New World Order: Why America is losing the race to influence the “second world”

Washington Post |


To most Americans, small is not beautiful. We like being Number One. We take pride in a military that is second to none. We boast that Wall Street drives the world's financial markets (even if it's downward); that American scientists win more Nobel Prizes than anyone else; that our universities draw scholars and students from around the globe; that our symphony orchestras match Europe's best; and, of course, that Hollywood films suspend disbelief everywhere.

Is it possible, though, that Pax Americana has come to an end? If so, should we seek less ambitious goals abroad and rely less on military means to achieve them? India-born and Washington-based, Parag Khanna says yes and yes. In this fact-filled volume full of pithy observations and summaries, he identifies "three relatively equal centers of influence: Washington, Brussels, and Beijing." He is not the first to argue that the European Union and China have become our competitors for global influence; the point was made years ago by, among others, Charles Kupchan in The End of the American Era. Nonetheless, Khanna's study is noteworthy, primarily for his analysis of "the second world": some 100 transitional countries, such as Brazil, Ukraine and Iran, that do not qualify either as rich advanced industrial states or as least developed nations.

By Khanna's account, "the race to win the second world is on." And so he visited many of these transitional places to see for himself which way they are leaning in the new contest among the three main centers of power. From Mexico to Uzbekistan and points in between, Khanna reports conversations about politics and economics with officials, scholars and the inevitable taxi drivers. In Central Asia, his interlocutors see Chinese influence on the rise; in Central and Eastern Europe, they see the growing power of the European Union. By contrast, America's impact is less in evidence almost everywhere, Khanna observes, partly because our foreign aid budget is relatively small; as a result, the United States can still punish adversaries militarily, but its ability or willingness to reward allies and thus shape their behavior is rather limited. Our main flaw, however, is that we have not adjusted our mindset to the post-Cold War era. While we pursue a "global war" on terror, for example, the leaders of many other nations think we face a terrorist "challenge" that calls for a carefully calibrated economic and diplomatic -- as well as military -- response. "Strong arms and strongmen cannot mask America's relative decline," Khanna argues, "since they are the chief symbols of it."

In addition to stressing that American power has declined, Khanna also says we're not very smart at using the power we still have. China impresses the second world with its astonishing economic progress and political fortitude. The European Union impresses with its ability to build consensus among both its members and its eager applicants. Oversimplifying a complex issue, Khanna contends that the United States "no longer seems to know what it wants" because its foreign policy elite "is utterly divorced from citizens' concerns": "Leaders are keen for the United States to fight more wars, push for free trade, and allow mass immigration, while the majority of Americans want fewer military interventions, less foreign aid, immigration restrictions, and some form of protectionism for American jobs and industries." Khanna, who directs a global governance initiative at the New America Foundation, is a serious scholar. He has read widely. He correctly calls attention to our growing inability to convince or cajole even as we continue to warn and intimidate.

What he does not offer is a discussion of the leadership deficit that may be at the heart of America's putative decline. All of his travels that form the basis of the book took place in the last few years, at a time when Washington has often substituted lecturing for leadership. While the anti-Americanism he observes is therefore real enough, it is arguably more a reaction to the Bush administration's foreign policy and we-know-everything-better-than-anyone-else mindset than to the reality and promise of America. In Second Chance, Zbigniew Brzezinski's insightful study published last year, the former national security adviser suggested that the United States could bounce back and regain lost ground if new leaders emerge who are mature enough to accept global diversity, and who treat foreign friends with circumspection and adversaries with a modicum of tolerance. If this were to happen in the next few years, Khanna's book would become obsolete. If it does not happen, the book will be among those that warned, correctly, of the ending of the American era. Charles Gati, author of "Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution," teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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