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'The Reckoning': Challenging America's stubborn dream

After two decades of acting as though American hegemony was a permanent state of affairs, America is struggling to adjust to new realities. Michael Moran explores the country's great dilemma in his new book.
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The cover of Michael Moran's, "The Reckoning: Debt, Democracy and the Future of American Power," published in April 2012. (Courtesy)

The following is an excerpt from “The Reckoning: Debt, Democracy and the Future of American Power,” by GlobalPost foreign affairs columnist Michael Moran and published this month by Palgrave Macmillan.

Looking 20 or 30 or even 50 years into the future, the numbers are clear: the relative share of virtually everything measurable with be less American in the future than it was in the years since World War II. From its share of global GDP to university graduates, from life expectancy to military power (yes, even military power), America can hope to retain a lead later in this century, but not to be the dominant player it was in the last.

One might think this would prompt the network of think tanks, economic policy institutions and military academies to start studying the implications for America and the world so that American policymakers can begin adjusting to new realities. Yet so far, rather than starting to reengineer the treaties, back-room promises and global institutions the US devised in the years since 1945, American policymakers act as if the game is the same – just with a new set of players. We act like a kid picking a team for sandlot baseball, sizing up the potential value of new players with an eye to an augmenting an aging existing bench and countering heavy hitters on the other (dare we say, enemy) team.

This is a poor strategy. For one thing, it assumes that the US owns the playing field. For another, the template seems to be borrowed from the 1950s – an assumption that, in the 21st century, global politics will continue to revolve around an American champion leading a defense of democracy and capitalism with most of the world either signing on or cheering from behind the walls of repressive rivals.

From where will Captain America draft these new recruits? Judging from the recent public statements and policy moves of US leaders, diplomats, and corporate executives, the plan is to look for new, more virile players – Brazil and India – to replace the worn out Europeans on the Dream Team roster.

On paper, this approach has a lot to support it. Brazil and India, the legitimately democratic half of the BRICs, each dominate the economic and military affairs of their regions — South America and South Asia. Economically, they have as many differences as similarities, but their dynamic growth rates, large labor forces, improving educational levels and infrastructure, and relative openness to FDI put them, alone among the world’s other emerging economies, in the same category as China.

But no one bothered to ask Brazil or India. With the US enmeshed in an unhappy alliance with Pakistan, India’s arch rival, prospects for a truly close US-Indian relationship remain strained. India’s decision to purchase a French fighter aircraft as the basis of its air force modernization this year was influenced by concerns about intelligence leakage to the generals north of the border.

Besides India’s aversion to alliances, the country remains suspicious of America’s motives in Asia and of the US brand of capitalism. In a land of a billion people, remember, a good number – probably more than the entire population of the US – still wish the Soviet Union, rather than the US, won the Cold War.

Brazil, too, has its issues with Washington. In public, meetings between US and Brazilian leaders stress common ground: democracy, market economics, a desire to maintain stability. But genuine conflicts of interest exist over global currency rates, climate change policy, Brazil’s ties with Iran; its increasing reliance on trade with China, which displaced the US as Brazil’s chief trading partner in 2011.

Parag Khanna, the geostrategist and author, notes that it will be very dangerous for the United States to continue to assume that countries like Brazil or India — or any of the other democratically ruled middleweight powers like Indonesia, Turkey, or Mexico — will fall over themselves to play the kind of role in the twenty-first century that Britain played in the latter part of the twentieth century.

“The US now must face a world in which its power is declining, in which it is just one of several competing brands,” he says. “You can see that in how often America must go it alone, militarily or economically, whether it wants to or not. In that sense, the world is really becoming not anti- American but simply non-American.”

“Non-American” may be a good way for average Americans to think about these issues, too. Often in the past, the assumption — sometimes correct — has been that all countries seeking to engage the United States were also seeking to somehow become Americans.

While this may have been true to a small extent in war-ravaged Europe in the late 1940s, it never really applied to India, Brazil, or countless other larger countries that managed to steer a relatively neutral path through the Cold War. These countries, as indebted as they are for the globalization and democratization of global markets that enabled them to “emerge” in the first place, are hardly likely to sign up to help perpetuate another American Century.

As for Europe, it will have its hands full with fiscal and demographic problems for the foreseeable future. Without exception, all of Europe’s former powers are declining – some steeply. British and French defense spending is being slashed, their economies shrinking, and the one country in good shape, Germany, is losing relative ground to emerging manufacturing powers. Meanwhile, the Germans have taken America’s post-war admonitions about warmongering to heart. Berlin will not be joining any American crusades in the near future.

The US and its foreign policy must adjust to these realities or ossify into a brittle, defense power doomed to fight rear-guard actions that needlessly raise tensions among nations who we should be welcoming to the “top table” of decision-making and influence.

To expect, after all those decades, that any of these emerging powers would simply fall in line behind the leadership of a declining United States — particularly after the geopolitical and economic mistakes of the past decade — is worse than wishful thinking. It is collective national denial.

From The Reckoning by Michael Moran. Copyright © 2012 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/groundtruth/the-sandlot-doctrine-americas-persistent-dream