Is This The End of the American Century?

This site features updates, analysis, discussion and comments related to the theme of my book published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2008 (hardbound) and 2009 (paperbound).

The Book

The End of the American Century documents the interrelated dimensions of American social, economic, political and international decline, marking the end of a period of economic affluence and world dominance that began with World War II. The war on terror and the Iraq War exacerbated American domestic weakness and malaise, and its image and stature in the world community. Dynamic economic and political powers like China and the European Union are steadily challenging and eroding US global influence. This global shift will require substantial adjustments for U.S. citizens and leaders alike.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

America's New Face to the World

In the last chapter of The End of the American Century, I write that “a best-case scenario for the future of the United States would have to begin with new political leadership” and that the first thing a new president could do

“would be to mend American relations with the rest of the world and to temper the unilateralism, hubris and militarism that have made it so difficult for the United States to work with other countries in solving pressing global issues.”
The election of Barack Obama is a big first step for the United States in changing our orientation to the rest of the world, and the way the world sees the U.S.

As Britain’s Economist magazine put it, in its endorsement Obama as “the next leader of the free world"--
"Merely by becoming president, he would dispel many of the myths built up about America: it would be far harder for the spreaders of hate in the Islamic world to denounce the Great Satan if it were led by a black man whose middle name is Hussein; and far harder for autocrats around the world to claim that American democracy is a sham.”

He is widely seen as a leader who is open to the views of others, and willing to work with other countries. France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, in a handwritten letter of congratulations to the U.S. President-elect, said
"your election raises immense hope" in Europe and beyond, "of an open America. . .that will once again lead the way, with its partners, through the power of its example and the adherence to its principles."

David Cameron, the leader of Britain's opposition (Conservative)party, said Obama's victory has restored America's status as a "beacon of hope."

Obama enjoys amazing level of support all around the globe. Last summer in Berlin, 200,000 Germans turned out to cheer him—reminiscent of the celebration of President Kennedy during his 1963 “ich bin ein Berliner” speech. A BBC poll of 22,000 people in 22 countries in September found 49% favoring Obama to win, compared to just 12% for McCain. In every single country, more people supported Obama than McCain.

The Economist conducted their own (unscientific) online poll of some 53,000 readers around the world, with Obama winning by a margin of more than five to one. His global victory was even more lopsided if you allocate those votes by country according to size (the way the Electoral College does for states). In this global “electoral college” Obama collected 9115 votes, compared to a paltry 203 for John McCain. In 56 countries, at least 90% backed Obama.

In the Arab and Muslim world, deep skepticism of U.S. intentions remains. But there were voices of hope even in those countries, and marvel at the election of a black man whose father was from a Muslim family. The Saudi-owned pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat saw Obama’s victory as “a message” repudiating the policies of the Bush administration.
“Obama’s election was a message against such destruction, against unjustified wars, wars that are fought with ignorance and rashness, without knowledge of their arenas or the shape of their surroundings. . . .It was a message against the pattern that became a burden on the U.S. and transformed the U.S. into a burden on the world.” (Reported in the New York Times).

This language is, to say the least, a back-handed compliment to the U.S. It is also emblematic of the way people in many countries—and not just the Arab world—feel about the U.S. and the global role it has come to play. So the U.S. has a lot of global PR work ahead of it.

Fortunately, President-elect Obama is aware of these problems and committed to redressing them. In his book The Audacity of Hope, he acknowledges that in foreign policy “our record is mixed.” At times, he writes, American policies
“have been misguided, based on false assumptions that ignore the legitimate aspirations of other peoples, undermine our own credibility, and make for a more dangerous world.” (p.280).
He writes there of the need for the U.S. to be more cooperative and multilateral in dealing with other countries, and to rely more on persuasion than intimidation: “No person, in any country, likes to be bullied.” He favors U.S. policies that “move the international system in the direction of greater equity, justice and prosperity” and observing the “international rules of the road.”
“When the world’s sole superpower willingly restrains its power and abides by internationally agreed-upon standards of conduct, it sends a message that these are rules worth following, and robs terrorists and dictators of the argument that these rules are simply tools of American imperialism.” (p.309).

In an article last year on “Renewing American Leadership” in the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs, Obama acknowledged that “in the wake of Iraq and Abu Ghraib, the world has lost trust in our purposes and our principles.” But the U.S. could regain that trust by “understanding that the world shares a common security and a common humanity.” If we want to lead the world, he argues, we must do so “by deed and by example.”

Barack Obama often invokes the names, the language, and the ideas of Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. These two men, more than any other presidents in this century, inspired citizens of the United States as well as those of many other countries. FDR’s ideals and policies, in particular, helped launch the American Century. Perhaps Barack Obama can begin the process of rebuilding the United States. As he wrote in Foreign Affairs,
“it is time for a new generation to tell the next great American story.”
This new story, however, is unlikely to look much like the previous one.

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