Saturday, May 10, 2008

We Won.

Promoting his new book The Post-American World in Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria notes the relative decline of the U.S. in every arena save the military one:

We are living through the third great power shift in modern history. The first was the rise of the Western world, around the 15th century. It produced the world as we know it now—science and technology, commerce and capitalism, the industrial and agricultural revolutions. It also led to the prolonged political dominance of the nations of the Western world. The second shift, which took place in the closing years of the 19th century, was the rise of the United States. Once it industrialized, it soon became the most powerful nation in the world, stronger than any likely combination of other nations. For the last 20 years, America's superpower status in every realm has been largely unchallenged—something that's never happened before in history, at least since the Roman Empire dominated the known world 2,000 years ago. During this Pax Americana, the global economy has accelerated dramatically. And that expansion is the driver behind the third great power shift of the modern age—the rise of the rest.

At the military and political level, we still live in a unipolar world. But along every other dimension—industrial, financial, social, cultural—the distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American dominance. In terms of war and peace, economics and business, ideas and art, this will produce a landscape that is quite different from the one we have lived in until now—one defined and directed from many places and by many peoples.

He goes on to argue that the U.S. retains substantial economic strength, mainly because of its unique attractiveness to energetic, creative immigrants, but will never dominate the world as it has since 1989. Maybe, maybe not, but I think we are entitled to a victory lap or two.

In a 2003 speech to Congress, Tony Blair remarked, “As Britain knows, all predominant power seems for a time invincible, but, in fact, it is transient. The question is: What do you leave behind? And what you can bequeath to this anxious world is the light of liberty.” He turned immediately from that to the war against militant Islam, but it is striking how much of what decent people dreamed of in the darkness of the early 1940s, and then during the most frightening stages of the Cold War, has come to pass. America has built a profoundly better world during its moment in world history.

Global trade is as free, and as widespread, as it has ever been. The construction of binding agreements among nations to restrain their protectionist urges has created wealth all over the planet, and moved hundreds of millions of people from the grinding poverty and constant flirtation with death that has always been their lot to the prosperity invented by the Western world. The US certainly did not invent the idea of free trade as a moral crusade (the British did, during the debate over repeal of the Corn Laws), but used its influence to entrench economic freedom around the world, from which political freedom may (but need not) germinate.

Consensual government too has spread worldwide. It is true that a huge proportion of the global population still lives under dictatorship of one sort or another (and parts of it, e.g. Russia, have slid back just in recent years), but poke through the data at Freedom House on the extent of civil-liberties protection and democratic governance now, and compare it to the 1970s. Even where authoritarianism still prevails, as in China, it is of a much more relaxed sort then it used to be. China still has prison factories and executes large numbers of criminals, but one man (Mao Zedong) no longer has the power to starve millions, to turn society upside down, to empty out the cities. Chinese citizens (they are not "comrades" any more) have the power to sue some of their public officials and win sometimes, even if corruption is still rampant. Prosperity has given the average Chinese considerably more control over his destiny than he had only twenty years ago, not least the freedom to leave if China limits him too much.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, war is in decline. There are terrible exceptions, particularly in the Congo, but both internal civil conflict and nation-state war have been falling for twenty years, in part because there is more to lose from warring given how much there is to gain from trading.

When FDR and Churchill wrote the Atlantic Charter, and when Harry Truman desperately tried to organize a meaningful response to Soviet expansionism in the late 1940s, things looked bleak. Our “crises” now (several hundred thousand home foreclosures, higher food prices generating riots in the more isolated and economically mismanaged regions of the world, which conspicuously now do not include the historical basket cases of India and China) seem trivial next to the things that used to preoccupy our leaders.

To be sure, there are irritants in the "post-American world." The ideology of Islamism, with its atavistic inability to live peacefully with people of other faiths and its efficacious promulgation primarily through a sort of transnational, oil money-funded mafia family, is one. Another is the inevitable rising tide of nationalism in China, which will behave like other rising powers before it and demand respect at the geopolitical table commensurate with its rising economic heft. This nationalism (multiplied by resentment over past humiliations at the hands of the West) could, as it did in 1914, lead to reckless war.

But our grandparents would’ve been glad to have these problems. So enjoy your moment on the victory stand, America. Costly though they have been for your own constitutional values, your sacrifices have borne extraordinary fruit, mainly for people around the world who are not even Americans. It is more and more an American world, no matter how "post-American" it is.


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