Rise of the Declinists
With America mired in two wars and a recession, is the country being eclipsed on the world stage?
The Post-American World By Fareed Zakaria • Norton • 2008 • 259 pages • $25.95
Over two decades ago, Yale historian Paul Kennedy’s book The Rise and Fall of Great Powers rocketed up the bestseller list, where it remained for nearly a year. As Americans sought to understand a pivotal moment of dramatic change, the massive tome placed the country’s challenge in the context of 500 years of history. Although the Cold War was ending and the United States had reason to feel triumphant, Kennedy warned of the “enduring fact” that the “sum total of the United States’ global interests and obligations is nowadays far larger than the country’s power to defend them all simultaneously.” With Germany and Japan seemingly bound for economic dominance, the prevailing public mood was one of deep pessimism about America’s ability to withstand the crosswinds of global change. Kennedy’s book appeared to confirm the worry that the United States, like Spain, France, and Britain before it, was a great power in twilight.
Of course, the following years were not marked by American decline, but by an amazing period of global dominance–what foreign policy wonks called “unipolarity” or “primacy.” During the 1990s and the early years of the twenty-first century, the U.S. economy boomed, its military capabilities increased, and its political influence reigned. Many around the world complained about what the French called America’s “hyperpower,” while U.S. policymakers and pundits were concerned not about others’ relative strength, but their weakness. They found the Europeans too anemic to be reliable partners, while they fretted over teetering economies from Mexico to South Korea. And rather than fearing the Russian bear, experts worried about the country’s implosion. The lone superpower appeared invulnerable.
Those years now feel distant. Although by any measure of power (economic and military might, political weight) the United States is still dominant, there is again a growing sense that its time is up. As a result of the overreaching policies of the George W. Bush Administration and the changes fueled by economic and technological globalization, America is strategically exhausted and, as the New America Foundation’s Parag Khanna argues in his book The Second World, its global position is like a stretched rubber band that could snap into decline very quickly.
Like Kennedy, Khanna–and Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria, in his new book The Post-American World–set out to tell the story of how huge global trends are diluting America’s power and eroding its influence. Both authors are perceptive observers steeped in history, and they have much to offer through good old-fashioned reporting and vivid storytelling. By exploring the political and economic transformations underway in places like China, India, and Europe, these books provide a valuable window into the present and future of global politics. But Khanna and Zakaria do more than look out at the world; they also hold a mirror up to America. To a significant degree, there’s reason not to like what they see.
And yet despite the abundant similarities between the two books, progressive policymakers would do well to understand their differences. Ultimately, whereas Khanna is committed to a declinist view of the American future, Zakaria presents a workable framework for getting the country out of its rut and back on a path to global leadership. It is this difference that has been a fundamental divide among the center left, and as we envision a post-Bush foreign policy, it threatens to reemerge.
Much of what Khanna and Zakaria argue will be familiar to Thomas Friedman fans. As countries modernize and become more economically and technologically sophisticated, the barriers to entering global competition are becoming far less steep. Individuals have become empowered to do both good and bad, and the battle for ideas and innovation is fierce. Yet while both authors agree with Friedman that the world is getting “flatter,” they do not see it turning into one integrated whole. Instead, globalization is causing cleavages and increasing rivalries, with new power centers emerging to challenge the United States. Globalization may be the dominant trend, but geopolitics lives on.
For Khanna, the world’s map is being redrawn among three twenty-first-century superpowers: the United States, China, and the European Union. He asserts that each represents its own empire, using its own distinct diplomatic style–America’s emphasis on coalitions, Europe’s on consensus, and China’s on consultation–to maneuver and try to dominate the global chessboard. The most important arena for Khanna is what he describes as the “second world” states such as Turkey, Brazil, and Iran, those that have a hybrid of globalization’s modernity but are still saddled with third world problems like extreme poverty and deep corruption. It is here, Khanna asserts, where the fate of geopolitics will be decided. “The future of the second world hinges on how it relates to the three superpowers,” he argues, “and the future of the superpowers depends on how they manage the second world.”
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