There is a striking contrast between the West's current position -- and the medium- and long-run potential it still maintains -- and the atmosphere of anxiety that predominates. Europe is weighed down by pessimism, France by melancholy. But if Europe cleans up its finances, kick-starts sufficient levels of growth, and improves efficiency without becoming too technocratic, its future will be enviable.
Europe's primary handicap in the multipolar scuffle that has just begun is its pessimism. It should take a cue from Franklin D. Roosevelt and embrace the idea that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." The United States, meanwhile, continues to believe in its role, in its capacity for recovery, and in itself. This American religion -- optimism -- is still intact, even if the structure of the electorate that rehired Obama represents a spectacular and irreversible demographic shift. And by giving the incumbent president a second chance in spite of a number of disappointments, the majority of Americans demonstrated an understanding that the United States will not be able to meet the challenges ahead by moving backward. But there are two Americas. Mitt Romney's America and Obama's America have fundamentally different conceptions of how best to respond to the rise of the "rest," and this division will no doubt make consensus on foreign policy very challenging.
From the outside, the psychological gap between the United States and Europe is growing wider. The striking contradiction between the global nature of the problems that must be confronted and the national frameworks within which decisions are made is strengthening the resolve of many countries to maintain enough power to impose their will on the international system -- or at least to prevent the system from imposing the will of others upon them. These countries are not putting their confidence in a hypothetical "global government," which will no doubt remain a utopia (though we could see some form of "collective government" in the future). The human race is characterized by thousands of years of differentiation; a few decades of Internet has not homogenized or made it "flat." Progress, therefore, will depend on cooperation, just as it always has.
Multipolar competition will occur alongside growing interdependence and mounting pressure from the global environmental time bomb. This situation could lead to increased confrontation and potentially even conflict. Responsible actors must therefore work to deepen cooperative norms. But the road to international cooperation will not be straight, smooth or without turmoil, especially because economic and financial competition, even if it is better regulated, will produce unstable and shifting power relations.
If this period of intense competition is to be managed peacefully, all the major powers -- starting with the United States and China -- must cede certain claims and parts of their mythology, without relinquishing the defense of their legitimate vital interests. These countries must then help their populations understand and accept such shifts, despite the existence of fears and the instinct for power. This will not be an easy task. Governance in China will be more difficult in the future than it has been during the past 25 years. And it is unclear whether the American people will learn to accept what their president clearly understands -- that its leadership, if it is to endure, must become more sophisticated, at times exercised "from behind" and at other moments practiced by proxy. Will the United States come to terms with this and benefit from a clear understanding of the new realities and forces at work in the world? Will it accept that, even if it does this, American leadership will still be relative, not absolute? The way the United States, which increasingly resembles a global-nation, responds to this challenge will have a major impact on the world of tomorrow and especially on its European allies. If the United States fails to respond -- and if Europe sinks deeper into despair -- the West won't just lose its monopoly on global power; it will be shut out of the global power structure altogether.