By Steven Hill
Editor’s note: The following article has been excerpted from Mr. Hill’s forthcoming book: Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age (University of California Press), which will be published in November.
May 1, 2009
It seems that the whole world is waiting and watching to see what happens not only with America’s government but also its people, which has accepted torture, kidnappings, Abu Ghraib, GuantÃ¡namo, gutting of the Geneva Conventions, domestic surveillance, invasions under false pretenses and other violations of international norms of decency and human rights which the United States originally had led in establishing.
In the early years of the Bush administration, Europeans would say to me kindly, “We don’t blame the American people for their lousy government, we know the American people are good.” But there was a shift following Bush’s reelection in 2004. A headline the day after the election from the British tabloid The Daily Mirror seemed to capture the new sentiment: “How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?” the front-page blared in large bold print.
In 2006, while I was in Geneva, Switzerland, an American friend of a high-ranking German embassy official to Switzerland confided a recent conversation in which this official said, “We assume that the Bush crowd stole a million votes in that election. But that still doesn’t explain why 58 million other people voted for such terrible leadership. We [the Germans] are moving on, we are so done with America, we can’t wait any longer for it to get its act together.”
Unfortunately this attitude has become common in Europe, indeed around the world. America’s moral and political leadership in the world has taken a direct hit. The American dream itself has been undermined by images of the black residents of New Orleans drowning in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, even as government spending was being plowed into a military leviathan flouting world opinion and breaking the international rules it had helped establish.
Now the metastasizing of US-made toxic financial products throughout the global financial system, which has brought the world’s economy to the brink of disaster, has further undermined America’s claims to leadership. The shining City on the Hill has suffered a fundamental erosion of the attractiveness of its narrative that once enticed the world.
The election of an appealing, charismatic black president with an unusually non-Anglo-sounding name has restored some of the luster, but still, the signs of slippage are everywhere. Even a new generation of European leaders, led by Germany’s Merkel and France’s Nicholas Sarkozy, who originally were seen as more pro-American than their predecessors, have turned out to be not the start of a new pro-American moment in Europe but a marker of the beginning of the post-American era.
For the American power elite, as well as the American people, being on top of the world has been a way of life for over a half century. Power and global dominance have become a state of mind, a way of being. America’s messianic view of itself as the “indispensable nation” seems to drive American leaders, whether left or right, as if possessed by an imperial spirit. Even President Obama’s rhetoric is tinged with such pretensions; at times the Democrats sound like Republicans, with no alternative conceptual framework for international relations other than one based on force, strategic dominance and an assumption of American preeminence.
So any difference in foreign policy resulting from Bush’s exit may end up being one of degree, not kind. Indeed, after promising more consultation with allies, President Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan with more troops, and widened missile strikes inside Pakistan, all without consultation. This arrogance of prerogative seems to be part of the American Way.
Some Americans take pride in the fact that all the trillions of dollars that have been plowed into the military budget have succeeded in creating the strongest, most powerful military force in history. However, as we have seen, that has not translated into greater national security. Our lone remaining superpower moment has come and gone, and now we are in the red zone of potentially becoming the next hollowed out post-WWII superpower, living through the perils of imperial overstretch and the sunset of the Pax Americana.
The last time anyone buzzed about Washington’s “decline” came during the waning years of the Cold War, in the late 1980s when Yale Professor Paul Kennedy authored The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.
Kennedy warned that the U.S. was falling into a familiar historical pattern where the combination of huge military budgets and ever larger deficits led inevitably to the kind of “imperial overstretch” that weakened once-mighty empires. During the roaring economic boom of the Internet years in the 1990s, with the U.S. astride the world as the world’s lone remaining superpower, Kennedy’s predictions seemed laughable. Now, they may turn out to be prophetic.
With the American Dream looking increasingly frayed, combined with America’s principal role in the global economic meltdown and recent foreign policy failures, the United States has lost a lot of its global credibility. The United States is still a mighty power, but author Parag Khanna in his book Second World has grippingly outlined a global competition in the years ahead between the three most important powers today, the U.S., Europe and China, for influence in the “second world” of aspiring nations. “The world’s most compelling ideology is neither democracy nor capitalism nor any other ‘ism,’ but success,” writes Khanna. “Today the definition of success is up for grabs.”
In the multipolar world, the second world countries are watching closely the behaviors of the world’s three superpowers, the U.S., E.U. and China, to see which offers the best bargain. For each nation, it’s a geopolitical marketplace with options to pursue toward bettering their condition. The second world nations are in effect the world’s swing voters, and their affiliations will determine the shape of the new global order. In this competition between competing visions, the European Way is looking attractive and surprisingly nimble, while the American Way has been looking outdated and — to borrow a word from the Euroskeptics — sclerotic.
In retrospect, then, the clashing at the United Nations over the invasion of Iraq was not merely between two nations, the United States and France, and their own national baggage — it was over the direction of the geopolitical future. The world needs to invent a new security model based more on open, free trading societies that feed from economic and political webs of interconnectedness, and concentric rings of partnership and development, instead of the one that has prevailed in the post-War era, namely the big kid on the block with massive military might policing the smaller kids.
Certainly it would help if Europe could accelerate its process of coalescing, and as its still new military capabilities consolidate, it should think about what more it could do to foster international security and step up its efforts as international peacekeeper in global hotspots. But just as Europe could step up more, America should step down, and follow Europe’s lead more, giving new primacy to multilateralism, diplomacy, patience, human rights, international law and fostering strong ties with moderate nations and with moderates within extreme nations.
Fortunately, allowing others to take the lead on the global front dovetails nicely with America’s increasingly urgent need to take better care of the home front. The U.S. has its work cut out to revamp its obsolete, post-WWII hyper-militarized model, and provide a more balanced, Europe-like workfare system for American families and workers. No doubt the tens of millions of Americans lacking health care and affordable higher education, and suffering from inequality, poverty and declining fortunes, or those who lost their home and/or their job in the recent economic crash, as well as those wanting America to get serious about reducing our disproportionate contributions to global warming, would welcome this change of priorities.
Europe is looking for a respectful partner, not preeminence, in its transatlantic cousin. Compared to what Americans have paid in taxes for their foreign policy, the Europeans have paid pennies on the barrel to achieve some remarkable results. The European Way of foreign policy offers the world a way out of the dog-eat-dog turf wars that we inherited from the Cold War, and that the Bush administration, having taken the bait dangled by the Koran and Talmud fundamentalists of the impoverished Middle East, seemed determined to perpetuate.
Europe has devised methods of foreign policy and velvet diplomacy that reflect its social capitalist and multilateral impulses, which are founded on the deepest of faith in human potential and rationality. The emergence of these peaceful social capitalists is an uplifting event in human evolution that appears to offer the best pathway forward for a planet of over six billion people.