In the 1990s, historian Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history.” Apparently, no one got the memo. Chalk it up to the Internet, the mainstream media, overeager political commentators or all of the above, but this decade has suffered from too much “instant history.” It has been widely written by pundits on both sides that this was the decade of American decline, the decade of transition between Bill Kristol’s “New American Century” and Fareed Zakaria’s “Post-American World.” Rumors of our decline, however, have been greatly exaggerated.
To be fair, there was once sufficient reason to believe the rumors. After the shock of 9/11, the landscape — at least intellectually — of the international system was thrown into flux. Out of this confusion, the Bush administration embarked on a bold project to create the “New American Century.” With Reaganite resolve, rhetoric and resource commitment, America set about its “War on Terror,” bringing the brunt of American brawn against a backwater collection of militant Islamic fundamentalists. We would aggressively foster democracy to keep them underground, and we would seek them out where they hid.
It was a high-risk, high-reward gamble of a foreign policy.
And it failed.
By 2005, America was entrenched in two unwinnable wars. The resolve of the American people was wavering, the rancor of the world community was growing and the media was filled with stories of the end of American hegemony. Many pundits and premature historians wrote that as American might and prestige declined, other “great powers” were rising: India was an economic miracle, Russia was resurgent, Iran was going nuclear and, of course, the century was to be China’s. No matter what your ideological worldview was at this decade’s midpoint, America seemed like it was going down for the count.
But then something happened … something that most people still haven’t noticed. Things began to go our way. Now you might be asking, “What the hell you talking about, kid?”
Please read on, and I’ll tell you.
Almost every major concern, gnawing doubt and worst-case scenario that was projected in the first five years of this decade has been resolved in the last five.
Bush, at his worst, was an arrogant, reckless cowboy. Bush, at his best, was also an arrogant, reckless cowboy. Against the advice of many of the nation’s top intellectuals, as voiced in the Baker-Hamilton report, Bush elected to undertake again a high-risk, high-reward strategy: “The Surge.” To be certain, it is still too early to jump on an aircraft carrier and declare “Mission Accomplished,” but as this decade closes America finds itself in a better position in Iraq than seemed remotely possible five years ago, and we are about to execute a similar strategy in Afghanistan. And, as it always has, history will gloss over our nation’s discontents and consecrate its victories in war.
You might be thinking, “Sure, kid, maybe we are doing better militarily … but economically we are a mess.”
Yes, I realize that we are in the midst of a “Great Recession.” Yes, I realize that the capitalist greed of Wall Street created a bubble that burst in Main Street’s eye. Yes, I realize that in doing so, we made a mess of the world economy. But do you realize that by doing so we also burst the bubble of hype about the rising “great powers?”
Take, for example, Russia. In 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia and the international community stood passively by, Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan declared that it marked “a turning point no less significant than when the Berlin Wall fell.” But the economic collapse and the fall in the price of oil, dragging down Russian markets by 70 percent, revealed Russia to be a paper bear.
As another example, take Dubai. The Arab city-state, a “21st Century Hong Kong,” was projected to eclipse New York as a center of world finance, trade and retail shopping extravaganzas. But the economic collapse, recently putting the tiny emirate in danger of defaulting on $60 billion of debt, revealed Dubai to be a paper camel.
Finally, take India. It has managed the crisis better than most, but the pressure has strained the South Asian giant severely. It has added to the growing social divide between the urban rich and the rural poor, and made it harder to battle the insurgent groups from four neighboring countries that have infiltrated the one-billion-plus nation. The economic collapse, having mauled India’s soul, according to the editor of “India Today,” revealed it to be a paper tiger.
There is your silver lining to the burst bubble. But two more major areas of concern remain, Iran and China.
We end a decade of debacles with Iran on a decidedly “upbeat” note. As of the “Green Revolution” this summer, the “Islamic Republic” of Iran is quickly losing its legitimacy as “Islamic” by the declarations of Ayatollah Montazeri and his colleagues and its legitimacy as a “Republic” through its repression of the disaffected youth movement. As of last week, China and Russia finally signaled openness towards sanctions. As of this week, Iran defiantly authorized more nuclear reactor sites. As of the next few months, pundits say the United Nations Security Council is more likely than ever to take concrete measures against Iran.
And the consensus on China is beginning to shift. For all its economic might, it will be decades before China becomes a center for “innovation;” rather it will go on building the products America designs. For all its talk of a “green revolution,” it still faces environmental issues that threaten severe economic disruption at best and political upheaval at worst. And for all its increasing clout, the Uighur revolt and China’s support of regimes in Zimbabwe and Sudan guarantee China won’t set the international agenda any time soon.
The hard fact is that in hard power we are still unquestionably dominant over the so-called “rising great powers.” But what of our soft power over the developing masses? The Bush Administration authored and advertised what Thomas Friedman has coined as “The Narrative.” The story goes: “America has declared war on Islam, as part of a grand ‘American-Crusader-Zionist conspiracy’ to keep Muslims down.” I grant you that Obama has taken no concrete “action” to deserve the Nobel Prize. But there is a meta-justice to it, as his election and his Cairo speech have begun the process of reducing “The Narrative” to syndication. And then some.
Diplomatic historians will one day write that as the first decade of the 21st century drew to a close America found itself, against all odds, in a promising position. As of now, the diplomat and historian Henry Kissinger has declared that Obama “reminds me of a chess grandmaster who has played his opening in six simultaneous games.” The climax of this decade will come in the first few years of the next, when Obama plays these games out. But the momentum is with America, “the force” with Obama. If he can, as David Plouffe assured Jon Stuart he will, pull out the light saber, history will reflect that this decade saw not the decline, but the rise, of the 21st Century New American “Empire.”