A World at Risk America has the power to provide order but it squandered its legitimacy
In the year of the “velvet revolution,” when the Berlin Wall came down, U.S. political scientist Francis Fukuyama triggered a worldwide debate with his essay, “The End of History.” He argued that with the collapse of communism, history as a succession of warring ideologies was over and victory had gone to capitalist, liberal democracy as the only viable system for the future.
What a nice fallacy! It is true that, for a short time, it looked as if history had transcended itself. Dictators were falling as market economies were triumphing. But the human longing for some kind of doctrine of salvation is an anthropological constant, so history soon returned with a vengeance. Critics of capitalism were reborn as anti-globalization activists, and the enemies of liberalism, switched colors: from revolutionary red to the green of Islamic fundamentalism buttressed by terrorism.
Meanwhile, democratization in its forcible incarnation has failed miserably. The neat theory espoused by Kant and de Tocqueville that democracies are basically peaceable turned out horribly wrong in Iraq, ending in a war of each against all.
Worse yet, the world has become more dangerous since the “end of history.” Two regimes, Iran and North Korea, are reaching for the bomb to fortify their apocalyptic dreams, and their regional rivals will surely follow suit. Terrorism has become a dime-store weapon against a liberal world order. This order is based on globalized trade and investment but also on precious civil rights threatened by increased surveillance and expanding executive power.
As for globalization, it produces rapid growth and narrows the gap between the industrialized world and those developing countries that submit to it. But it also amplifies inequality within the West, because millions upon millions of Asians put downward pressure on wages for unskilled labor, including in the service sector. The result is the rise of demagogues on both the right and the left who want to build walls against people as well as against goods.
In the Middle East, sects fight sects, regimes fight their peoples, Islamic fundamentalists try to topple regimes and states fight each other. All of these conflicts threaten to spill over onto the global stage. To reverse Samuel Huntington’s famous phrase, the Middle East is a “civilization of clashes.” This is not how the “end of history” was supposed to play out.
So what do we do? Should we now practice only cold-blooded realpolitik? That would have prevented the war in Iraq and thus the rise of Iran, since for all his cruelty, Saddam provided a critical counterweight to the Khomeinist regime. Would Teheran have been so unstoppable in its quest for nuclear weapons if America’s power and credibility were still intact?
So yes to democratization but prudently, please. Even the most sophisticated army, in this case the American one, is like a mammoth, which can uproot trees but not plant and raise them. Moreover, the insurgents in Iraq don’t need hi-tech precision weaponry. Improvised explosive devices detonated by cell phone will do quite well in grinding down the occupiers by way of “asymmetric warfare.”
Unlike ancient Rome, the “Imperial Republic” of the United States lacks an imperial temperament – hence the long-term patience and willingness to make the sacrifices entailed by the projection of power far from home. Just look at the failure of military power in Somalia and Vietnam. France suffered similarly in Indochina and Algeria. So what about democratization now that any Middle Eastern despot can gleefully point at Iraq and Gaza and ask us: Do you really want free elections everywhere?
Are we then stuck with fawning over these people just because we need their oil and allegiance? It’s not really that simple. Of the 19 terrorists involved in the September 11 attacks, 15 came from Saudi Arabia, a fundamentalist kleptocracy that produces nothing but oil and young men without jobs or futures. Despair and poverty are the real roots of terrorism but the situation is not completely hopeless. Just look at Turkey or Malaysia. Both are Muslim countries with functioning democracies and flourishing economies. The small Gulf countries are liberalizing step-by-step. So is Jordan.
What’s needed is a three-pronged approach. Lagging countries must be integrated into the world economy, a key engine of growth. Secondly, we must apply gentle pressure toward reforms that do not sacrifice stability. And thirdly, we must extend security guarantees. The logic is quite simple. Once a regime feels secure on the outside, it can take political risks at home.
But who in this insecure world can provide security? The Europeans think they can but when the going gets tough, they don’t venture farther than into the coastal waters of Lebanon. The Russians? They are a revisionist power that wants to recoup what they have lost. Vladimir Putin’s business is Russia, not global responsibility. And he does much better with oil and gas than the Soviets ever did with tanks and missiles. China is also a revisionist power in the sense that its wants more than it has; its quest is for strategic advantage, not for worldwide responsibility. But it is a “soft” revisionist, trying to delay the confrontation with the U.S. in order to avoid the fate of Germany and Japan in the first half of the 20th century. Who else is there? The UN? The UN is a stage not an actor.
That leaves the “last remaining superpower.” For 50 years, the U.S. was the “leaden deadweight in the tumbler doll” of the liberal world order, to pick up on Bismarck’s description of Germany’s role in late-19th century Europe. For a long time, America played the anchor, producing regional order while upholding free trade and currency stability.
But in the era of George W. Bush, America acted more the consumer than the producer. Freed from the chains of bipolarity, it bestrode the world as Gulliver Unbound. It threw its weight around, scorning precisely those international institutions it once helped to establish. In monetary policy, it stopped caring about the stability of the dollar. “Coalitions of the willing” shouldered aside America’s ancient alliances.
In other words, once the pillar of world order, the U.S. became its problem. It was as if a building’s superintendent suddenly turned into its noisiest tenant.
The problem is this: Never has America’s physical power been so great, never its legitimacy so low. “America is radioactive,” complains Newsweek International’s editor Fareed Zakaria. But even for America’s detractors, this is hardly a cause for celebration. For worse than an overweening and overreaching America is a superpower that is weak, humiliated and self-involved.
In his second term, George W. Bush has begun to change course ever so slightly but the real correction won’t set in until 2009, when he will be gone.
What is the good news for 2007? It is the state of the world economy. Though the world has become more dangerous, the economy is “buzzing.” Thanks to globalization, the world economy has grown by almost 5 percent annually since 2003, and the International Monetary Fund predicts growth of more than 4 percent per year until 2010. Money remains cheap. Europe and Japan have much work left to do but they are climbing out of a long slump. The trigger was export-led growth but last year, finally, domestic consumption began to increase as well.
So Europe and Japan have done well by globalization but the downside of expanding markets and investments is just as evident. Globalization’s losers – the unskilled and low-skilled – are increasing as well, just as highly skilled labor is turning into a scarce commodity. Whereas it follows, “it’s education, stupid.” What is now just a cyclical upturn can segue into structural recovery only if investment in “human capital” soars.
The good news comes in the guise of a heartening paradox: The flourishing global economy seems to have uncoupled from the trials and tribulations of world politics. That is the best news for 2007 – but only if we can keep those “exogenous factors,” as the economists call them, at bay. They are terrorism and war but also the collapse of the dollar and the rise of populist demagoguery. If we can stave off those enemies of the liberal order, 2007 might end on a happy note on December 31.
- Josef Joffe is co-publisher of the Hamburg weekly Die Zeit. His book “Überpower. The Imperial Temptation of America” was recently published by W. W. Norton.