September 18, 2007

Plummeting Prestige

Adam Gopnik, in a New Yorker profile of Nicolas Sarkozy, points out something I've increasingly noticed of late:

The catastrophe in Iraq has had an unlooked-for effect: not to stoke anti-Americanism in a new generation but to make America seem almost marginal. For almost two hundred years, Americanization in Europe has been synonymous with modernization—that’s why the Statue of Liberty stands in New York Harbor, as a gift of the Third French Republic, the fraught state that appeared after Louis-Napoleon’s Second Empire failed. It was a gift not from a complacent old world to a nascent new one but from a newborn republic to one that, after its civil war, was firm and coherent. The point wasn’t that Europe would not abandon us; it was that we would not abandon old Europe to the despots.

Now, for the first time, it’s possible to imagine modernization as something independent of Americanization: when people in Paris talk about ambitious kids going to study abroad, they talk about London. (Americans have little idea of the damage done by the ordeal that a routine run through immigration at J.F.K. has become for Europeans, or by the suspicion and hostility that greet the most anodyne foreigners who come to study or teach at our scientific and educational institutions.) When people in Paris talk about manufacturing might, they talk about China; when they talk about tall buildings, they talk about Dubai; when they talk about troubling foreign takeovers, they talk about Gazprom. The Sarkozy-Gordon Brown-Merkel generation is not unsympathetic to America, but America is not so much the primary issue for them, as it was for Blair and Chirac, in the nineties, when America was powerful beyond words.

Our prestige has taken multiple body-blows these past years. Meantime, rather than re-energize and focus anew on epochal shifts like China and India's rise, to take an example or two, our policy-making class instead remains almost wholly bogged down speaking about 'bottom-up reconciliation' in the wilds of Anbar and Diyala. (This is not to say we musn't spend significant time focused on carefully managing a gradual exit from Iraq, but anyways effectively doing so is something largely beyond the skill-set of the current national security team, and not the topic of this post besides).

More on this theme of declining American prestige here.

The US has suffered a significant loss of power and prestige around the world in the years since George W. Bush came to power, limiting its ability to influence international crises, an annual survey from a well-regarded British security think-tank concluded yesterday.

The 2007 strategic survey from the non-partisan International Institute for Strategic Studies picks the decline of US authority as one of the most important security developments of the past year - but suggests the fading of American prestige began earlier, largely due to its failings in Iraq.

John Chipman, the institute's director-general, said the "authority, prestige and reputation of the US is not what it might have been four or five years ago".

The deterioration of American power had led to a "non-polar" world in which other actors, such as Russia, had been able to assert themselves. [ed. note: This descriptive 'non-polar' might be slightly exaggerated, but certainly the moment of giddy, undisputed mid 90's unipolarity has passed us by].

The report says the US failure in Iraq had meant the Bush administration suffered from a much-reduced ability to hold sway in both domestic and international affairs.

This was evident, it says, from the president's failure to push through a new immigration bill, to the scant regard paid to US efforts to influence Israeli-Palestinian developments [ed. note: What U.S. efforts?] and Mr Bush's sudden acceptance of the need for action on climate change.

But a more fundamental loss of clout occurred at a strategic level. "It was evident that exercise of military power - in which, on paper, America dominated the world - had not secured its goal," the survey says. The failings in Iraq created a sense around the world of American power "diminished and demystified", with adversaries believing they will prevail if they manage to draw the US into a prolonged engagement.

We must be careful not to over-exaggerate any perceived American decline in power. Despite increasingly worrisome recessionary pressures (not to mention the still extant specter of inflation, the sanguine-seeming Bernanke 'put' of yesterday aside) the U.S. remains the world's economic powerhouse. Ditto militarily, despite being bogged down in Iraq, we can project force throughout the world in unparalleled manner. Still, the dollar is quite weak, stagflation could loom, economic competitors are rising, and on the national security front, the Iranians, for instance, have seen how our military fared poorly in Iraq, and to an extent, in Afghanistan too. We are not necessarily some pitiable paper tiger, but we've taken quite a few good upper-cuts of late, resulting in many a bloodied nose. And certainly, if we speak of "soft power", which I know is something sane players in the Bush Administration (read: Bob Gates) realize is critical, our reputation has cratered to an extent the damage done simply won't disappear just because Hillary Clinton comes into office, say. Said damage is real, and it will take a long time to fix, even assuming we don't careen off towards greater misadventures pre '09.

Posted by Gregory at September 18, 2007 09:44 AM

Are we still the fattest country? Because if so, then pound for pound, we rule!
According to the Onion, by weight, we're now the majority in Iraq.

I kid, but seriously now, I think it's the attitude of the Republicans and their supporters immediately after 9/11/2001 that did more to harm our image than anything else. "You're either with us or against us." As far as I"m concerned, that's the single most embarrassing thing Bush has ever said. Dictating to countries that had been seriously dealing with terrorism within their borders for decades (England, Spain, Russia, for example) and then expressing petulant surprise when those and other countries decline to join/continue in our ill-conceived "mission" in Iraq. Obviously, the things mentioned above are factors as well, but national "prestige" is also a function of PR, and the Bush administration has the crappiest PR of any since Nixon. They may have surpassed Nixon, even. Losing is one thing. Being an asshole about it and blaming everyone but yourself is another. I kinda wish Bush would just stop talking publicly altogether. Just hole up in the WH or down in Crawford and wait out the rest of his term. Every time he makes a speech, he harms our image further. I don't care about HIS image, I decided he was an idiot after that "you're with us or against us" speech. But does he have to take the rest of us down with him? The only consolation I have now is that I never voted for him.

Posted by: LL at September 19, 2007 11:44 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

As an Ameircan living in London, I agree with almost all of this. It's heartbreaking, in a way--when we moved here in the 1990s evereone loved America. No more. Bush has poisoned the well so badly the recovery will take a decade at least, if not more. We're pretty much perceived as a country of racist bullies at this point. But it will probably be too late in some ways, because of the fact that this:

Despite increasingly worrisome recessionary pressures (not to mention the still extant specter of inflation, the sanguine-seeming Bernanke 'put' of yesterday aside) the U.S. remains the world's economic powerhouse.

is now a lot less true than people think. Yes, it's a large economy, but it's based on pure consumerism and an asset bubble, and we're about to bump into the limitations of that approach. Yes, the US exports a lot of corn, and Boeing planes, and the increasingly depressed Dollar will help farmers and exporters a lot. But the US is no longer a powerhouse in terms of being a growth engine--that mantle has passed to China and India and, increasingly, Latin America. And the US, sadly, does not even control the fate of the dollar any more--that's completely in the hands of China, the mideast and Russia. If in fact the US goes into a recession, what will be shocking is how little impact it has on the rest of the world's economy.

What has been most alraming about all of this is the complete obliviousness to this process with the US--the Washington establishement in particular, including the media. Everyone else in the world knows what's happening--it's the US that is missing it completely.

Posted by: wufnik at September 20, 2007 09:49 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The weakening US economy not having the impact on the larger world economy it once would have is a healthy development as far as I'm concerned. Seeing how we've managed to bungle the real estate market (again), it's better that the rest of the world does their thing without our interference. The obliviousness is, I think, a function of Americans' eternal self-centeredness. That and the idea that if you don't talk about bad things, they won't happen. That's what Bushco thinks PR is, just blowing sunshine up everyone's posterior while things fall apart.

As for the useless American media, bag on them all you want. They're too busy chronicling Britney and OJ and American Idol and Survivor to pay attention to what's going on anywhere else. We should probably be glad. If they tried to cover actual news, they'd probably screw it up.

Posted by: LL at September 20, 2007 12:27 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

WTF?!? Just 5 years ago, no less a personage than Tom DeLay assured us "We're no longer a super power. We're a super duper power." Surely, that is still the case: the Hammer would not mislead us.

Posted by: Wendell at September 22, 2007 12:33 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

About Belgravia Dispatch

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.

More About the Author
Email the Author

Recent Entries

The News
The Blogs
Foreign Affairs Commentariat
Law & Finance
Think Tanks
The City
Epicurean Corner
Syndicate this site:

Belgravia Dispatch Maintained by:

Powered by