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BIPR | Two-and-a-Half Power World: In the New Disorder, America and China are the Big Two Who Outclass Russia. Who Will Anchor Stability?
Two-and-a-Half Power World: In the New Disorder, America and China are the Big Two Who Outclass Russia. Who Will Anchor Stability?

November 2, 2023 - 15:30

Joseph Joffe, Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs, Johns Hopkins University, SAIS

Event Recap

On Thursday, November 2, Bologna Institute for Policy Research (BIPR) Director Sergey Radchenko welcomed to campus Josef Joffe, former publisher and editor of the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, for a dialogue on the emerging global political order.

Whereas the international structure during the Cold War was bipolar and unipolar in the brief era of American hegemony in the 1990s, Joffe described the world today as a "Two-and-a-Half-Power World." According to Joffe's categorization, the United States, China, and Russia qualify for great power status. Russia, however, is held back from full parity with the U.S. and China by its lack of "usable power."

"You can't just count square miles and nukes because these are not usable power," said Joffe. "They are like a fortune in the bank—a big fortune in the bank—that doesn't buy you anything except existential deterrence… In the day-to-day business of nations, other assets matter far more."

Compounding Russia's paucity of conventional, practicable power is its faltering economy and declining population.

"At heart, Russia is an underdeveloped country with nukes," said Joffe. "Mainly, it lives off the land as an extraction economy depending on oil, gas, and ore."

Finally, Russia has failed to produce "soft power," which represents a nation's cultural influence around the world. Thus, Joffe concludes that Russia is only a "half-superpower," weak in comparison to the U.S. and China.

While there is a clear division between Russia and the other global superpowers, the balance of power between the U.S. and China is also unequal. The U.S. remains the preeminent global actor, unmatched even by China in its soft, conventional, and economic power.

"We were in Ferrara last night, and there were hordes of kids celebrating Halloween, which is an American holiday," said Joffe. "And what follows Thanksgiving? It's Black Friday! [...] That kind of imitation, even when it is American holidays and shopping orgies alien to the European tradition, that is 'soft power.'"

China, Joffe argued, is still unable to compete with American soft power—which plays an essential role in determining the global perception of the U.S.

"American soft power will end when the rest of the world makes movies like Barbie and Oppenheimer," said Joffe. Butt note: Just because all the world wears jeans, that does not make them pro-Americans? Oppenheimer and Barbie is a different category because these movies insinuate themselves in our imagination and shape it. Sociology calls this a "demonstration effect". Note also how teenies have adopted American body language and slang. That soreads cultural influence Russia and China don't have. The question remains: How does cultural power translate into political influence?"

In spite of the challenge of overcoming American cultural and political influence, China is far better positioned than Russia to displace U.S. hegemony. Additionally, Chinese leadership is acting more strategically and rationally than the Putin regime's adventurism.

"Russia relies on brute force," said Joffe. "Xi Jinping plays a far more subtle game to dismantle the American-led liberal order."

In response to the rising threat from China, argued Joffe, the U.S. and its allies should go back to the Cold War-era containment strategy and take advantage of alliances both China and Russia do not have. While ideology played an essential role in the Cold War, circa 1946-1989, it is now thankfully missing vis-à-vis Beijing and Moscow. This should make cold-eyed problem-shooting easier.

"The oldest rule of statecraft has kicked in again: power has to counter power—patiently and adroitly while always keeping the door open for the common interest," said Joffe. "For history shows that expansionists will read friendly signals as a green light."

Two-and-a-Half Power World: In the New Disorder, America and China are the Big Two Who Outclass Russia. Who Will Anchor Stability?

hosted by Professor Sergey Radchenko

Joseph Joffe
Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs, Johns Hopkins University, SAIS

Josef Joffe is Professor of the Practice of International Affairs and Senior Fellow of the Kissinger Center, and has a long history with Johns Hopkins, where he earned his MA and later taught nuclear strategy in the mid-1980s. Joffe was also educated at Swarthmore (BA), the College of Europe and Harvard (PhD in Government).

His career has been divided between journalism and academia, Europe and the United States. He has taught at SAIS, Harvard, Stanford and Munich University, was twice Regent Fellow at the University of California and a Visiting Lecturer at Princeton and Darthmouth. Joffe has held research positions at the Woodrow Wilson Center, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Institute for International Studies at Stanford and given guest lectures at many universities, ranging from Amherst to Zurich University. He has been a Distinguished Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution since 2004.

In Germany, Joffe has served as editorial page editor at Süddeutsche Zeitung (Munich) and editor of the weekly Die Zeit (Hamburg). He has had columns, essays and book reviews in: The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, Times, Financial Times, Time, Newsweek, New Republic, Politico, Atlantic, New York Review of Books and Commentary.

He has published scholarly contributions in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, International Security and The American Interest, which he co-founded with SAIS scholars Eliot Cohen and Frank Fukuyama. In 2020, he co-founded the successor magazine American Purpose.
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