The Frugal Superpower: America’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era By Michael Mandelbaum • PublicAffairs • 2010 • 240 pages • $24.95
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?
This is the American future that The End of Arrogance, by Steven Weber and Bruce Jentleson, conjures up. In one of the better metaphors of how America’s position has shifted, the authors suggest that Americans have to trade in a Ptolemaic view of the United States at the center of the geopolitical universe for a Copernican reality check. America still has considerable gravitational pull, but others do not orbit around us.
Far more ambitious and unsettling than the Mandelbaum and Johnson books, The End of Arrogance expands the terms of the debate over America’s predicament. In Weber and Jentleson’s reading, the central issue for the future is not America’s fiscal position, its wars, or even the rise of other powers. Instead, America has to learn anew how to prevail in an “insistent and unrelenting, ruthless and inexhaustible” global competition of ideas.
In this heated ideological contest with players ranging from China to Salafi jihadism, all the principles Americans cherish are viewed with skepticism or disdain by much of the world. “American power is thought to inherently, almost necessarily, cause injustice and humiliation to others, particularly (but not uniquely) Muslims,” they write. Because of the explosion of social media and the online availability of pictures and videos, our dirty laundry flutters for all to see, so that American ideals of peace, free markets, and democracy are betrayed by images of hooded prisoners, stories of the devastation that Wall Street greed unleashed, and pictures of dead bodies floating in a major American city. The authors quote an Indian official who lamented: “What…am I supposed to tell my people about Hurricane Katrina?…How much of a model of democratic governance can you be when you did so little for people in need in your own country?” Contrary to Mandelbaum’s assumptions, Weber and Jentleson assert that billions of people have come to believe that our system is neither desirable nor functioning well.
Weber and Jentleson contend we’ve underestimated our competition and dismissed ideas that, while not necessarily fully developed, might be appealing to the rest of the world. Take China, a rival with a strong hand to play. It has not sought to spread a counter-American ideology, and it has mostly embraced the current international system. Weber and Jentleson argue that China has become a very attractive role model for developing countries because it has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in less than two generations. State authority that trumps individual rights but delivers growth and upholds deeply held nationalist feelings is a compelling bargain to many. This is the “one man, one cell phone” model that prizes economic performance, not democratic process.
The authors caution that nations are just one variety of rival. From the Gates Foundation to Hezbollah, non-states also compete in the ideas marketplace. No one power can dominate the fractured, digitally charged audience. Followers self-segment into fairly impenetrable ideological silos. Another power won’t replace America at quarterback; there will be no quarterback.
For America to compete in this new landscape, Weber and Jentleson call for nothing less than an entirely new “leadership proposition” for the United States that embodies “modern conceptions” of a just society and world order. The first part of this proposition involves America recognizing the harsh choices other societies face. Having won the “geopolitical lottery in material abundance and security,” Americans have a very difficult time understanding the straitened circumstances that constrain other nations. We have to abandon the idea that there is only one right path to a just society. Washington, the authors argue, should leave aside its calls for democracy, which is only one means to an end, and instead pursue “justice for the sake of justice.” In practice, “[r]eally striving to provide for basic human needs on a consistent basis is one big way to pursue justice for its own sake,” explain the authors.
The second part of their leadership proposition calls on the United States to embrace “mutuality,” meaning that American power has to serve common interests. Washington has to share authority for decisions that affect others, and has to follow the rules that everyone else follows, including about when it is acceptable to use force. These are difficult adjustments, but “[w]hat mutuality offers in return,” the authors write, “is a platform on which to build a world order leadership proposition that will advance three mutual goals: security, a healthy planet, and a healthfully heterogeneous global society.… No major global player has yet articulated a world order proposition around these ideas. That is a huge opportunity for American leadership.”
Weber and Jentleson suggest that in order to seize the opportunity, Americans will need to face a number of hard choices. Should the United States encourage greater burden-sharing in the provision of public goods? If so, how? Are we willing to sacrifice control for greater capacity? If China does step up to accept global leadership in some areas, can we take “yes” for an answer from Beijing? Weber and Jentleson are critical of the current set of international institutions that attempt to forge cooperation and promote burden-sharing. They don’t seem to think reform is worth the candle, and envision a new set of bodies geared to addressing threats globalization helped create: carbon emissions, the global trade in slaves and human organs, disease, and migration, to name a few.
But what Weber and Jentleson do not tell us is how we can be sure these new institutions will work better than the old. A less dominant American role seems as much a recipe for gridlock as it does for fairer and more effective institutions. Without America’s power, vision, and resources, how will a large and diverse group of world-power wannabes agree on enough to set the course of these global efforts? For all their excellent analysis, the authors’ vision for a future world order remains murky.
America’s relative decline is inevitable–China and India are at much earlier stages of economic development and enjoy much higher growth rates. Eventually, because they each have about four times the population as America, their economies will probably become larger than ours. But there are also many reasons to think that, if America makes the right choices, it will remain an indispensable world leader, and its citizens will continue to lead safe, prosperous, and meaningful lives in a multipolar world. In an excellent article in The Atlantic Monthly about whether and how America is declining, James Fallows noted that America has a penchant for deep self-doubt. “Pick a year over the past half century,” Fallows wrote, “and I will supply an indicator of what at the time seemed a major turning point for the worse.” Yet he continued, “What is obvious from outside the country is how exceptional it is in its powers of renewal: America is always in decline, and is always about to bounce back.”
While the past isn’t replicable, success remains possible. In a time of flux, America retains key fundamentals: a tolerance for individual failure, which encourages productive risk-taking; a willingness to accept immigrants (so far); well-developed capital markets; excellent universities; an abundance of fertile land; rule of law; oceans on both coasts that deter attacks; diversity; and the ability to reinvent our society (we did just elect a black president). Compared to Russia, China, Brazil, and most of Europe, demographics are also on America’s side. Of the pivotal rising powers, only India can claim a better ratio of workers to retirees in the decades ahead (though, as Weber and Jentleson point out, the developing world as a whole is in the midst of a population explosion). This combination of attributes is, yes, still exceptional. It means that if we make sensible choices, most Americans will have the opportunity for safe, fulfilling lives.
Moreover, relative power is not the life or death issue it once was because the most acute threats Americans face do not come from other nations. Of course, countries will continue to compete, as their interests, priorities, and strategic plans won’t usually coincide. But they will also continue to cooperate, however imperfectly and slowly, because they need one another’s help in battling shared enemies, be they terrorists, viruses, or pirates. Even in a more multipolar world, therefore, America will retain great influence because its leadership in achieving this cooperation is vital. No other power has the same motivation to seek consensus or ability to do so–especially if the United States can adopt the mutuality mindset that Weber and Jentleson describe.
Yet America’s strides to preserve its capacity for global relevance must begin at home. Success hinges on a country’s ability to attract talent and foster innovation. The challenge for America is to empower workers, increase access to good primary education (especially in math and science), invest in basic research and development, shore up our infrastructure, bring the deficit under control, reverse income stratification, ensure a steady flow of immigrant talent, and develop clean-energy technology. I’ve called these policy challenges “formestic” because these issues of domestic policy have profound implications for America’s place in the world.
Mandelbaum shows a similar appreciation of the connection between our domestic policies and foreign affairs. His policy solution is a major gasoline tax that would become the new one-stop-shop “containment” doctrine of our time–a revenue generator, a planet-saver, an energy innovation booster, and an Iranian cash-depriver all at once. But while Mandelbaum paints a gas tax as an act of global leadership, it is a political non-starter.
For their part, Weber and Jentleson’s unusual constellation of policy recommendations seem even less politically tenable. It is hard to imagine our lawmakers offering up valuable future technology for carbon-capture sequestration for free to the global commons, permanently allocating 5 to 10 percent of the defense budget to post-disaster relief, or eliminating all farm subsidies.
Why should it be so difficult to enact perfectly worthy proposals such as these? And why is it so tough to reorient our posture to account for a changing international landscape?
It’s not because of public will. A majority of Americans (53 percent) believes that America’s role in the world economy in the next century will, in fact, be smaller, and a similar majority (55 percent) says that would be positive or “neither good nor bad,” according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. Yet, according to Gallup, 63 percent of Americans describe their outlook for the United States during the next 20 years as “very optimistic” or “optimistic.” As a friend recently remarked, “We are in decline, but I feel fine.” But many policy-makers in Washington–especially neoconservative ones–do not feel so fine with an America that cannot or will not dominate.
More than ordinary Americans, our politicians are caught up in America’s status in the global pecking order when the pecking order of nations is no longer as relevant. As Fallows puts it: “The question that matters is not whether America is ‘falling behind’ but instead…whether it is falling short–or even falling apart.” Yet stubborn triumphalism is the twin of declinism and the high-fructose corn syrup of American politics–it’s cheap, sweet, and everywhere. Moreover, far too many politicians are clinging to our exceptional military might as the foundation of our national identity, which is an unhealthy option. As long as policy-makers refuse to absorb domestic and international realities, then we’ll continue to tread water, not making the changes needed to transition into our new role, where what is exceptional about America is not just its might, but the opportunities and protection that it provides to its own people and to those around the world.