In a scathing denunciation of Mitt Romney last week, Fareed Zakaria praised Barack Obama for his nuanced understanding of what Zakaria has called the “Post-American World”:
This is a new world, very different from the America-centric one we got used to over the last generation. Obama has succeeded in preserving and even enhancing U.S. influence in this world precisely because he has recognized these new forces at work. He has traveled to the emerging nations and spoken admiringly of their rise. He replaced the old Western club and made the Group of 20 the central decision-making forum for global economic affairs. By emphasizing multilateral organizations, alliance structures and international legitimacy, he got results. It was Chinese and Russian cooperation that produced tougher sanctions against Iran. It was the Arab League’s formal request last year that made Western intervention in Libya uncontroversial.
By and large, you have ridiculed this approach to foreign policy, arguing that you would instead expand the military, act unilaterally, and talk unapologetically. That might appeal to Republican primary voters, but chest-thumping triumphalism won’t help you secure America’s interests or ideals in a world populated by powerful new players.
Where to start with Mr. Zakaria’s indictment? George Bush traveled frequently to “emerging nations,” as did Bill Clinton. The former’s multibillion-dollar initiatives to help battle AIDS in Africa have saved millions of lives. Long before Obama, the G-something meetings were already more than “the old Western club.” Unlike Obama in Libya or Clinton in Serbia, Bush did not intervene in Afghanistan or Iraq without first obtaining congressional support. Bush obtained United Nations approval for our intervention in Afghanistan and tried to for Iraq. In contrast, Clinton did not go to the U.N. before bombing Serbia, and Obama obtained U.N. resolutions to enforce a no-fly-zone in Libya and offer humanitarian aid, and he then summarily far exceeded both by bombing ground troops.
War with Iran is more likely now than it was in 2008. The opening of a U.S. embassy in Syria accomplished nothing, while China and Russia hand-in-glove block American efforts to impose sanctions on Damascus. The Arab League authorized American action in Libya and then whined when we interpreted its so-so support as a green light for bombing rather than merely giving the rebels military and material aid. Libya is a blueprint for nothing, and that pattern will not be followed in Syria. Unfortunately, the U.S.-forced removal of a tyrant without the presence of American ground troops — completely different from what we did in Germany, Italy, Japan, Serbia, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq — gives no guarantee that something just as bad cannot follow, as we are seeing with the Arab Winter.
In the case of Iran, loud promises of face-to-face talks; empty threats about deadlines; failed efforts at quid pro quo deals with the Russians to thwart proliferation; near silence when protesters jammed the streets of Teheran in spring 2009; mushy apologetic references to our role in the 1953 coup against Mossadegh; and ostentatious outreach to Syria, Iran’s best friend in the region, coupled with even more ostentatious snubbing of Israel, Iran’s worst enemy in the region — all these have made both an Iranian bomb and a war in the Persian Gulf more, not less, likely.
In short, I am afraid that “multilateral organizations” and “international legitimacy” long ago were mostly reduced to partisan talking points. Liberal hysteria over Guantanamo, renditions, tribunals, preventive detention, and Predators vanished when Obama embraced or expanded all of them. If there is a war with Iran, the Left will be as quiet about a preemptive effort as it was once so loud over Iraq.
“Chest-thumping triumphalism” of course is unwise; but even worse is naïve and clumsy deal-making at the expense of American interests and allies. It cannot be seriously argued that since 2009 China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria, or Venezuela are either more reasonable toward, or more deterred by, the United States. The old hot spots in Afghanistan, Cyprus, Eastern Europe, Iraq, the Falkland Islands, Mexico, North Africa, the former Soviet republics, Taiwan, and the West Bank are not cooler than in 2009, for all the 2012 Obama cool, but more likely warmer and more unstable. I do not think that allies like Britain, Canada, India, Israel, or Poland are more rather than less friendly.
So what about the president’s being praised for transitioning America to “a post-American world,” in which we are supposed to accept a new multipolar reality to replace the fossilized concept of American exceptionalism?
Our own massive debt, the rise of China, and the emergence of India and Brazil as major economies are often offered as proof that post-Americans should accept a new “lead from behind” role abroad. Yet in 1939 there were more multipolar contenders — France, Britain, Germany, Russia, and Japan — than there are now. And in varying ways all those rivals deprecated an isolationist Depression-era America, despite the fact that the U.S. had the world’s largest economy and had miraculously, just two decades earlier, sent a million men to Europe in a single year to ensure the allied victory over imperial Germany.
Long ago we first heard faddish talk of post-Americanism. Supposedly superior models in Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan energized throngs and produced modern arms far more than did a Grapes of Wrath America. Next, the declinists warned us about the ascendant Communist Soviet Union, which overran Eastern Europe and Asia, and whose missiles went up, unlike ours, which crashed on the launch pad. Then followed Japan, Inc., in the 1970s, which was to own American golf courses, while we were to tend them. Then in the late 1990s it was the turn of the utopian European Union, which reminded Americans what a waste was our military budget and how silly was our suspicion of man-made global warming. Currently, the fact that China has a bullet train and we do not is supposed to convince us that half a billion Chinese never having been to a Western-style doctor and the Chinese industrial landscape resembling the area around Lake Erie circa 1920 simply don’t matter.
But is the latest cry-wolf trend one that we should finally heed?
Post-Americans certainly have put themselves in a financial jam by borrowing an additional $12 trillion since 2000. If Obama were to be reelected, he would finish his presidency having borrowed more money than all prior presidents put together. We run chronic trade deficits and outsource millions of jobs overseas. Unemployment remains high, economic growth sluggish. Federal oil leases are canceled and pipelines not built. We did not pacify Iraq quickly, and we remain bogged down in Afghanistan.
Still, all of that hardly adds up to a post-American world. Instead, by almost any historical standard of assessing civilizations, the 21st century looks far brighter for America than for its rivals.
American population growth is robust; post-Japan, post-Europe, and post-China are aging and shrinking. We are daily increasing our known fossil-fuel reserves; those in Europe and China are declining. Copying and rivaling America’s free-market economy are impressive Chinese achievements, but hardly proof that China can likewise emulate our Constitution, racial inclusion, transparency, or cultural dynamism. With all the post-America talk, we forget that one American on average still produces threes times as many goods and services as do three Chinese.
Our Constitution facilitates economic change; post-Communist Russia and China still cannot square the circle of authoritarian government and free markets. In its worst financial crisis in the last 80 years, the United States nonetheless proved more robust and stable than the soon-to-be-post–European Union. In some world rankings of the top 15 institutions of higher learning, California’s universities are more heavily represented than are those of any entire country — except the United States itself.
India is still straitjacketed by caste impediments, Europe by class boundaries, China, Japan, and South Korea by sharp racial distinctions, and the Arab world by insidious tribal loyalties. The idea of a Brazilian or Chinese President Obama is the stuff of fantasy. All that retrograde typecasting seems pretty post-something to me. In contrast, America, alone of the major powers, is a multiracial open society bound by one culture, where merit, more than race, tribe, birth, or class, determines success.
When post-Americans unwisely talk about slashing the military, we still should remember that all the world’s other carrier battle groups combined will for decades lack the power of one of our eleven. The productivity of American agriculture continues to be unsurpassed, in a world that will become increasingly food short and hungry. And a notable thing about American farming is that it has millions of acres idle or allotted to subsidized biofuels, suggesting that we could easily produce even more food than we do now.
China has riots; Russia has riots; Europe has riots; the Arab world is one large riot these days. America has a few sputtering Occupy Wall Street street carnivals.
An authoritarian, aging, resource-starved, mercantilist, and racially intolerant China is hardly an inspiration for an aspiring Africa. Latin American elites do not send their children to Tokyo for medical training. American families are not emigrating to India or Brazil to find opportunity. Americans cross the border for vacation homes, not to find work in Latin America. The equivalents of post-America’s Facebook, Amazon, Walmart, and Google do not sprout up in a supposedly ascendant Istanbul or Mumbai.
Nor does the United Nations offer much hope of replacing American influence. In Libya, the U.S. bragged that it had obtained U.N. approval for a no-fly zone and humanitarian relief — but then had to violate those resolutions in order to join its NATO allies in bombing Moammar Qaddafi’s forces. Whether Iran lets off a nuclear weapon, or North Korea uses one against South Korea or Japan, depends not on the U.N. Security Council, or Chinese deterrence, but only on whether those rogue states fear a response from the United States. Again, as far as Syria goes, the U.N. is irrelevant.
Of course, the United States should work with its allies. It must be a good international citizen and where possible embrace international cooperation. Who even minds if on occasion an unsure American president may feel obliged to bow or apologize to foreign leaders? America will have to reduce its borrowing, pay down its debts, and reformulate its entitlement system, or face a Greek-style financial crisis.
That said, let us not confuse the trendy pumps of the hour with the unchanging water of the ages. A new Shanghai airport, a Brazilian Olympics, a new Russian pipeline, or a new Indian enterprise zone still does not tell us much about the underlying principles and values of nations that so far have not been able to create transparent institutions, stable consensual constitutions, sustainably lawful societies, and meritocratic, rather than racially or tribally based, advancement of the sort that allows a nation to meet crises, adapt, and grow stronger.
As far as the 21st century goes, compared to the alternatives, it is more likely that we are in a pre-American than a post-American age.
editor’s note: This article has been amended since its initial publication.