University Press this past June.
Cooley’s interest in Central Asia dates back to the mid-1990s and his days as a PhD student at Columbia University, where he wrote his dissertation on the impact of international aid on the Kyrgyz political system. As part of the process, he spent a year conducting field research and also taught at the American University in Kyrgyzstan (now the American University of Central Asia). Since joining Barnard in 2001, Cooley has taught classes on international organization and globalization and international politics, along with a graduate-level course at Columbia that examines the challenges to sovereignty faced by post-Communist states.
He has pursued a mix of research interests, including the politics of human rights and democracy promotion in a multi-polar world. His main focus, however, has continued to be Central Asia and the Caucasus. In the past decade, he has produced a steady stream of academic articles and op-eds covering everything from the limits of resurgent Russian power in Central Asia to U.S.-Georgia relations and the implications of U.S. military bases for democratization in the region. In addition, he has authored or co-authored several books, including Logics of Hierarchy: The Organization of Empires, States and Military Occupations; Base Politics: Democratic Change and the U.S. Military Overseas; and Contracting States: Sovereign Transfers in International Relations.
Cooley recalls that the inspiration for his latest book, Great Games, Local Rules, came while he was working on a research fellowship for the Open Society Foundations on the rise of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), founded in 2001 to promote stability in Central Asia. In his studies, he discovered that Russia and China, the group’s two most powerful members, were divided on a whole host of issues. “What started to interest me was their rivalry,” recalls Cooley, noting that in recent years China has been bankrolling major infrastructure development projects not just in Central Asia, but also around the globe. At the same time, Russia, hard hit by the financial crisis, has seen its economic power wane, along with its ability to assert its interests in neighboring states. “Russia wants to be seen as a great power,” he notes, “but while it may have the ambition, it currently lacks the means.”
As for the U.S., which has its own strategic interests in Central Asia, the professor contends that its influence in the region has also waned: Not only has the U.S. run into resistance from local political leaders opposed to the presence of American military bases, but he notes that U.S. calls for further democratization and greater respect for human rights are increasingly being shrugged off. “It’s a place where you see American soft power declining. There’s a real fatigue with U.S. human rights and democracy rhetoric,” says Cooley, especially now that the United States’ treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib in Iraq has received worldwide attention.
Still, while it’s clear to Cooley that the old global order is on the way out, he notes that there’s still great uncertainty about what will replace it. He is hopeful that the course he’s planning will give students some early insights into a new power structure. China is certain to be a dominant player. Cooley says that, among other things, the class will look at how China is already serving as a counterbalance to American power in Central Asia and around the world. As two prime examples, he points to Ecuador’s 2008 decision to default on its debt and Angola’s move to break off loan negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. Both countries, he believes, were emboldened by the fact that they could turn to China for outside financing assistance, instead of just relying on the West. “China’s emergence gives countries [who previously had far less power] a lot more political space,” he says.