October 20, 2006

Is America's Unipolar Moment Waning?

It has been almost twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall--so how are we doing? Not great. Sanger:

...it is hard to remember a moment when the world’s sole superpower seemed less positioned to manage a fractured world. It’s not only that American hard power is tied up in Baghdad and Kabul; Mr. Bush has acknowledged that soft power — the ability to lead because you are admired — is suffering, too. Abu Ghraib “kind of eased us off the moral high ground,” he volunteered at the news conference the other day.

Mr. Bush’s approach in the nuclear conundrum has been to act a bit like a major investor: gather partners with the most at stake in solving specific problems, and have them do the management — with plenty of American oversight. But like manufacturers across America, Mr. Bush has discovered that outsourcing has its frustrations: It’s hard to maintain quality control.

China is the current case study. It has led the “six-party talks,” the agonizing process of bringing the United States, North Korea, Japan, South Korea, Russia and China into one room. The last substantive meeting was more than a year ago, when all the parties signed on to some principles — denuclearization, eventual aid to the North — that blew apart as soon as everyone left.

We outsourced Iran policy to the so-called Euro-troika so far too, with similarly underwhelming results. And our credibility lies in tatters in Iraq as Shi'a militias overtake towns, Baghdad remains an anarchic killing fields, and we remain unable to put down the Sunni insurgency. This is just with regards to our hard power, as Sanger points out. Regarding our so-called 'soft power', we lost our moral high ground not only with Abu Ghraib, but also with Guantanamo, with seeing a major U.S. political party run on and indeed brag about allowing torture for 'interrogation' techniques, and shredding habeas corpus for certain categories of detainees in our custody. As a result, we increasingly risk not being seen as a so-called 'benevolent hegemon', therefore resulting in intensified pressures on our primacy as other countries are likelier to try to array themselves against us. In short, this Administration has done untold damage to us, and this righteous letter from Pat Tillman's brother sets out the bill of grievances as well as anyone else has--straight from the gut. Send them a message on November 7th: a blistering one of rejection.

Posted by Gregory at October 20, 2006 10:37 PM

We "risk" no longer being viewed as a benevolent hegemon? Sort of implies it hasn't already, you know, happened.

That's a very uncharacteristic soft-sell on your part, GD.

Posted by: Pooh at October 21, 2006 12:59 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

That's a very uncharacteristic soft-sell on your part, GD.

I'm assuming that was meant to be ironic, Pooh.... THIS, however, is very uncharacteristic of Greg

Send them a message on November 7th: a blistering one of rejection.


Posted by: p.lukasiak at October 21, 2006 01:17 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

G'day from Australia,

It's not only America that is watching what Bush has just done with the military commissions act of 2006, but many Australians have followed it all with interest as David Hicks has languished in Gitmo for 5 years without trial.

I can say from down under that the President passing that bill, has done more to disenfrancise America from it's allies than any other act of Bush. America is now a State that approves torture, and can now do so to it's own citizens, finding them guilty in a kangaroo court with evidence permited by getting it beaten out of someone, and putting the accused to death. We are shocked and bewildered down under that in just 6 years, after 200 years of history, that now fascism is showing it's ugly head over there. No longer is the US a shining beacon to follow, but a dark smear to avoid. It's morality lies buried in the train wreck of the Bush Presidency. In many ways we feel abandoned by America in that we continue to believe in the Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (that last one I have printed out on our kitchen wall) not to mention actually being able to go before a fair court.

Under the new Star Chamber America, I wonder what common ground we will have in the future.

Posted by: Peter at October 21, 2006 07:35 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Peter, your comments are well taken. This country has always aimed high, starting with the radicalism of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But has dragged in practice. Witness what a struggle it was to apply those concepts to women and blacks. We're STILL fighting to recognize gays as equal.
Wars can bring out the worst. Lincoln's insult to Habeus Corpus, FDR's crime against Americans with Japanese heritage, these were ugly. And we ought to have learned. So we'll take back our country in Nov and in 08', and send send the pathetic President Bush where he belongs, to a cell with the pathetic Private England.

Posted by: Goal at October 21, 2006 06:31 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

While entirely agree that the Republicans richly deserve to lose come November for all sorts of reasons, not sure that David Hicks has resonated down here in Oz quite as much as Peter suggests. There are plenty of media voices in both directions on his case.

That said, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo and the disgraceful detention and interrogation laws are massive own goals which have done the US great harm for little, if any, benefit. The notion that the US needs laws more restrictive than Israel's is bizarre.
(see here)

Though, as Goal says, well within the American historical pattern in times of crisis.

It seems to me that there is something of a double standard in commentary that underpins Sanger's article. If the US rounds up a posse and acts, it's being arrogant and unipolar. If it operates with other Powers, even letting them set the lead, it's being weak. I can't see that Dubya is doing any worse than Clinton on North Korea and arguably better because China is more involved. And Libya was always a much easier target than Iran. While anti-Americanism in Europe was strong when Clinton was President too.

This is not to say that poor performance in Iraq has not adversely affected the US's strategic position, or that Dubya's policies have undermined American "soft power" but it is also easy to overstate the case. It seemed to me that anti-Americanism in Europe was particularly intense just when the US was looking most powerful in 2003. Not surprising, when one thinks about it.

Posted by: Lorenzo at October 21, 2006 11:24 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I appreciate Lorenzo's comments. am in accord with his attitude, and appreciate the "damned if you do; damned if you don't" criticism of the Sanger article.

I do think, though, that Sanger misses a key driver. It's not enough to look at hard and soft varieties of power. The U.S., is far and away the most powerful cultural and economic force on a pretty flat earth. We project tremendous power in those two areas. We don't wield that power, in the sense of using it intentionally to achieve specific ends. Nevertheless, it has an enormous impact, globally. It's the impact of that kind of power; consumerism directed at American brands, sexual or social mores, etc., that significant strains of Islamic culture, particularly in the Middle East, find so offensive. It isn't Abu Ghraib that our enemies hate - that's a propaganda coup for them. It is "freedom." Not so much in the lofty sense that Bush tries to sell, but in the sense of license, disordered social mores.

As a superpower, the U.S. default position should be conservative. If you've got a good seat at the table, you try to keep it, you don't try to elbow other people out of their seats. You only act radically if there is a radical threat. Since your existance projects economic and cultural power that other societies are often likely to find corrosive, you ought to use the types of power you can manipulate; hard and soft, to ameliorate those corrosive effects and, when necessary, undermine growing threats. Bush's Iraq policy has been a disaster from this standpoint. His policy toward Iran and North Korea, so far, have been about as good as can be expected. Maybe we could afford a little less stand-offishness, but both those countries are ruled by wild-eyed radicals, and getting down into the mud with them is problematic.

Posted by: matt at October 22, 2006 05:14 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It seemed to me that anti-Americanism in Europe was particularly intense just when the US was looking most powerful in 2003. Not surprising, when one thinks about it.

Not at all surprising.

In 2003 we looked like a serious threat. Now we look like a major concern.

Of course they were more antiamerican when they feared us, than when they merely despise us.

Posted by: J Thomas at October 22, 2006 09:30 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I disagree with the strangely well-circulated mantra of latent Anti-Americanism in Europe, which simply became a bit more virulent in 2003. It's simply not true. In Western Europe the huge majority was clearly Pro-American all around, don't let a vociferous minority fool you. So was I, too. If you have trouble believing this, look at the poll numbers provided by Pew, which clearly indicate the _dramatic_ downswing starting with the way the Iraq war was engineered, and all the other well-mentioned issues later (Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the collapse of the casus belli, etc).

Also, Europe doesn't "fear" America as a threat to them - it never did. Even Anti-Americans don't. What Europe indeed despises is the latent (and in recent history, blatantly open) American exceptionalism - Sanger is fully on the money here - especially in modern times, when the disconnect between what America preaches and then does herself has never been so obvious before.

Just as a little hint how unaware America seems to be about the exceptionalism issue: Greg, your article seems to imply that had Iran or North Korea been handled "better", the American wish to keep them deprived of nuclear weapons would have been granted. An underlying unspoken assumption is that what America wishes, America is entitled to get. But Iran and North Korea are sovereign nations who are formally perfectly entitled to nuclear weapons too if they want to (Iran too should they cancel the treaty banning nuclear weapons). And while there are good reasons why this is undesirable to us, the point remains that for the rest of the world it's not clear at all that they should automatically side with America's interests by default. Especially when seemingly the only means to accomplish them (via military intervention) might be much more unfeasible than gritting your teeth and letting Iran have them.

To put it concisely, simply because America wants it, it doesn't mean that America gets it. In the Iraq war, the reaction of the Bush administration was first incredulity about the sheer insolence, and then scornful vilifications ("Old Europe" etc). Under these circumstances, it's not surprising that Soft Power is waning.

What Europe "fears" about America is something else: It's something which I've experienced myself. When America as the leader of the Western World acts, it basically commits not only itself and its allies, it commits the Western World as a whole. In other words: Even if a Western World nation disagrees with what America does, it will be kept co-responsible for it. It's like being a wife in a marriage where the husband goes gambling with what's on the shared bank account. This becomes troublesome when you see clear indications that the husband is drunk (with power), not thinking clearly (due to his rage) and rushes out of the house with the words "It doesn't matter what you think, you're irrelevant anyway".

The final nail in the coffin for many Europeans was that Bush was reelected, because in a way Bush was right: It _was_ a plebiscite about whether or not a majority of Americans thought that his conduct of Iraq and the policies around it was the right way to do, or at least more acceptable than the alternatives. What could have been "excused" as an unexpected lapse of reason from an back-then-unknown president the Americans elected now became the official choice.

Americans are seemingly born with a hardwired conviction that they're the good guys, no matter what (well, in most cases they are). But this is no self-evident truth for the rest of the world. And in those cases where the Americans are clearly wrong (and here, you could list a disturbing number of American's exceptionalism examples), they will be met with disapproval. It's incredible that this seems to be a brand new revelation for America. And for that alone, Sanger deserves some high praise!

Posted by: Mentar at October 22, 2006 10:18 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The dollar is in a holding pattern which shows no evidence of ending. The rest of the world, huge money investors and central banks, eagerly sop up our paper assets to fund our gigantic trade deficits and profligate consumption. The world has embraced the Wall Street paradigm of unlimited credit expansion and resultant asset inflation as the road to wealth. Our corporations are reporting record setting 'earnings'.

None of which has much to do with states, which is the point. While many wring their hands over the decline of states and statecraft the fact is that states don't matter much anymore so they are failing. Russia's mafia style kleptocracy is triumphant. China's Central Party is being rendered powerless in the face of the endemic regional crony capitalism. The disaster that is Americas foreign policy is a total non event to Wall Street, the center of the universe for all finance. Same goes for America's looming bankruptsy. That bankruptsy is a given by the way, and it matters not one bit.

The decline of states is the obverse of globalization. Globalization is privatization and it's rise has been founded upon the new the methods credit and money creation which almost totally bypass the state. (The Fed is quasi governmental and has played a crucial role but in the end the Fed is really a private enterprise). With credit and money creation unhinged from the state capitalism has finally reached it's goal of making the state a junior partner.

Worldwide thosands of individuals and families hold more wealth than many individual nations. The explosion of financial wealth worldwide is highly concentrated and while the holders of said wealth have varied interests in nationalistic terms they are united in their desire to make states their junior partner. Their success is no longer in question.

One can spend the rest of their life pondering the strategies and tactics of states but do so knowing that such is no longer the main engine of history.

Posted by: rapier at October 22, 2006 02:40 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

rapier, it's always hard to predict the future so I can't criticise you for doing it so poorly. And for all I know you might be right. Maybe this time the law of gravitation has been repealed and we can just keep going up.

However, you sound a whole lot like the guy who's jumped out a a plane with no parachute, and after falling a couple thousand feet says "I've reached terminal velocity! i could fall forever at this rate!"

Global capitalism is flying high, using the last of the oil as fast as they can. This is not sustainable. Governments know ways to stop international trade. It's easy. They mostly haven't done it yet because it's unpopular. But they can do it whenever they're ready, and each blame it on all the other governments. China in particular has well-established methods to deal with crony capitalists. Some of the wealth disappears when they do that, but the more that's been created the more is left behind when the capitalists are gone.

But then there's the other direction. A great big part of the world doesn't have a significant middle class. The USA does, I guess. And yet, the more middle class people i talk to, the more I start to wonder. Is there really a middle class or is it just a bunch of guys pretending? So, if we really are heading for a complete plutocracy, which side do you expect to be on, rapier? Will you be one of the super-rich, or will you be one of the poor? By Bayesian analysis, I can make a pretty good guess. I compare the number of non-super-rich who talk to me, versus the number of super-rich. The chance that you're the latter is very very small. Of course, if you wind up bankrupt with the midddle class it won't make any difference to history and all. You'll be as irrelevant as the US government -- more so. You can take comfort in that, if it gives you comfort.

Posted by: J Thomas at October 22, 2006 05:00 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I'm joining this particular thread in relation to the comments by the Aussies as I found them noteworthy, though that may make joining the discussion somewhat late or off-kilter as a result. But I shall do so anyway, as I empathize with their sentiments; I grew up in Australia though I'm American by birth, as my mum was Australian and my dad American. I have always been able to see American 'exceptionalism' differently than most Americans, as I have lived a number of years outside the U.S., and see it differently than many (I currently live in Japan). I could see it by way of the pride my father had for America and the longing he had to return to it, which is what we did when I was almost 12 years old.

Part of the American sense of exceptionalism does, as Mentar posted, seem to come from some inured sense that we can't do any wrong, and that it must be evident to those elsewhere. It informs our sense of democracy; it's good for us, so it must be good for others. And anything that advances that end must somehow be justifiable - even if it completely contradicts what democracy consists of, or what sort of decision-making an informed democratic polity would make. I think one could even sense how this overarcs into American society - how it is that American democracy permitted idiocies such as Prohibition and travesties such as segregation; how it can mount righteous outrage over abortion while sleeping soundly at night with the death penalty; how it could convince itself that it was for the good in Vietnam; how it could keep a straight face in speaking of democracy by immolating Cambodia; how it could allow itself to believe it was safeguarding it in America while flagrantly denying it in Iran through the Shah and in Chile under Pinochet.

Under Bush, there was nothing new then; only a reification of more of the same. That I have posted on other threads expressing my outrage does not change that fact. Yet it still does not deter me from my belief that Americans are capable of better (There. That's the Aussie in me coming out for you). But one thing I never see in any discussion of our notion of democracy - our reification of righteousness and bad choices. We somehow believe we can let ourselves see that we can be wrong after the fact and feel that it's in the greatness of America to be wrong in this peculiar way, something we somehow deny in other countries.

So the only thing I hope I might be able to add to the question of what makes Amercian exceptionalism what it is, perhaps might be this: it's in still being right when we're wrong, and reserving that right solely to ourselves - that it is even a right only we possess.

This will sound arrogant, but I don't want to be as such. Yet at this point, I'm glad only to be half-American, if only because it makes me at least half-belonging to the rest of the world. I would, if I were some magician or a chevalier with an inheritence, gladly give every young American the opportunity to leave their country for at least some time so that they may get an inkling of what the rest of the world sees and feels - that there is no democracy at the barrel of our gun, and nothing exceptional about either the ability or the right to wield even a gun. I also hope I can see this at least a little more clearly than a lot of Americans who have never left the U.S. - and that is not to take anything away from Americans who have, or the Americans who post here and who are just as rightly outraged as I am for our failure to live up to what we promise - or worse, to deliver something else and call it a promise.

Whoever said that democracy was a work in progress, a perpetually unfinished piece, was right.

Posted by: sekaijin at October 22, 2006 05:18 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Posted by: Finati - Your Outsourcing Partner at October 23, 2006 12:49 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I disagree with those who think that American exceptionalism was the reason that the American people supported the Iraq War, and re-elected Bush. While its true that Bush and many of his cronies are exceptionalists (although I would argue that Bush's exceptionalism is based on personal, rather than national, entitlement), Vietnam taught most of us that the USA is not "exceptional".

America basically went nuts after 9-11, needed a "daddy" to tell it what to do, and unfortunately "daddy" turned out to be an idiot named George W. Bush. So we followed "daddy" into Iraq, and rejected the opportunity for a new "daddy" in 2004 -- just as most children will continue to love their "daddy" despite his being an abusive jerk. It was exceptionalism, but fear, that was behind the american people's support for Iraq and Bush.... and it appears that Americans are finally coming to their senses and coming to terms with their fears, and will repudiate their "daddy" on November 7.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at October 23, 2006 04:01 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I'd point out that the US 'insourced' handling Iraq, and that's gone far worse than any 'outsourcing'.

Posted by: Barry at October 25, 2006 07:26 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Reality has an unpleasant way of intruding upon our theories. The U.S. and the West in general are simply unable to sustain the unique superioity they exercised for these last few centuries. Military adventurism will speed things along. The norms we have become accustomed too are transient.

Posted by: Tom at October 26, 2006 01:47 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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