America is no longer the world’s only pivotal power. Americans are adjusting—but can their leaders?
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.
ISSUE #19, WINTER 2011
Unlike America, Egypt must aim for true Democracy, allowing any and all people to form a Political Party.
American Democracy does not allow this.
The Moslem Brotherhood will not desire or need to copy Iranâ€™s Political system. The Egyptians are much more educated by the Cyber Democracy of the Internet.
Feb 11, 2011, 9:16 PM
Nina Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Democracy: A Journal of Ideas:
Join us for a discussion of Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer’s “The ‘More What, Less How’ Government”
on March 9 at NDN. Liu and Hanauer will be joined by Michael Lind of the New America Foundation, Megan McArdle of The Atlantic, and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. Click here to RSVP
Democracy: A Journal of Ideas:
In our Winter 2010 issue, Shadi Hamid wrote
of the dilemma confronting the U.S. in Egypt. His closing lines: “Egyptians, along with Arabs and Muslims throughout the region, have demonstrated their desire for substantive political change. It is time we did the same.”
Democracy: A Journal of Ideas:
President Obama today announced the appointment of Gene Sperling as the new director of the National Economic Council. Readers who are wondering what to expect from Sperling can find their answer in the pages of this journal
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