America is no longer the world’s only pivotal power. Americans are adjusting—but can their leaders?
Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope By Chalmers Johnson • Metropolitan Books • 2010 • 224 pages • $25
The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas By Steven Weber & Bruce W. Jentleson • Harvard University Press • 2010 • 210 pages • $22.95
Before the election of 2008, a spate of books tried to make sense of America’s place in a world in which new global powers were rising fast. These volumes–among them Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World and Parag Khanna’s The Second World, not to mention the one I wrote with Mona Sutphen, The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive As Other Powers Rise–took different routes to arrive at a shared conclusion: In a multipolar and interdependent world, America will no longer be able to call all the shots. While not anti-Bush diatribes, the books argued that the Bush Administration’s script of primacy and domination was unrealistic and counterproductive.
One massive economic meltdown and a transformational American election later, three new books have come to warn us that even a more visionary president with a healthy respect for the rest of the world won’t be enough to put America back in the driver’s seat. The economic collapse has heightened our sense of anxiety at home. And challenging times lie ahead–not only are other powers still rising, as these volumes document, but America now has fewer resources and even less legitimacy to deal with an ever more complex global order.
These books accurately limn a multipolar world in which America can no longer dominate at will. But they underplay some crucial truths about the United States and the world that suggest a safe and successful future for Americans. America retains great strengths, and nations now depend on one another for their prosperity and security. And yet there’s little indication that most of our leaders recognize this new global reality–or that our politics is up to the task of steering the ship of state in the right direction.
In The Frugal Superpower, foreign-policy scholar Michael Mandelbaum warns that American resources are now constrained to such a profound degree that the United States will be forced to slow down its heretofore hyperactive foreign policy. The blame lies in our grim fiscal prospects. With our massive debt–much of it accumulated from 2001 to 2007 through tax cuts and the war in Iraq, which Mandelbaum estimates may cost close to $3 trillion all told–and Social Security and Medicare promises coming due, America will not be able to afford anything like the expansive foreign-policy role it has played since World War II. No more humanitarian military interventions, he predicts, and certainly no more nation-building. In the nearly seven decades since World War II, Mandelbaum writes: “In foreign affairs as in economic policy, the watchword was ‘more.’ That era has ended. The defining fact of foreign policy in the second decade of the twenty-first century and beyond will be ‘less.’ ”
For Mandelbaum, the question now is: How can America continue to be the world’s “de facto government” on a shoestring? Using allies more and oil less is a start, he says. Mandelbaum does not advocate a radical reimagining of America’s global role. Though America’s overwhelming power has led to blunders, our core ideas of democracy and open markets are enduring. In Mandelbaum’s accounting, the rest of the world would be grateful if American hegemony could last–appreciating the “reassurance” of America’s military presence in Asia and Europe, the U.S. Navy’s safeguarding of the world’s most important trade routes, the massive American consumer demand that has powered the world’s economy, and other positive functions of U.S. power. Mandelbaum concludes, “Because what the United States does beyond its borders is, on the whole, extremely constructive, everyone, not only Americans, has a great deal to lose from a reduction in American power.” They will miss us when we’re gone.
Or perhaps they won’t. The late Chalmers Johnson made a career out of declinism; he formerly believed that America would be eclipsed by Japan’s rising sun. Dismantling the Empire, published a few months before his death in November, documents the destruction and resentment caused by America’s expansive military presence. We are getting our comeuppance for decades of mischief, waste, and arrogance, Johnson asserts. President George W. Bush took us to new lows, and President Obama is not reversing our course fast enough. Johnson is critical not only of the squandering of American money and power, like Mandelbaum, but also of how America has exercised that power over many decades.
America, Johnson warns, has chosen the “suicide option,” replaying the classic dilemma of the overstretched imperial power. We should be receding; instead, we are doubling down. Whereas Mandelbaum worries that a smaller defense budget will mean that America cannot fulfill its worldwide security chores, Johnson thinks that without a smaller defense budget, America is surely doomed: “The failure to begin to deal with our bloated military establishment and the profligate use of it in missions for which it is hopelessly inappropriate will, sooner rather than later, condemn the United States to a devastating trio of consequences: imperial overstretch, perpetual war, and insolvency, leading to a likely collapse.” He does not seem to hold much hope that America will make the right choice to demilitarize.
But what if America’s economic decline in a globalized world is wholly different compared to its dips in decades past? What if citizens of the world greet American retreat from the world stage not with tears or cheers, but with a yawn? What if cherished American ideas like democracy and free-market capitalism are no longer what they want to hear about?
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