From 1000-1800 AD, Asia, Africa and Latin America -- today's developing world -- accounted for 65 to 75 per cent of global population and income. Europe rode to world dominance through the industrial revolution, innovations in transport and communication, and colonialism, during which the developing countries suffered dramatic relative losses.
According to economist Deepak Nayyar, from 1870 to 1950, Asia's per capita income plummeted from one-half to one-10th of West European levels. Asia has been bouncing back since in economic output, industrialization and trade.
The importance of Brazil, China and India lies in their future economic potential which has already translated into present political weight. The early 19th century saw the displacement of Asia by Britain as the dominant actor of the times; the early 20th century, of Britain by America. Is the early 21st century witnessing the beginning of the end of U.S. influence and the re-emergence of China and India?
The demonstration of the limits to U.S. and NATO power in Iraq and Afghanistan has left many less fearful of "superior" western power. Abusive practices in the "war on terror" and the great financial collapse have made them less respectful of western values.
The leading developing countries have strongly outpaced the industrial world in GDP and trade. In 2009 China overtook Germany as the world's top exporter of manufactured goods, having previously edged past the U.S. as the world's biggest auto market in unit volume. China and India will be major players in setting energy, mineral and commodity prices. The new scramble for Africa is between them.
As China, India and Brazil emerge as important growth centres in the world economy, the age of the West disrespecting the rest's role, relevance and voice is passing. As power and influence seep out of the trans-Atlantic order and migrate towards Asia and elsewhere, how, and by who, will the transition from the Westphalian to a replacement system of structuring world affairs be managed? Conversely, how will the newly empowered big players of the Global South manage the transformation from perennial spoilers to responsible globalizers?
The Copenhagen Accord on climate change was a deal struck by Brazil, China, India and South Africa with the U.S. The problem of global warming was created by the developed countries who have deeper carbon footprints and greater financial and technological capabilities for mitigation and adaptation. But the deadly impacts of climate change will not be distributed in proportion to those responsible for it. The poorest will suffer the most. The problem will continue to worsen not because developing countries aspire to western affluence but to affordable food, housing, clean water, sanitation and electricity.
Westerners must change lifestyles and support international redistribution. Developing countries must reorient growth in cleaner and greener directions.
Western leaders and commentators pinned the blame for the Copenhagen fiasco on China and, to a lesser extent, India. This is hard to fathom. Like China, the U.S. came not to negotiate but to sign an agreement on its terms. Both were equally constrained by domestic growth requirements and political compulsions.
The scattergun information noise from western countries has obscured their culpability in refusing to honour Kyoto and Bali pledges, instead pointing a collective finger at developing countries' rejection of binding emission cuts. The latter blame the West's past industrialization for the present crisis. Westerners highlight present and future growth in energy consumption by China and India as the main factors taking us to and beyond the tipping point. Developed countries talk of net national emissions, developing countries of per capita emissions. In some respects the West is effectively "outsourcing" its pollution to China as the world's factory. Multinationals set up business in China which produces goods for western consumers and pollution for Chinese cities.
On another front, soft power is a complement to hard power, not its substitute. Major media voices from the globally dominant powers wield matching international influence. Waning hard power shrinks soft power, including media influence.
Last fall, the New York Times told Manmohan Singh to resist calls for more nuclear tests which "would be a huge setback -- for India's relations with Washington, for the battle against terrorists, and for global efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons." It advised India to focus on economic growth, not more nuclear weapons, and urged Washington to "leave no doubt about how much India would have to lose if New Delhi makes the wrong choice."
The editorial drew a swarm of angry responses from online commentators.
India's government is answerable to the people of India, not to Washington. The Times should have tendered the same unsolicited advice to China, like India a poor country. On nuclear arms, inspections and threats to cut off aid for non-compliance, the U.S. should apply the same policy and standards towards Israel, a "close buddy." Why should India, which lives in a tough neighbourhood with unstable, undemocratic nuclear powers and state sponsors of terrorism, bear the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) cross for the rest of the world? If the roles were reversed and the U.S. had to deal with an unstable nuclear neighbour launching terrorist attacks with the support of the military, would the Times still write the same piece? It should examine America's own repeated violations of nuclear disarmament obligations under the NPT. Moreover, Washington had knowingly winked at Chinese transfers of nuclear materials and design to Pakistan since the 1980s.
As this shows, newspapers are read in real time in countries around the world. Educational levels and standards and reading habits have improved greatly from previous generations. A better informed global readership can make instant comparisons of like cases and detect double standards and hypocrisy immediately. Far from influencing policy of other countries, offering advice to foreigners that is obviously at odds with its own country's policy risks loss of credibility for globally branded newspapers.
A much needed global moral rebalancing is in train. Westerners have lost their previous capacity to set standards and rules of behaviour for the world. Unless they recognize this reality, there is little prospect of making significant progress in deadlocked international negotiations. All sides must be prepared to make adjustments and accommodations. A bullying take it or leave it approach will not do. Not just the process but the structures and rules of the game for conducting negotiations must be agreed to jointly.
The New York Times could devote one column a week on a rotating basis to a commentator of its choice from Brazil, China, India and South Africa. Each is capable of providing one columnist a month to sensitize Americans to alternative perspectives, not merely on their own country but on the critical international issues of the day.
Nelson Mandela reportedly said that the terms of a struggle are usually set not by the challengers but by the dominant elite whose power, status, privileges and authority are under assault. Equally, once the aspiring new members are inside the club, they too must adapt their behaviour and accept the burden of shared management of a fragile world order.
History is shaped by the interplay of power and ideas. China, India and others must use their new power to advance ideas for the common good; multilateralism is more than the pursuit of national interests by international instruments.
Ramesh Thakur is director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs, distinguished fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation, and professor of political science at the University of Waterloo. His new book on 'Global Governance and the UN' will be published shortly by Indiana University Press.