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.’
And Russia, Khanna might have added, can do whatever it wants in the Caucasus. Georgia is among the dozens of countries Khanna visited while writing his book, and though he mocks American support for Saakashvili’s ‘sham democracy’, he puts too much faith in the EU’s ability to stabilise the Caucasus and underestimates Putin’s keenness to assert Russian influence. His assessment of American debility, however, seems broadly right, even if it is far from the mainstream view among the Anglo-American commentariat. Robert Kagan, for example, remains bullishly confident of America’s supremacy in his new (and ruefully titled) book, The Return of History and the End of Dreams.He believes that the US should assume ‘leadership of a united democratic bloc’ against the authoritarian powers of China and Russia and has found an influential reader in John McCain, an old-style promoter of American toughness. But it’s now quite hard to imagine Hu Jintao and Vladimir Putin, not to mention Osama bin Laden and other ‘enemies of the Free World’, quivering at the thought of a ‘concert of democracies’. Kagan’s resurrection of this tired notion shows that the idea of American over-reach and decline remains incomprehensible to American elites, or too painful for them to accept.
Zakaria, Khanna’s Indian-American compatriot and probably the most admired foreign affairs pundit in America today, has written a shrewder tract: ‘not about the decline of America’, as he writes on the first page, ‘but rather about the rise of everyone else’. He knows that the military superiority of the US can’t make up for its poor economic, financial, industrial, political and cultural performance. America’s dominance, he explains, ‘was possible only in a world in which the truly large countries were mired in poverty, unable or unwilling to adopt policies that made them grow’. Now ‘the natives have gotten good at capitalism.’
Zakaria came to America from Bombay as a student in 1982, when, he writes, Ronald Reagan was the embodiment of ‘a strikingly open and expansive country’. He is wary of the growing American backlash against immigration and free trade: ‘Just as the world is opening up, America is closing down.’ Muslims are increasingly dazzled by the shopping malls of Dubai, while Americans remain unhealthily obsessed with Islamist terror. ‘The ideological watchdogs have spent so much time with the documents of jihad that they have lost sight of actual Muslim societies.’
Zakaria himself, meanwhile, believes that the US political system, ‘captured by money, special interests, a sensationalist media and ideological attack groups’, is ‘dysfunctional’. Like the well-travelled Khanna, he is exasperated by jingoistic politicians such as Mitt Romney, who wants to double the size of Guantánamo. But where Khanna points to high income inequality, corporate fraud, anti-immigrant hysteria and an obsession with guns and incarceration as symptomatic of America’s insuperable self-delusion and irrevocable decline, Zakaria is all smooth reassurance: the American economy remains dynamic, and the US is as competitive and technologically innovative as any European country. The politicians in Washington may be know-nothings, but the country’s major research universities are still the best, attracting talent from all over the world. Besides, ‘the rise of the rest is a consequence of American ideas and actions.’
It follows that countries such as India, Brazil and China want to become ‘responsible stakeholders’ in a US-dominated international system. Zakaria argues that the US can accommodate these countries by offering them membership of clubs like the G8. China may remain a prickly ‘challenger’ but with the right kinds of inducement the democratic giant next door can be turned into an ‘ally’. Zakaria believes that the nuclear agreement the Bush administration offered New Delhi, which aroused fierce opposition from both left and right-wing parties in India, ‘will alter the strategic landscape, bringing India firmly and irrevocably onto the global stage as a major player’.
Zakaria first came to prominence with a 7000-word article called ‘The Politics of Rage: Why Do They Hate Us?’, published in Newsweek a few weeks after 9/11. Something of the glamour of Kennan’s Long Telegram now attaches to this article: New York magazine described it as ‘a defining piece on the meaning of the terror attacks’ in a profile studded with praise from Henry Kissinger which also proposed Zakaria as America’s first Muslim secretary of state. Tina Brown called him ‘New York’s hot brainiac of choice’. Zakaria’s article appeared during the moment of primitive fury that overcame even ‘liberal’ commentators. Amid the clamour for retribution, Zakaria sounded calm and judicious. Read now, however, his article seems notable mostly for its evasions: he was careful not to say anything that might get him stigmatised as a radical. Blaming the Arabs for their failure to modernise, he didn’t mention the American obsession with energy security, which has shaped the politics of the Middle East for more than half a century. He found space in his paragraph on Iran to mock ‘fashionable’ supporters of the Islamist upsurge in London and Paris, but didn’t bring up the Anglo-American coup against Mossadegh in 1953 or the American mollycoddling of the shah. He wrote about the collaboration between the Pakistani dictator Zia-ul-Haq and the Saudi Islamists, but left out the middleman in the affair, the CIA.
The threat of terrorism, he asserted, had given America ‘a chance to reorder the international system’. Here he seemed at one with the neocon hawks circling over Washington, who saw a similar opportunity in 9/11. And yet he was unable to shed his awareness – the result, perhaps, of a childhood spent in non-aligned India during the Cold War – of the way the United States is perceived in the wider world.
The United States dominates the world in a way that inevitably arouses envy or anger or opposition. That comes with the power, but we still need to get things done. If we can mask our power in – sorry, work with – institutions like the United Nations Security Council, US might will be easier for much of the world to bear. Bush’s father understood this, which is why he ensured that the United Nations sanctioned the Gulf War. The point here is to succeed, and international legitimacy can help us do that.
Previous administrations had indeed succeeded in securing international legitimacy for their military interventions through the UN, especially after Clinton replaced Boutros Boutros-Ghali with the more pliant Kofi Annan. The Clinton administration also made effective use of the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO to impose the ‘Washington Consensus’: a regime of radical economic restructuring and financial deregulation that helped American companies further globalise their investment and trade, boosting large pro-business and apparently transnational elites, even in countries like India and China which were traditionally distrustful of the US. Condoleezza Rice seemed to acknowledge Clinton’s success in an article in Foreign Affairs in 2000. ‘America,’ she wrote, ‘can exercise power without arrogance and pursue its interests without hectoring and bluster. When it does so in concert with those who share its core values, the world becomes more prosperous, democratic and peaceful.’
But it was clear soon after 9/11 that the Bush administration, far from masking American power in – sorry, working with – high-minded UN resolutions, believed that the awesome demonstration of American military muscle would intimidate present and potential enemies everywhere. The administration had its own intellectual cheerleaders and experts on the Middle East: Bernard Lewis, for instance, whose pet conviction that ‘in that part of the world, nothing matters more than resolute will and force’ was validated by the swift capitulation of the Taliban. Iraq was logically the next target. As the columnist Thomas Friedman told Charlie Rose, what the Iraqis ‘needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying: “Which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we’re just gonna let it grow? Well, Suck. On. This.”’ However enamoured of American power Zakaria is – ‘properly harnessed’, he writes, it benefits both America and the world – he blanched at its crude application. Initially a supporter of the war in Iraq, he quickly became a critic, joining a group of officials from previous administrations – Richard Holbrooke, Anthony Lake, Zbigniew Brzezinski – in blaming Bush for undermining the post-World War Two system of international alliances and treaties which had institutionalised American dominance.
But the neocon ascendancy in Washington meant that calls for a more multilateralist policy went unheard. It is only now, in the last phase of the Bush presidency, with a Democratic victory in November looking likely, that the exiled liberal internationalists appear closer to regaining influence. And, although Zakaria isn’t set to become secretary of state, his book seems to be on the Democrats’ reading list: Barack Obama has been seen carrying a well-thumbed copy. The Post-American World belongs to a genre of high-class briefing material which cannot ever question certain basic assumptions about American power; only a brisk comparison between India and the US in the 19th century works up some intellectual energy. Convinced that globalisation is an irreversible success, Zakaria doesn’t stop to examine its costs: the thousands of Indian farmers driven to suicide by the vagaries of international markets or – now – the inability of even economically strong countries to protect themselves from the ‘financial innovations’ of American bankers. His book has nothing to say about the likely effect on the environment of more than two billion Indians and Chinese embracing the consumption habits of middle-class Europeans and Americans, or about the problems of uneven growth and gross inequality inherent in globalisation.
He offers instead an ambitious historical overview of the rise of the West and of the United States: the two great power shifts of the past 500 years, he contends, which led in turn to the third big shift – the rise of the rest. The most noticeable thing here is Zakaria’s attempt – a formidable task – to describe the rise of the West and the decline of the East without using the word ‘imperialism’. Not surprisingly, he is forced to draw on Montesquieu’s hoary notion of Oriental despotism: ‘From the 15th century through the 19th, Asian rulers largely fit the stereotype of the Oriental tyrant.’ Though keen to show that the East derived almost all of its cultural and political inspiration from the West (‘Marx, Engels, Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin were all Western intellectuals’), he is unwilling even to mention the role of Western powers in the swift decline of the Arab lands they liberated from Ottoman rule. Here is his mechanistic explanation: ‘In the 20th century, an effort to create “modern” and powerful nation-states resulted in dictatorships that brought economic and political stagnation.’
His Power-Pointish prose shows signs of excitement only when it describes India, which he claims to be a ‘powerful package’. When he left the country in the early 1980s it was sunk in socialistic darkness: now, thanks to its globalised economy, India is ‘boisterous, colourful, open, vibrant, and, above all, ready for change’, particularly in its relationship with the US. ‘A common language, a familiar worldview and a growing fascination with each other is bringing together businessmen, non-governmental activists and writers.’
The Wasp mandarins of Kennan’s generation distrusted naturalised outsiders like Kissinger and Brzezinski. Averell Harriman and John J. McCloy believed that the Polish-born Brzezinski, who secretly armed Muslim fanatics in Afghanistan in order to entrap the USSR in its own Vietnam, was ‘perfectly willing to get the US into a confrontation with Russia for the sake of Poland’. Some ancient grandee in Nantucket may well mutter that Zakaria is not to be trusted when he advocates closer political and business ties between America and his ancestral country, and the grandee may well be right. Zakaria describes India as having been a ‘peaceful, stable and prosperous’ country since 1997, even though over the last ten years India and Pakistan have come close to nuclear war, the pro-business Hindu nationalist BJP has been responsible for the deaths of two thousand Muslims in Gujarat, and thousands more have died in insurgencies led by Maoists or separatists in Kashmir and the North-East.
Zakaria describes India’s pro-American prime minister, Manmohan Singh, as ‘a man of immense intelligence, unimpeachable integrity and deep experience’, whose ‘breadth, depth and decency as a person are unmatched by any Indian prime minister since Nehru’. This was written before Singh’s colleagues were accused of bribing members of parliament in order to push through India’s controversial nuclear deal with the United States, despite the opposition of the Communist parties and the Hindu nationalists, who feared the loss of national sovereignty. A few weeks ago, while thanking Bush for the nuclear deal, Singh blurted out, ‘The people of India deeply love you,’ thereby bringing his judgment even further into doubt.
Boosted by wealthy Indian-Americans, who constitute a special-interest group often thought to be as strong as the Israel lobby, India tends to be described in the US as ‘rising’. (Kissinger, who reveres all rising suns, has publicly apologised for calling Indians ‘bastards’ during a dispute in the 1970s.) Zakaria’s simplifications and misreadings are central to his argument: that the US can maintain its hegemony by making friends and influencing people in newly powerful countries. India, a large capitalist democracy with pro-American elites, is apparently particularly keen to help the next president ‘renew’, in Obama’s words, ‘America’s moral leadership’.
In a speech he gave in March, Obama proposed a return to ‘the traditional bipartisan realistic policy of George Bush’s father, of John F. Kennedy, of, in some ways, Ronald Reagan’. ‘Realistic’ is an odd description of Kennedy’s escapades in Cuba and Indochina and Reagan’s equally macho forays into Lebanon, Afghanistan and Central America. The Post-American World fuels a suspicion that the next president will try to carry on business as usual. Zakaria tries to deflect the disabling charge frequently directed by neocon ideologues at Democratic liberal internationalists, that their desire to consult foreigners amounts to a surrender of national sovereignty and appeasement of the bad guys. There is quite a bit of flag-waving in the book – ‘America has transformed the world with its power but also with its ideals’ – and lots of keep-your-pecker-up stuff: ‘The world is going America’s way. Countries are becoming more open, market-friendly and democratic.’ The non-American reader may wonder if Zakaria really believes in the possibility of an international system made consensual and peaceable by American-style capitalist modernity, when American-style capitalism has severely disrupted that system, plunging entire societies into chaos, first in Asia and Latin America, and now in Europe and the US.
Trusting in ‘global growth’ above all, Zakaria often sounds like an updated practitioner of the ‘modernisation theory’ that was popular on Ivy League campuses during the Cold War. A cruder version can be found in Thomas Friedman’s ‘Golden Arches’ postulate: countries privileged enough to be able to eat McDonald’s burgers don’t go to war with each other. These Panglosses of globalisation ignore, among other things, the fact that ‘global growth’ still means nothing to much of the world’s population, some of whom – like India’s poor majority, who are certain to vote out Manmohan Singh in the next general election – have their own ideas about how to organise their lives. Given the slightest opportunity, China’s masses express a fierce nationalism rooted in long, carefully sustained memories of humiliation by Western powers. Even the elites of China, East Asia, Russia and Brazil, whose political edge might have been blunted by extended sojourns in Davos and Aspen, are likely to credit their success to state-directed capitalism or resource-extraction rather than to ‘American ideas and actions’, which they would blame for the recent disasters of Western capitalism.
Khanna seems more aware of political sentiment in Asia, Africa and Latin America when he claims that ‘the West can expect no allegiance to a Western order masquerading as representative of global values.’ His unvarnished assessment of America – ‘a first-world country in need of a Marshall Plan to stay where it is’ – also sounds more accurate now that the scale of the crisis brought on by recklessly deregulated capitalism and the War on Terror is becoming clear. Even the Economist, which is usually eager to play the wise Greek to America’s triumphant Rome, recently admitted that ‘the world seems very multipolar. Europeans no longer worry about American ascendancy. The French, some say, understood the Arab world rather better than the neoconservatives did. Russia, the Gulf Arabs and the rising powers of Asia scoff openly at the Washington consensus. China in particular spooks America.’
There is more: American concessions in talks on global warming have not prompted any generous offers from India and China, whose determination to protect their farmers from international competition has already scuppered the Doha trade negotiations. Iraq, though only nominally sovereign, insists on its own timetable for the withdrawal of American forces. Dismissing American protests, Pakistan strikes ceasefire deals with the Taliban inside its borders, while its intelligence agency, the ISI, props up the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even Israel defies its American patrons by using Turkey and Egypt as mediators in negotiations with Syria and Hamas. Hailed not long ago by George Bush as a shining example of democracy in the Middle East, the Lebanese government has been forced to make concessions to Hizbullah. American tough talk seems to have made little impression on Iran, not to mention Burma and Zimbabwe. North Korea, once part of the Axis of Evil, has had to be appeased with Chinese assistance; and China appears to have more influence over Sudan than any Western power. Ties between China and Taiwan, and China and Japan, have markedly improved, making American military buffers in much of East Asia appear increasingly superfluous. With its battering of Georgia, another of Bush’s ‘beacons of liberty’, Russia has shown that it will deal viciously with any challenge to its hegemony by a pro-American country in its neighbourhood; and there is not much the US will be able to do about it. In recent weeks the Bush administration has meekly imitated European steps to contain the credit crisis; it now watches helplessly as European politicians scramble to replace the financial system built at Bretton Woods in 1944, taking on responsibilities and privileges that Zakaria and others thought belonged to America alone.
Taken together, these developments point to the emergence of a new international system, where America is far from being the ‘indispensable nation’ that can place what it needs to do ahead of all other national interests either through brute power or by striking postures of consultation and co-operation. A world with a multiplicity of national power centres with conflicting and often irreconcilable interests and values will eventually find its own equilibrium, which may prove less precarious than the order maintained by the imperial powers of Europe and America in the 20th century. The ‘rise of the rest’ will also correct what Kennan in his last years defined as ‘this whole tendency to see ourselves as the centre of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world’. ‘Unthought-through, vainglorious and undesirable’ is how Kennan described it, and the vast majority of the world’s population agrees.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.