For the past few years, America has been alienated from the world. We have all read the yearly polls with the same damning numbers. But on one issue, the United States and the world agree: majorities everywhere expect things to improve markedly after George W. Bush. Whether it’s in Europe or Asia, the refrain from politicians, businessmen and intellectuals is the same. “We don’t hate America,” one of them told me recently. “We hate Bush. When he’s gone, it will be a new day.”
But will it? The question will be put to the test in a year, when a new president enters the White House.
There’s little doubt that the style and substance of U.S. foreign policy over the past seven years has provoked enormous international opposition. What is less clear is that the style and substance were unique products of the Bush administration. Some part of the global response was surely the product of longstanding unease with U.S. dominance. After all, France’s foreign minister coined the term “hyperpuissance” to describe America under Bill Clinton, not George W. Bush.
Then came 9/11. Ever since the attacks, the United States has felt threatened and under siege and determined to carve out maximum room to maneuver. But where Americans have seen defensive behavior, the rest of the world has looked on and seen the most powerful nation in human history acting like a caged animal, lashing out at any and every constraint on its actions.
At the heart of this behavior is fear. Americans have become scared of the new world that is emerging around them. As long as this atmosphere of fear envelops U.S. politics, it will surely produce very similar results abroad. Washington’s real task, therefore, is to combat such unthinking emotion.
Yet the opposite is happening. Republicans are falling over each other to paint an atmosphere of dire threat that requires strong, even brutish action to protect the American people. Democrats, while far less guilty of fearmongering, have been afraid to combat this hysteria.
Consider the top GOP candidates to replace Bush. On the campaign trail, Rudolph Giuliani endlessly repeats his mantra that “we are facing an enemy that is planning all over this world … to come here and kill us.” Mitt Romney has explained that while “some people have said we ought to close Guant?namo, my view is we ought to double [the size of] Guant?namo.” And John McCain sometimes sounds cavalier about bombing Iran—despite the fact that, if it happened, it would be the third U.S. war against a Muslim country in seven years.
The notion that the United States today is in grave danger of sitting back and going on the defensive is bizarre. Since 2001, Washington, with bipartisan support, has invaded two countries and dispatched troops around the world, from Somalia to the Philippines, to fight Islamic militants. It has ramped up defense spending by $187 billion—more than the combined military budgets of China, Russia, India and Britain. It has created a Department of Homeland Security that now spends more than $40 billion a year. How then would Giuliani go on the offensive? Invade a couple more countries?
To recover its place in the world, the United States should first recover its confidence. It remains the world’s only superpower, the only big country with a total portfolio of military, economic and political dominance. Most major states are either well disposed toward it or, at worst, neutral. The challenges America confronts come from small, faceless terrorist organizations and a few rogue nations. This is not to minimize the challenges. Today’s asymmetries of power mean that small groups can do big damage. But it is to put things in perspective. When President Bush speaks of Iran’s nuclear program as the road to World War III, one wonders if he has noticed that Iran’s total GDP is just one sixty-eighth that of the United States, or that its military spending is less than 1 percent of the Pentagon’s.
The real challenges that the United States faces come not from globalization’s losers but from its winners, not from yesterday’s bombs but from tomorrow’s factories. The crucial project for the next president will be to change the basic focus of U.S. foreign policy, away from the Middle East and toward the Far East. When the history of these times is written, surely the great trend that will dominate the accounts, far larger than the war in Lebanon or the tensions over Iran, will be the rise of China and India and how they reshaped the world.
This power shift is having broad and benign effects around the planet; global growth is a marvel to behold. But it is also producing massive complications and dislocations. It creates high demand for raw materials and energy. Countries that possess such resources—Iran, Russia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia—have become powerful islands of exception to the rules of markets and trade that are sweeping the world. Thus global capitalism is producing its own well-funded anticapitalists. Environmental degradation proceeds in much of the world on a colossal scale. And these problems get exacerbated by changes in climate, rainfall and habitation. Scarcities of water and wheat and other grains might turn out to be the fault lines of the future as populations move in search of secure and arable land.
There is no way to turn off the underlying global growth, nor should one try. Every previous expansion of global capitalism has led to greater prosperity across the world. But this is a massive, complex process that requires enormous focus and attention. And while other nations around the world, from China to Chile, are playing to win, the United States as a government has barely focused on any of the major challenges or opportunities they present. The Bush administration is too busy settling disputes between Sunnis and Shiites in downtown Baghdad.
The world we are entering will need new solutions to its problems. There are too many new players for the old structures to work. Asia is rising, but not only Asia. Economic activity and political confidence are also growing in Latin America and even Africa. Nongovernmental actors are becoming more powerful every day. New media sources—from Al-Jazeera to India’s NDTV—are presenting diverse and contrarian narratives of current events. Welcome to the post-American world.