By Paul Starobin, National Journal
© National Journal Group Inc.
Friday, Dec. 1, 2006
It is one of the great unmentionables in American politics: the idea that superpower America could ever be something less than No. 1 in the world. Or is it? While listening to a speech by a prominent visitor to his school back in the fall of 2003, historian Paul Kennedy of Yale University recalls just about falling off his chair. The speaker was former President -- emphasis on former -- Bill Clinton.
Invited by the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Clinton was nearing the end of his talk when he elaborated on what he called a core difference between conservative Republicans and Democrats like himself on how they view America's role in the world. "A lot of respectable opinion," he allowed, backs the conservative idea that America should act like "we're the biggest, most powerful country in the world now. 'We've got the juice; we're going to use it.'"
Then Clinton gave his point of view. "But if you believe that we should be trying to create a world with rules and partnerships and habits of behavior that we would like to live in when we are no longer the only military, economic, and political superpower in the world, then you wouldn't do that. It just depends on what you believe," he said to the applause of his adoring audience. "It depends on what you believe," he repeated.
Kennedy had a particularly good reason to be startled. Long before, in 1987, he had come out with a fat book called "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers." His argument was that the United States suffered from "imperial overstretch," the classic malady that in past centuries had afflicted such titans as Spain, France, and Great Britain, and thus faced a relative decline in its global power. Kennedy even broached the possibility that the United States might someday no longer be No. 1. Say what? For his heresy, Kennedy was savaged in certain quarters. And then he was ridiculed: With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Uncle Sam never looked more dominant. Its "unipolar moment," in the phrase of conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, seemed destined to be a long one.
These days, Kennedy is looking less like a heretic and more like a prophet. He still teaches at Yale, and I recently caught up with him on the telephone. He suggested that I do a Google search on the phrase "imperial overstretch." The search produced 104,000 entries. The first listing was an article from Jane's, the well-respected British-based analyzer of global security trends. The piece asked, "Can the U.S. afford to send its troops here, there, and everywhere?" That was Kennedy's question 19 years ago.
His point made, Kennedy told me that "managing relative decline" remained the task for America. If anything, he added, today's geopolitical climate is even more hazardous for the United States than was the environment of two decades ago. "There are now more players on the globe who can screw us rather more effectively than we can screw them," the historian said.
Recent headlines underscore that observation. Consider those from a single day, October 17. In the Middle East, "The American era in the region has ended," Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a Financial Times op-ed, citing the tide of radicalism that is swamping Washington's efforts to steer events in civil-war-bloodied Iraq, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad-ruled Iran, and Hamas-led Palestine. A nuclear North Korea? "It's China's Problem," was the headline for a Washington Post op-ed by columnist Anne Applebaum. Ah, yes, China: Its holdings of foreign currencies, The Wall Street Journal reported in a page-one story, "will top $1 trillion -- a sum greater than the annual economic output of all but nine countries." About 70 percent of China's holdings are in U.S. dollar assets. All told, as the Financial Times pointed out in a subsequent editorial, China's reserves are "enough to buy Citigroup, Exxon, and Microsoft, with enough spare change for General Motors and Ford, as well."
Let's fast-forward the possibility that Clinton broached. Let's think about a world in which America is no longer No. 1 -- a world, gulp, beyond American hegemony. This would be a world in which the "American Goliath," in the phrase of the Johns Hopkins University foreign-policy analyst Michael Mandelbaum, no longer "acts as the world's government." Or, if that characterization of America's global role seems overly benign, this would be a world in which the American "Superempire," in the phrase of British historian Bernard Porter, with military forces now operating in about 150 of the world's 193 countries, no longer reigned supreme. It would be a world, too, in which the likes of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez would be deprived of an easy target at which to toss darts. What might that world look like? Four possibilities come to mind.
In his 2005 book "The Case for Goliath," Mandelbaum's core thesis is that America acts not as a kind of empire, bullying lesser subjects purely for its own selfish ends, but as a world government for the society of nations, providing necessary "public goods." The most important such good is security. Mandelbaum is not arguing that America is motivated by altruism -- he is saying that America, in following its own global interests, is benefiting everyone. He offers this analogy:
"The owner of a large, expensive, lavishly furnished mansion surrounded by more-modest homes may pay to have security guards patrolling his street, and their presence will serve to protect the neighboring houses as well, even though their owners contribute nothing to the costs of the guards. That is what the United States does in the world of the 21st century."
Mandelbaum does not dwell on what an American withdrawal from this role would mean for the world, except to say, "The world would become a messier, more dangerous, and less prosperous place," perhaps yielding "a repetition of the great global economic failure and the bloody international conflicts the world experienced in the 1930s and 1940s." Whatever the "life span" of America's role as the world's government, he writes in the book's last sentence, other countries "will miss it when it is gone."
The grimmest possibility is a 21st-century global version of the Dark Ages that afflicted Christian Europe after the fall of Rome in the 5th century. In "The Coming Anarchy," a 1994 Atlantic Monthly essay, the writer Robert D. Kaplan held out West Africa as a premonition of the future -- the "symbol of worldwide demographic, environmental, and societal stress, in which criminal anarchy emerges as the real 'strategic' danger." It will be a world of "disease, overpopulation ... the increasing erosion of nation-states and international borders, and the empowerment of private armies, security firms, and international drug cartels," as already characterizes West Africa. And a world of 21st-century chaos, it can be added, is one in which 21st-century barbarians might have access to chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.
Another possibility is chaos not on a global scale but on more of a regional one. While Europe was experiencing its Dark Ages, which lasted six centuries, the Islamic world was undergoing a renaissance, as Muslim scholars safeguarded writings of ancient Roman and Greek sages and made pioneering advances in mathematics and science. By that parallel, the darkest spot of a world of post-U.S. hegemony would be in and around America, today's Rome -- but there might be sunshine elsewhere.
It may be, though, that such renderings of chaos are too gloomy. As the science writer James Gleick reminds in "Chaos," his 1987 best-seller, "chaos and instability" are "not the same at all." The essence of a chaotic system is not an absence of balance but an inherent unpredictability. Thus, weather patterns and the stock market have a chaotic quality -- but they are not lacking in self-adjusting orderly principles. So it might be in a footloose world without any hegemon.
In this regard, Thomas L. Friedman -- a New York Times columnist, an inveterate optimist, and the advancer of the idea that, as the title of his best-selling book puts it, "The World Is Flat" -- offered an intriguing idea at a recent forum in Washington sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The world of the last half-century has been tracing an arc, Friedman said. The Cold War was the bipolar world, with the U.S. and the Soviet Union keeping things in check, and this stage, he continued, was followed by the unipolar world of American dominance -- which, in turn, is already starting to give way to a decentralized one in which the key force is not any one state or set of states but the technologically empowered individual.
"I think we are just at the beginning of many polarities," Friedman said. This is a happy version of chaos -- in which everyone, as Friedman notes, can be his or her own uploader of video on the Web site YouTube. This world would be not a Hobbesian nightmare but a garden of libertarian delight, a power vacuum that nature would not abhor but embrace, in which the political equivalent of the butterfly effect would become the rule. (In the butterfly effect, the beating of an insect's wings in, say, Lima, helps determine the weather in Beijing.)
Thinking about chaos in this fashion can stand geopolitical orthodoxy on its head. Thus, the standard idea that a state or group of states needs to guard the oil lanes is dismissed by some analysts as an anachronistic fixation of control freaks. Oil shipments do not require the protection of military power any more than trade in computer parts does, Ivan Eland, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a libertarian think tank, likes to argue.
The truth is, even our "unipolar" world is, to a significant degree, an irregular one -- a world of political, economic, and cultural butterfly effects. If America relinquishes its role as hegemon, the chaos quotient may well increase. But whether this turns out to be a positive or a negative for the world is, well, unpredictable.
The Nixon Center, a Washington think tank known for its "realist" approach to foreign affairs, recently convened a roundtable on the subject of "the limits of U.S. power." One participant was Graham Fuller, a former vice chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council. He suggested an effort in imagination: "What would the world be like if the U.S. didn't exist?"
That's quite a question -- but the idea behind it is akin to this "beyond hegemony" exercise. (Credit where due: It was Fuller's question at that forum that planted the seed for this article.) Fuller's answer, which he expanded on in an e-mail, is that without the role now played by the U.S. as the hegemon, the likely new world would be an old-fashioned multipolar one held together by great-power states. In this analysis, chaos is virtually always bad, and nation-states, even in the 21st century, matter as much as ever.
The best case for such a world is that it might achieve a rough balance, as did 19th-century Europe after the defeat of Napoleon by a great-power alliance that included Great Britain and Russia. Order in that system, which lasted almost 100 years, until the outbreak of World War I, largely depended on the big powers checking themselves, for fear that if any of them tried to reach for too much, the others would gang up on the offender.
Achieving a 21st-century multipolar balance, though, stands as a trickier proposition.
After all, for most of the 19th century, the leading military and economic players were all European. By contrast, the current century is shaping up as a "post-Eurocentric" one, in the phrase of E. Wayne Merry, a former U.S. diplomat who served in Moscow, East Berlin, Athens, and Tunis. In practical terms, Merry noted in an interview, any new multipolar balance would have to involve America, China, the European Union, India, Japan, and Russia.
In this kind of world, the principal powers would have their own tacitly accepted spheres of influence. Lesser powers would fall under their sway. Thus, China would presumably absorb Taiwan and inherit the problem of North Korea. China and Japan, the historic competitors for supremacy in East Asia, would have to reach an accommodation -- without fighting a war, one would hope. Moscow might try to take back Belarus, Georgia, and Ukraine. NATO might disappear, as a relic of America's superpower days; the European Union would be solely responsible for defending its territory. Counter-terrorism would be chiefly a regional responsibility, too.
As a culturally diverse country, with immigrants from every corner of the planet, America conceivably could thrive in a post-Eurocentric, multipolar world. With its security responsibilities scaled back from global to hemispheric, with hundreds of thousands of troops returning to U.S. soil from Europe, the Middle East, and South Korea (which alone hosts 30,000 American soldiers), the imperial-overstretch problem might be solved. For the U.S. taxpayer, a "Come Home, America" strategy would mean several hundred billion dollars of annual savings -- at least half of the Pentagon budget, now totaling some $500 billion, according to Eugene Gholz, an advocate of this tack who teaches at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas (Austin). "The world is not likely to blow up" if America opts out of its role as global cop, Gholz said in an interview.
Still, if stability in a multipolar world is to depend on big-power police forces taking care of business in their own 'hoods, who would perform that function in the Middle East, the planet's most turbulent region? No question is more vexing. For centuries the region has been under the sway of outside powers, from the Ottoman Empire to the French, British, and American empires. America's departure would leave a vacuum. Among Middle Eastern Muslim countries, neither Egypt nor Iran, the two most populous states, has the status of an accepted power broker; nor does Saudi Arabia, which has the biggest bank account and is the cradle of Islam but whose monarchy suffers in the region from popular dislike of its historically close security relationship with the United States.
Given sharp regional tensions between Sunni and Shiite sects, it is conceivable that a civil war, spilling outside of Iraq, would have to be fought to settle top-dog status. Perhaps a rough balance could be achieved in a grouping pitting a nuclear-armed Israel against a nuclear-armed Islamic country, such as Iran. But it is likely that if Persian Iran gains nukes, then Arab countries like Algeria, Egypt, and Syria will try to match that feat, Nawaf Obaid, an adviser to Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, said at a recent roundtable at the New America Foundation in Washington. (He skirted comment on my question of how the Saudis would react; some analysts believe that the Saudis might seek protection under Pakistan's nuclear umbrella.)
It is understandable why countries like France and Russia, chafing at America's global dominance, view a multipolar world as a desirable one. But would a multipolar world ever be stable? "I don't think stability exists anywhere, except in death," Merry, the former diplomat, said.
The Chinese Century
Forget about the messy multipolar possibility and suppose that Mandelbaum is right: The world needs a dominant power to act as the world's government. If America can no longer fill that role, if the American Century ends, then the leading contender to succeed the United States is China. Paul Kennedy, for one, sees a new Chinese Century as a possible outcome of the decline of the American superpower.
This would be an unprecedented role for the Chinese: In the past they have acted as, at most, a great regional power. But America, it might be recalled, didn't become the world's hegemon by design -- it happened in a somewhat accidental, zigzag kind of way, assisted by the instinct of the great European powers for their own jugulars. So it could be with China.
Bogota is a bit far from Beijing, you might observe from a spin of the globe. And yet at universities in the capital of Colombia, The Washington Post reported on its front page recently, the locals are taking lessons in Mandarin Chinese from instructors sent there by China's government. "If you don't know their language, you're lost," one student told the newspaper. Similar courses are offered throughout Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina.
China is a growing player in Latin America for the same reason that it is becoming heftier in Africa and the Middle East -- a planetary search for oil, copper, cobalt, iron ore, timber, and other raw materials needed to sustain its amazing economic growth. Venezuela, Sudan, and Iran are among the oil producers cutting deals with China. With a population of 1.3 billion and counting, China is currently importing some 40 percent of its oil -- by 2025, that dependency will reach 75 percent, according to a projection by the U.S. Energy Department. Already the world's fourth-biggest economy, behind America, Japan, and Germany, China could be No. 1 by that time, say some economists. It will almost certainly be the biggest energy importer.
A basic principle of a hegemonic system is that weaker powers, even those with a cultural aversion to the strongest one, tend to pick a winner and go with it. Consider the case of China and Russia. Eric Kraus is based in Moscow as the managing director of the Nikitsky Fund, which invests in Russian securities. For years he has taken note of Russia's relations with China -- a country toward which Russians historically have had a kind of primitive fear. His assessment is that Russia will be no obstacle to China's rise: "Given her very limited means of controlling Chinese ascendancy even in the unlikely event that she chose to do so," Kraus said in an e-mail to me, "Russia will be increasingly likely to throw in her lot" with China.
Bradley Thayer, a strategic-studies professor at Missouri State University (Springfield) who recently wrote an essay for The National Interest titled "In Defense of Primacy" (of the U.S.), is among those who take seriously the possibility of China as a successor hegemon to America. I asked Thayer to reflect on what the world might look like if China were the dominant power. In a note, he started out by observing, "For the first time in the history of the West, a non-Western power would dominate it far more thoroughly than the Ottoman threat, the closest historical example.... We can imagine that would be a severe blow to the confidence of the West." (Subscription Required)
And in a China-dominated world, Thayer continued, "there would be little progress on global human rights, so the spread of liberal political freedoms would be stultified.... Authoritarian governments worldwide would get a boost because they would know that the [People's Republic of China] is not going to object to their form of government. Almost all that liberalism values... would be weakened. The big exception would be capitalism. The trade and monetary regimes would continue to flourish with Beijing calling the shots."
Certainly a sunnier view of a Chinese Century can be taken. But does anyone doubt that this epoch would look a lot different from the American one? Even now, "in parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, the so-called 'Beijing consensus' on [the efficacy of] authoritarian government plus a market economy has become more popular than the previously dominant 'Washington consensus' of market economics with democratic government," the Harvard political scientist Joseph S. Nye Jr. wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last year. Control of the world would pass from an aggressively idealistic values empire to a supremely pragmatic mercantile one.
The good news for America, if the Chinese Century comes to pass, is that a values-neutral Beijing presumably would let America govern itself as it wants. So the United States could still have its White House and Congress and two-party system and midterm elections and independent media and all of that. Nobody would be forced to eat with chopsticks. And a burden -- the burden of being the target of envy and animosity merely for being No. 1 -- would slip from America's shoulders onto China's. "The first rule of international politics," Thayer noted, is "nobody loves a hegemon."
The great uncertainty is whether China could become the hegemon without having to defeat America in a military engagement. The stewards of the exhausted British Empire essentially turned over the keys to the new crowd in Washington -- and the Brits could console themselves that an American Century at least would continue the rule of the "English-speaking peoples" of the world, a concept that Winston Churchill cherished, even though it exaggerated the degree of Imperial Britain's global clout. ("Only the English-speaking peoples counted.... Together they could rule the world," Churchill told John Foster Dulles, secretary of State under Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s.) It's hard to imagine Washington handing the keys to Beijing.
China could stumble. We all remember those predictions, back in the 1970s, that Japan was going to run the world. If neither America nor China is able to act as the world's government, if a multipolar balance cannot be achieved, if a dark sort of chaos beckons, then the next stage of global order could be -- World Government.
This might sound like the plotline of the "Left Behind" series, or someone's idea of a dystopian horror novel.
But bear with me. The prospect for World Government (yes, the capital letters are important, because we capitalize the names of nation-states) is an organic one. The idea is not that tweedy-pants diplomats will convene amid canapes in Geneva and lift a glass of Pouilly-Fuisse to a global sovereign to which the great powers have bequeathed their nuclear weapons in the interest of Perpetual Peace. The idea is that the seeds of World Government are already in the soil of world politics and will of their own accord blossom as America loses its grip on its hegemon role. And it will thus be World Government -- not a coming Chinese Century or a new Multipolar Balance -- that keeps order.
"Global governance is here," Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, argues in her 2004 book "A New World Order." How so? The key concept is "global networks." According to Slaughter, "Terrorists, arms dealers, money launderers, drug dealers, traffickers in women and children, and the modern pirates of intellectual property all operate through global networks." But "so, increasingly, do governments," she asserts:
"Networks of government officials -- police investigators, financial regulators, even judges and legislators -- increasingly exchange information and coordinate activity to combat global crime and address common problems on a global scale. These government networks are a key feature of world order in the 21st century."
Global government networks, Slaughter notes, do not yet constitute a World Government. But if the process is organic, like the growth of a redwood forest, then it could be that the networks are just the early manifestation of something destined to be quite large. Indeed, some nation-states are already ceding sovereignty to permanent supranational institutions. The International Criminal Court, established in 2002 at The Hague, is a permanent tribunal with the power to issue its own arrest warrants. America is not a signatory to the treaty that created the court -- in fact, Bush administration officials and many in Congress and elsewhere argued passionately against it -- but more than 100 other nations are. If American global clout ebbs, then such ventures could become more numerous and could acquire sharper teeth.
The World Government idea has its deepest roots in Europe -- in philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and in poets ranging from Dante in the 14th century to Alfred Tennyson in the 19th. (In his 1842 poem "Locksley Hall," Tennyson "saw the Vision of the world.... And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.") It is an idea that appeals to utopians of a certain kind -- and yet, so, too, was the idea of a European Union, which, out of the ashes of World War II, grew to become a concrete political and economic reality (with considerable American help); and in an organic kind of fashion, a half-century later, it gave birth to the euro, the currency of 12 E.U. countries, including historic enemies Germany and France. Who would have thought?
It may be that the E.U. model -- more than the talkathon United Nations one -- could serve as the blueprint of a future World Government. Today the euro, tomorrow the universo -- with an image of Kant on the bill? (If you think the restaurant fare is good in Brussels now, wait until it becomes the capital of the planet.) But if the E.U. precedent holds, it could take not only the end of American hegemony but also some kind of global catastrophe -- akin to World War II but on an even larger scale -- to establish a World Government with the power to enforce its own "world security" policy.
The architects of a World Government might be drawn from the ranks of a group that already exists -- let's call it the Cosmopolitan Global Elite. Its members can be found in the upper strata of countries all over the world, including the United States, although Americans are not the most fervent element. U.S. members include executives of multinational corporations, "economic globalizers" who are "fixated on the world as an economic unit" and are part of "the nucleus of an emerging global superclass," the Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington wrote in a 2004 essay in The National Interest. (Subscription Required)
"Comprising fewer than 4 percent of the American people, these transnationalists have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite's global operations. In the coming years, one corporation executive confidently predicted, 'the only people who will care about national boundaries are politicians.'"
This "emerging global superclass" also includes intellectuals who feel morally repelled by nationalism as a barbaric, atavistic sentiment best confined to soccer stadiums. And don't be surprised if young Americans one day join a World Government quest. While some might be attracted to the YouTube version of a happy chaos, a riff on the popular 1960s idea of doing one's own thing, others might see that pursuit as selfish and instead come to favor a global leviathan as the ultimate multicultural community ideal, the supreme political expression of "We Are the World."
In a March poll of 18-to-24-year-olds by Harvard's Institute of Politics, an overwhelming number -- 72 percent -- said that the United States should not take the lead in solving international crises and conflicts but should let other countries and the United Nations do so. Unlike older Americans, they have no personal remembrance of the heroic chapters of the Cold War, when America was the world's darling. Today's 18-year-old college freshman was still in diapers when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. That person, or maybe it would be his or her son or daughter, might find the idea of World Government -- kinda cool.
Do Unto Others
One lesson of this exercise is that alternatives to American global dominance are indeed imaginable, but some are frightening and others are barely in embryonic form. The easiest conceivable alternative is a multipolar alignment, which may or may not be stable and may or may not be a promoter of values -- freedom, the pursuit of happiness -- that Americans tend to regard as universal. The Chinese Century presumably would be good for China, but for whom else? World Government has a certain logic going for it, in the Age of Globalization, but resistance from nationalistic quarters continues to act as a brake.
For America, the chief consequence of no longer being the hegemon could be as much psychological as material. "In reality, the only truly exceptional feature of the U.S.A. is her belief in her exceptionalism," the historian Bernard Porter writes in his new book "Empire and Superempire." That belief, or myth, would be dealt a death blow by the end of hegemony. And because America's superempire "exceeds any previous empires the world has ever seen," as Porter notes, the fall could be all the harder.
In mentioning the possibility of an age of post-U.S. dominance, Bill Clinton, in his speech at Yale, was not saying that it would arrive any time soon. Indeed, a fair argument can be made that, appearances of imperial overstretch notwithstanding, the sun is nowhere close to setting on the American Century. Consider just one rather amazing statistic: America, all by itself, accounts for more than 40 percent of the world's total spending on research and development. Demographics? With its population now more than 300 million, the United States is not reduced to offering cash subsidies to women to have babies, as is ex-superpower Russia. And, as much as some critics are bothered by this, as a magnet for immigrants America has no peer.
It could be that the current anxiety over whether America has "peaked" is just another spasm in a regularly occurring cycle. In 1970, with the United States bogged down in Vietnam, President Nixon worried that America looked like "a pitiful, helpless giant." Seventeen years later, in the wake of the Ronald Reagan revival of a big-stick America, Paul Kennedy came out with his ominous-sounding book. Now, like clockwork, amid concerns that George W. Bush has overstretched the imperial fabric, the baying is again heard that America's "primacy" days are drawing to a close. Call it the 17-year angst.
And yet, unless one believes that America is not subject to the laws of history, its global supremacy will be, at some point, no more. Clinton's real point is that it is the better part of wisdom for America to keep this in mind, to act now with the foreknowledge that the U.S. will not, for all time, be top dog. It's the sort of advice a political party can profit from when it wins an election. The pace of change in geopolitics may often seem glacial compared with the vicissitudes of electoral politics, but the same lesson applies, as it does in all parts of life: What goes around comes around.