Rise of the Rest

Pankaj Mishra

  • The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria
    Allen Lane, 292 pp, £20.00, July 2008, ISBN 978 1 84614 153 9
  • The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order by Parag Khanna
    Allen Lane, 466 pp, £25.00, April 2008, ISBN 978 0 7139 9937 2

In 1946, George Kennan, then the deputy head of the US mission in Moscow, sent a 5300-word telegram to Washington, hoping to alert his superiors to the threat of Soviet expansionism. Kennan had complained repeatedly and fruitlessly about what he saw as America’s indulgent attitude towards the Soviet Union, but for a crucial moment in 1946 his idea that the US should strike an alliance with Western Europe in order to contain Soviet Communism found listeners in Washington. The so-called Long Telegram, subsequently turned into an article in Foreign Affairs, became the basis of the Truman Doctrine, which proclaimed America’s willingness to fight the spread of Communism, militarily as well as economically.

Kennan would later complain that he had never advocated making force such an important aspect of American policy. The logic of military containment entrapped the US in Vietnam, and would disgrace friends and colleagues who had eagerly taken over new international responsibilities from the exhausted European empires after the Second World War. Kennan lost his influence inside the Beltway in the mid-1950s, after he began exhorting Americans to pursue ‘self-perfection’ and ‘spiritual distinction’ instead of exporting freedom and democracy to the rest of the world. But for the innumerable think-tank experts and ambitious academics and columnists who long to leave a mark on history, Kennan’s telegram remains the model: a set of policy prescriptions perfectly and powerfully in tune with the zeitgeist.

Kennan died in 2005 at the age of 101: he had lived to see the emergence of a whole industry of geopolitical speculation – foundations, research institutes, area studies programmes – intended to service the military-industrial complex. He and other civil servants of his generation, nurtured at Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Wall Street and other playgrounds of the Wasp elite, took badly paid jobs in government out of a spirit of noblesse oblige. In the 1960s, however, they found themselves pushed aside by the ‘professional elite’: people, often from Jewish, Irish, Italian or mixed ethnic backgrounds, who weren’t born into power and money and had little experience in business or government. Like careerists everywhere, these professionals with degrees in international relations or history tended to logroll. Much of their work involved legitimising their own employment. For decades they routinely exaggerated the Soviet Union’s military and economic capabilities, and the threat from Communism. Even in the mid-1980s few of them noticed that the Soviet Union was near collapse; in 1991, many rushed to hail the new ‘unipolar’ world where America was the ‘indispensable nation’. Fervently promoting free markets in Russia, they didn’t anticipate its descent into gangster capitalism or its vulnerability to authoritarianism. Many of them are still awaiting the arrival in China of the liberal democracy which they believe inevitably accompanies capitalism.

The years since 9/11 have been particularly confusing for policy intellectuals. ‘America’s dominance,’ Fareed Zakaria, the former managing editor of Foreign Affairs, asserted in the New Yorker in 2003, ‘now seems self-evident.’ Reprinting large parts of this article in his new book, The Post-American World, Zakaria adds: ‘That was then. America remains the global superpower today, but it is an enfeebled one.’

Policy intellectuals looking for the next big paradigm that will transform policy-making – and their own careers – have suddenly realised that they can’t avoid the prospect of American decline, something that was unthinkable five years ago, when both America and globalisation seemed unstoppable, and the war in Iraq was a brisk investment for the future. The US has many times more tanks, fighter jets, missiles and warships than any other country, but rag-tag armies of insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan still defy its military authority. The American economy, which for years has depended on Asian willingness to finance US deficits, now needs cash from China, Singapore and Abu Dhabi to prop up some of its most revered financial institutions.

‘Who Shrunk the Superpower?’ a cover story in the New York Times magazine asked earlier this year. According to its author, Parag Khanna, ‘America’s unipolar moment has inspired diplomatic and financial counter-movements to block American bullying and construct an alternate world order.’ ‘America has lost its momentum, and it cannot turn things around simply because it wants to,’ he writes in his new book, The Second World: Europe and China have not only emerged from America’s ‘regional security umbrellas’ to become superpowers in their own right, but they too ‘now use their military, economic and political power to build spheres of influence around the world, competing to mediate conflicts, shape markets and spread customs’. Europe and China are challenging American hegemony in what Khanna calls the ‘second world’, a broad grouping that includes Kazakhstan and Libya as well as India and Brazil. ‘America’s false assumptions of dominance,’ he writes, ‘are laid bare in every second-world region: the EU can stabilise its East, the Chinese-led SCO can organise Central Asia, South America can reject the United States, Arab states can refuse American hegemony, and China cannot be contained in East Asia by military means alone.’

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[*] Atlantic, 160 pp., £12.99, May, 978 1 84354 811 9.