Zakaria: Rising Powers Aren't Acting Like It

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the United Nations on Sept. 20. Lionel Bonaventure / AFP-Getty Images

You can count on a few things during the U.N.'s annual General Assembly. The 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 9/11 attacks to save Israel and "reverse the declining American economy." (Has he noticed the actual effect of the war on terror on America's fiscal state?) It continues to be a pity that a great civilization like 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 like 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 buys only 10 percent, surpassed by China. 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. Recently, in another 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 largesse, protected by the American security umbrella, and quietly seeking approval from Europe. It needed the West. But now Turkey has a booming economy, has an increasingly confident democracy, and is 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 Gül, Turkey's sophisticated president, explains that while Turkey remains resolutely a 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 said to me while 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 has insisted 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."

I wrote my first column for NEWSWEEK 14 years ago to the month. This is my last. I have been honored to write for a truly great magazine and a wonderful group of readers. Thank you.