Rising powers need to rise up

By Fareed Zakaria
Monday, September 27, 2010

You can count on a few things during the annual U.N. General Assembly: New York traffic will be bad, the speeches will be worthy (if a bit dull) -- and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will say something absurd. This year the Iranian leader suggested that U.S. officials orchestrated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to save Israel and "reverse the declining American economy." (Has he noticed the actual effect the war against terrorism has had on America's fiscal state?) It continues to be a pity that a great civilization such as Iran is represented by such a character.

In other ways, however, the atmosphere this year was muted. I asked Israeli President Shimon Peres, who has been going to such gatherings for decades, for his read of the mood. "There is more worry than there used to be," Peres said. He described a general atmosphere of unease and uncertainty amid which emerging nations were jostling for influence. "I don't think it's that America is going down, but the world is becoming larger and more complicated."

There has been much worry about the activities of countries such as Brazil and Turkey, with many Americans arguing that the two countries have become troublemakers, cutting deals with Ahmadinejad and turning away from America. But we have to understand the dynamic that is altering the power status of these countries. Twenty years ago Brazil was struggling to cast off a long legacy of dictatorship, hyperinflation and debt. Today it is a stable democracy with impressive fiscal management, a roaring economy and a wildly popular president. Its foreign policy reflects this confidence and a desire to break free of its older constraints.

In a speech in Geneva on Sept. 11, Brazil's intelligent and ambitious foreign minister, Celso Amorim, explained that even eight years ago, the United States absorbed 28 percent of Brazil's exports but now, surpassed by China, buys only 10 percent. Africa, too, is now a major trading partner for Brazil. In explaining the country's new interest in Middle Eastern affairs, Amorim pointed out that Brazil's 12 million Arabs would constitute the fourth- or fifth-largest Arab nation in the world. In another recent speech, Amorim urged Brazil to be bold and expansive in its conception of its interests. "It is unusual to hear that countries should act in accordance with their means," he said. "But the greatest mistake one could make is to underestimate [Brazil's potential]."

Then consider Turkey. Twenty years ago, it too was perceived as a basket-case economy, dependent on American largess, protected by the American security umbrella and quietly seeking approval from Europe. It needed the West. But now Turkey has a booming economy; it is an increasingly confident democracy and a major regional power. It is growing faster than every European country, and its bonds are safer than those of many Southern European nations.

Its foreign policy is becoming not so much Islamic as Ottoman, reestablishing a sphere of influence it had for 400 years. Abdullah Gul, Turkey's sophisticated president, explains that while Turkey remains resolutely part of the West, it is increasingly influential in the Middle East, Central Asia and beyond. "Turkey is becoming a source of inspiration for other countries in the region," he told me in New York last week.

The newly rising powers -- China, India, Brazil -- rightly insist that they be more centrally involved in the structures of power and global decision making. But when given the opportunity, do they step up to the plate and act as great powers with broad interests? On trade? Energy use? Climate change?

No. Many of these countries want to be deferred to on matters of regional peace and stability. Yet they continue to pursue their national interests even more zealously. Perhaps the most egregious example is South Africa, which insists that it is Africa's natural leader. Yet the country has been shamefully absent in the efforts to rescue the people of Zimbabwe and Sudan from the tragedies unfolding in their lands.

Says Shimon Peres, "You can call yourself a decision maker, but if you are not ready to donate, to sacrifice life, to take risks -- not because your country is being attacked but because peace is being put into danger -- then it's more of a perception than reality."


For more Post opinions on rising powers, read Robert Kaplan's op-ed on China's developing sea power, Robert Samuelson's column on the makings of a trade war with China and Lally Weymouth's interview with Turkish President Abdullah Gul.

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