In political and academic circles interested in global strategy, every season brings its specific theme. These days the theme is that of “the post-American world.” Earlier this month we heard it repeated in a hundred different ways at the first World Policy Forum, a geopolitical jamboree held in the French lakeside resort of Evian and attracting president and prime ministers from more than two dozen countries.
Russian President Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev was licking his lips as he was declaring the end of American domination.
Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga, was even more gleeful when harping on the same theme and expressing the hope that his half-Kenyan “cousin” Barack Obama, as President of the United States, would help America adopt a “more modest profile.”
Former French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine was even more emphatic: the American “hyper-power” was on its way out.
During the summer, Tehran played host to an international conference dealing with the same theme, albeit in a characteristically more aggressive tone. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced the emergence of “a world without America.” Last week, Spanish Foreign Minister’ Miguel-Angel Moratinos took to the road to disseminate the same theme: the “unipolar”, that is to say US-led, global was coming to an end.
Almost at the same time, a group of has-been dignitaries, led by former United Nations’ Secretary General Kofi Anan and including former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin were doing a bit of their own America-bashing in Tehran while keeping silent about the sufferings of the Iranian people. Anan has been especially eloquent in endorsing the fantasies of his Khomeinist hosts by blaming America for whatever has gone wrong or may go wrong under the sun. One wonders why he mentioned none of those things during his eight-years at the UN where he could have mobilised the rest of the world against American wrongdoers.
To hammer in the nail further, this year the Nobel academy has decided to ignore the US as much as possible. A spokesman has dismissed the suggestion that American literature may have a central place, offering that accolade to Europe. This year fewer Americans have received Nobel prizes than at any time since the 1950s. One exception was Nobel’s decision to offer the prize for economics to Paul Krugman, a New York Times journalist who has built a career as an advocate of American decline under George W Bush.
However, the “end of America” theme is not limited to usual suspects such as unreformed KGB characters, Western leftists and Khomeinist henchmen. It is a theme popular with many American intellectuals. In fact, I suspect it may well have been invented in the US, as so much of fashionable anti-Americanism is, before being exported to the rest of the world.
During visits to New York bookshops in the past few days we have come across half a dozen titles announcing the end of pax-Americana and the impending transformation of the United States into a social democratic soft power European-style. American television is also full of talking heads speculating about how a putative President Obama is going to “correct George Bush’s mistakes” and gear US foreign policy to those of unspecified allies and the even vaguer entity referred to as “the international community”.
So, is this really the beginning of the end of America, dubbed by Ahmadinejad as the “sunset power”?
Well, not necessarily.
To start with it is not at all certain that Americans will elect Obama, although all opinion polls currently signal his victory. But, even if Obama is elected, there is no reason to believe that the US would not absorb the shock as it did that of Jimmy Carter’s presidency almost 30 years ago.
In its time, Carter’s election inspired as much speculation about the “end of America” as Obama’s likely victory, against a background of financial meltdown in Wall Street, has done in the past few weeks. During Carter’s presidency, inflation went into the stratosphere while growth was nonexistent, creating the condition known as “stagflation”. In those four years, the average American family became 15 per cent poorer while gasoline lines lengthened and prices went through the roof. The grand American retreat was signalled by the fall of the Shah’s regime in Iran, the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by the USSR, and the expansion of Soviet influence to some 30 more countries in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. In a notorious speech in 1979, Fidel Castro spoke of “Yankee Imperialism” on its deathbed”.
Four years later, however, the dying “Great Satan” was back in better health than ever and as the only credible actor on the global stage. A decade later, it was the only “superpower”, leading the emergence of a new global system that, despite its obvious failings, has helped lift more than 100 nations out of abject poverty, and aside the number of countries with pluralist governments from around 30 to more than 120.
A visitor to the US these days would quickly find out that the big beast is tired. It is tired mostly of its own bitter divisions rather than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is also tired of being misunderstood and unloved in so many countries. Americans’ confidence in their institutions, starting with the presidency and the Congress, has seldom been as low as today.
And, yet, present just below the surface there is the creative vibration that has always set America apart. Even the gloomiest of the doomsayers end up by rejecting the suggestion that the United States today is like the Roman Empire in its sunset days.
The US remains the world’s third largest country in terms of territory. It is also the third most populous. Thanks to huge natural resources and agricultural potential, the US would be a major economic power virtually under any circumstances. With just five per cent of the world’s population, the US accounts for almost a fifth of the global annual production. As the world’s single biggest market it is the number-one trading partner for over 100 countries across the globe. When it comes to scientific discoveries, patterns and brands, no other nation, or group of nations, comes anywhere near the position that the US continues to occupy.
Having read his own obituary in a newspaper, Mark Twain cabled the editor to announce that news of his death had been wildly exaggerated. The same could be said of all this “end of America” talk making the rounds in political salons.