David Sanger, White House Correspondent of the New York Times, and I helped kick off a week-long run of policy lectures and discussion organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies for a group of prominent, quickly ascending Japanese Ministry of Foreign officials yesterday.
During my comments, I compared Japan’s struggle to become “a normal nation” with a kind of challenge now facing America — which is how to transition from being a globally dominant superpower to a “normal great power.”
Given the dynamics unleashed with the end of the Cold War, America most likely would have made this transtion anyway — but the George W. Bush administration seems to have quickly sped up history and America’s collapsing position in global affairs.
Along this line, I want to recommend that people read Paul Starobin’s December article, “Beyond Hegemony,” that ran in National Journal. Starobin won praise from David Brooks for the piece and received a “Sidney Award” as having produced one of the best essays of the year.
I’m a little bummed about it actually as Paul worked hard to reach me to include some of my thoughts in the piece, but I was in a travel storm at that time and lagged too slowly in my return calls. But he nailed it I think — or at least got the right questions in place about what follows for America given the puncturing of American mystique by our failing adventure in the Middle East.
Let me share the last bit with you — but I the whole article is a real tour d’force of thinking in the foreign policy establishment:
For America, the chief consequence of no longer being the hegemon could be as much psychological as material. “In reality, the only truly exceptional feature of the U.S.A. is her belief in her exceptionalism,” the historian Bernard Porter writes in his new book Empire and Superempire. That belief, or myth, would be dealt a death blow by the end of hegemony. And because America’s superempire “exceeds any previous empires the world has ever seen,” as Porter notes, the fall could be all the harder.
In mentioning the possibility of an age of post-U.S. dominance, Bill Clinton, in his speech at Yale, was not saying that it would arrive any time soon. Indeed, a fair argument can be made that, appearances of imperial overstretch notwithstanding, the sun is nowhere close to setting on the American Century. Consider just one rather amazing statistic: America, all by itself, accounts for more than 40 percent of the world’s total spending on research and development. Demographics? With its population now more than 300 million, the United States is not reduced to offering cash subsidies to women to have babies, as is ex-superpower Russia. And, as much as some critics are bothered by this, as a magnet for immigrants America has no peer.
It could be that the current anxiety over whether America has “peaked” is just another spasm in a regularly occurring cycle. In 1970, with the United States bogged down in Vietnam, President Nixon worried that America looked like “a pitiful, helpless giant.” Seventeen years later, in the wake of the Ronald Reagan revival of a big-stick America, Paul Kennedy came out with his ominous-sounding book. Now, like clockwork, amid concerns that George W. Bush has overstretched the imperial fabric, the baying is again heard that America’s “primacy” days are drawing to a close. Call it the 17-year angst.
And yet, unless one believes that America is not subject to the laws of history, its global supremacy will be, at some point, no more. Clinton’s real point is that it is the better part of wisdom for America to keep this in mind, to act now with the foreknowledge that the U.S. will not, for all time, be top dog. It’s the sort of advice a political party can profit from when it wins an election. The pace of change in geopolitics may often seem glacial compared with the vicissitudes of electoral politics, but the same lesson applies, as it does in all parts of life: What goes around comes around.
I think history has proceeded even faster since the December 1 release date of this article, and the handwriting is on the wall. America is not the power it used to be and probably won’t bounce back to be the undisputed rule-maker and rule-enforcer we may have once been.
It’s time for a “real” new strategy.
— Steve Clemons