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August 27, 2007

The Post-American Era?

A brutal conclusion to Adam Gopnik's profile of Nicolas Sarkozy:

The catastrophe in Iraq has had an unlooked-for effect: not to stoke anti-Americanism in a new generation but to make America seem almost marginal...Now, for the first time, it’s possible to imagine modernization as something independent of Americanization: when people in Paris talk about ambitious kids going to study abroad, they talk about London. (Americans have little idea of the damage done by the ordeal that a routine run through immigration at J.F.K. has become for Europeans, or by the suspicion and hostility that greet the most anodyne foreigners who come to study or teach at our scientific and educational institutions.) When people in Paris talk about manufacturing might, they talk about China; when they talk about tall buildings, they talk about Dubai; when they talk about troubling foreign takeovers, they talk about Gazprom. The Sarkozy-Gordon Brown-Merkel generation is not unsympathetic to America, but America is not so much the primary issue for them, as it was for Blair and Chirac, in the nineties, when America was powerful beyond words. To a new leadership class, it sometimes seems that America is no longer the human bomb you have to defuse but the nut you walk away from.

What Brown, Merkel, and Sarkozy all have in common is that they do not want to be defined by their response to America—either unduly faithful, as with Blair, or unduly hostile, as Chirac became. Instead, as Levitte says, they all want to normalize relations with a great power that is no longer the only power. Its military weakness has been exposed in Iraq, its economic weakness by the rise of the euro, and its once great cultural magnetism has been diminished by post-9/11 paranoia and insularity. America has recovered from worse before, and may do so again. But it is also possible that the election of Nicolas Sarkozy may be seen not as the start of a new pro-American moment in Europe but as a marker of the beginning of the post-American era.

It's an interesting thought. In the 1990s, the formulation was that we were the "indispensable nation." The question, increasingly, is indispensable for what? A land war with China, certainly, but no one's jumping into that. A reduction in carbon emissions, but we don't appear interested in cooperating. Our funding for various developmental projects is important, but not indispensable in the sense that it grants us prestige or unquestioned leadership. Our involvement in various international organizations and treaties -- the International Criminal Court, the UN, the Non-Proliferation treaty -- legitimizes them, but we've pulled away or sought to undermine these institutions and they've survived despite our efforts. Our recent invasion continues to prove an unmitigated disaster, we've lost our prestige and proven unable to bring Iran to heel, and Latin America is now populated with leaders who found political success in anti-Americanism.

It's not a good time for America.

August 27, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

Are there any statitics to back any of that up? My understanding is that, for example, American Universities are still attracting the best and brightest of Europe and that that continues to be a problem and an issue for them. Has the number of French students studying in America in fact declined since 2001? Such a thing would surprise me.

As for America being marginal in its ability to project military power, it seems to me that anyone who believes that, or that any nation with the possible exception of China could successfully project military power without the cooperation of America is living in a fantasyland. Obviously, there are many who want to believe that being able to project such power is not important, but that also seems delusional to me.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Aug 27, 2007 2:51:13 PM

Well, if you start from the notion that the US rose to prominence only because all the other powerful nations in the world had blown one another back to early victorian times (and sent their best people fleeing to the US in the process) it pretty much makes sense. Up through WWII it was pretty much understood (if grudgingly over here) that the US was a backwater.

Posted by: paul | Aug 27, 2007 2:56:40 PM

i can imagine being marginalized by serve to europeanize the US. when the right can no longer point to american exceptionalism as vindication of their unilateralism and as evidence of God's providence, the american people will be less willing to accept the BS that brought us down from our pedestal in the first place.

Posted by: Cody | Aug 27, 2007 3:04:07 PM

i can imagine being marginalized "might" (not by) serve to europeanize the US.

Posted by: Cody | Aug 27, 2007 3:04:43 PM

The international institutions we took generations building are holding. If you think about it, this very, very important. Bush tried to move away from these institutions and create a world where yet again might makes right (while simultaneously weakening us) but he has not succeeded.

The United States was going to become just another powerful country at some point this century, Bush just sped up the process by a decade or two.

Posted by: Mark | Aug 27, 2007 3:25:15 PM

I know that my friends in a variety of businesses in Europe and Australia talk about a strong and widespread desire on their businesses' part to avoid fresh entanglements with America now. They've cut back on business travel here, and seldom vacation here. They work out partnerships around America rather than through it. They see us as already slumped far into an intellectual dead end as well as a moral abyss, and figure it's just a matter of time before that result becomes obvious even to us. The investors among them (and one works for the British business press) see most money spent here as money far too likely to go down the drain thanks to deliberately incompetent governmental oversight and a wide variety of corruptions and shortfalls in private society. Now that our military's broken and exhausted, we simply don't have much of anything between bluster and nukes.

It's not that America can be irrelevant, exactly, not with our population, backlog of resources, and all. But we can nonetheless matter in a way more like India traditionally has, as a huge pool of stuff used in accordance with others' plans.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh | Aug 27, 2007 3:56:17 PM

A very insightful article. This echoes what is happening in Asia where the US, with its monomaniacal focus on terrorism (not a big issue there) is more and more seen as irrelevant, while China talks trade and other regional issues. We start to disappear, not with a bang but a whimper.

Oh well, we'll always have Hollywood . . .

Posted by: santamonicamr | Aug 27, 2007 4:07:03 PM

paul,

Not to sound like too much of a nationalist, but the US already had the largest economy in the world at the outset of World War I. It also had the inherent might to tip the scales of that war once it entered. This is why the Germans sued for peace in 1918.

Far from being a backwater, it was a place of incredible dynamism and invention by the late nineteenth century. Europeans may have looked down on it culturally, but our industrial economy was unparalleled and our naval power nothing to sneeze at even then. The U.S. had quickly kicked the crap out of Spain in 1898 and succeeded in building the Panama Canal where the French had failed abysmally.

The U.S. still has extraordinary military and cultural power notwithstanding the Boy King's misrule. However, undoing the damage he has done in terms of world opinion is going to be an almost full time job for the next president. (And cannot be accomplished by a Republican.)

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | Aug 27, 2007 4:24:02 PM

I do think we are still indispensable, but now in a negative way, in that none of these global problems are really going to get solved without our cooperation or at least participation, just owing to the size of our economy and contribution to them. Of course, our current failure to engage or lead on these things is contributing even more to us becoming a pariah state. But turning it around and walking the walk on things like global warming, proliferation, energy, infectious diseases, etc could be our road back to some sort of respect and influence. However, that's going to take a level of leadership and vision which I'm just not seeing anywhere in our political class right now.

Posted by: J. Dunn | Aug 27, 2007 4:38:01 PM

What's it been now, 60 years since the Europeans have wanted to be free of our influence? When I was working in the UK back in 2001, I was shocked to find out then how resented we were by the locals for how we managed the cold war. We always had them on the brink of war. I wondered aloud how they thought an alternative solution would have played out but they had no response.

Given Europe's history, I have no doubt each new generation of leader there will look to build a new, European led work leadership paradigm. Europeans see themselves as work leaders and I think it's fairly healthy for them to want to think they can manage without us. To some extent, especially on regional issues, they can; though on truly global issue they won't be able to.

This reminds me of the fear back in the '80's of Japan and Germany usurping our role as world economic leader.

Posted by: DM | Aug 27, 2007 5:09:47 PM

I couldn't offer statistics about this, but during the cultural dead zone of the Bush era new music and music production has been more interesting in London, Paris and the Caribbean. This could be skewed to my own interests (I deal with it at work too) while the American knack for packaging and promoting blockbusters is still unchallenged -- and the top acts / movies etc. won't suffer -- overall it doesn't have the same cachet.

Bush just overall cheapened Brand America culturally.

The level of criticism of the Bush era within pop culture doesn'tmatch the crap of the admin. World music's a lot more outspoken about current events and the sense that you haven't made it till you've made it in America is waning.

The improvement of studio facilities, DIY tools and venues available to indy and world talents in the arts has a lot to do with it too.

Posted by: Ellie | Aug 27, 2007 5:22:52 PM

I don't know that the US losing its superpower status would necessarily be a bad thing. The UK was once the greatest world power. Now they've declined to one of the important countries, but certainly not the world's greatest power. And they are doing well!

Posted by: Ms. Clear | Aug 27, 2007 6:17:28 PM

Note that Brown and Sarko are US-philes, which actually gives them a more rounded sense of the country, and perhaps a less idealised one than, say, Blair or Thatcher.

I think the current attitude in certain parts of the UK is like that of someone whose friend is dating an arsehole: 'hope you're doing fine, can't hang out with you now, call me when you're free.'

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Aug 27, 2007 6:24:45 PM

Ezra once again betrays his youth. People have been predicting the waning of American power for as long as I can remember. (I'm 64). In fact, the only extended period of time when these types of predictions were somewhat muted was during the Clinton years.

Someday American power will wane. Perhaps we are seeing the beginning of it. But if the people who are now predicting it get it right, then I will attribute their perspicacious judgement to what it really is -- plain old-fashioned dumb luck.

Posted by: George | Aug 27, 2007 6:35:17 PM

Ezra once again betrays his youth. People have been predicting the waning of American power for as long as I can remember. (I'm 64). In fact, the only extended period of time when these types of predictions were somewhat muted was during the Clinton years.

I found solace in this through the first few years of Bush's presidency. Many people just assume the United States will collapse under its own wait or against the wait of threats or competition. I remember in the 80's when the Japanese were going to take over everything.

But I later realized I was making another assumption. Certainly America won't be on the top of the world forever; eventually the rest of the world will catch up.

I firmly believe we will survive the Bush era, but I no longer take if for granted. It will take work to recover from this disaster.

Posted by: Mark | Aug 27, 2007 7:23:53 PM

Stick a fork in it- it's done. We are one nation among many and the most important thing about us, from the standpoint of the rest of the world, is our corn crop.

However, IMHO, we still represent a very important achievement- a large integrated economy within a large state organized on federalist principles.

China, Russia, Argentina, India, and Brazil have large internal markets but weak governmental structures. The EU is working out how to be what we already are.

Of course, we could discard this advantage, as we have so many others, by bankrupting ourselves with anti-drug wars and unrestrained military spending.

Posted by: serial catowner | Aug 27, 2007 7:37:00 PM

Although I yield to no one in my hatred of the Bush administration, and I think we make some profound policy mistakes -- health care, social welfare generally -- I disagree strongly with the declinist view of the US. The sheer size of the US economy and population, the dynamism of its people, the boost that we get through immigration, and the strength of our institutions means that we will continue to be the preeminent actor on the world stage for the foreseeable future. All potential rivals start from so far behind us -- and face far more profound problems than us -- that I can't see who will surpass us. Who would you suggest?

Posted by: Klein's tiny left nut | Aug 27, 2007 8:05:01 PM

I'm with Ms. Clear. It's one thing to argue that we are entering a "post-American era." It is entirely a different thing to go from this to the conclusion that "this is not a good time for America." Maybe you are just being a tad glib, but unless you believe in American exceptionalism (an unfounded and dangerous worldview), why be disappointed in our failure to dominate the planet? Of course, in reference to the fact that everyone hates us, I think you are right, but that's a different ball o' wax. Also, that's a lot more easily remedied, by, for example, electing a President who is not a war-happy lunatic.

Posted by: bobbo | Aug 27, 2007 8:54:58 PM

I'm with Clear and bobbo.

The best thing that could happen to this country, for our own sake, would be to stop being "indispensable," and for current trends to continue.

We won't be a true, fully functioning democracy as long as we have these imperial ambitions to remain top dog, whether out of the desire for control or "to help others". Either way is poison for our soul.

Posted by: UG | Aug 27, 2007 9:12:47 PM

I'm with Clear and bobbo.

The best thing that could happen to this country, for our own sake, would be to stop being "indispensable," and for current trends to continue.

We won't be a true, fully functioning democracy as long as we have these imperial ambitions to remain top dog, whether out of the desire for control or "to help others". Either way is poison for our soul.

Posted by: UG | Aug 27, 2007 9:13:26 PM

It also had the inherent might to tip the scales of that war once it entered. This is why the Germans sued for peace in 1918

Um, no. The million or so American troops--the buildup to that number took a year; we were sending absolutely green draftees--eventually balanced German troops released from the Eastern Front by the Russian Revolution. The German offensive in the spring/summer of 1918 came within forty miles of Paris. It was starvation at home, the result of an increasingly effective British naval blockade, and fear of a workers' uprising all along the East, that defeated Germany, especially once the spring offensive was blunted and increasing anti-war sentiment at home began to infect the troops (along with the Spanish flu). The idea that the Great War was one big stalemate until the Yanks arrived and tipped the balance is a schoolbook fallacy. If you want to credit troops (the Americans fought bravely and sometimes well, but were hopelessly green and poorly led), credit the Aussies, who blunted the last German attack.

People have been predicting the waning of American power for as long as I can remember. (I'm 64). In fact, the only extended period of time when these types of predictions were somewhat muted was during the Clinton years.

I don't remember much of that in the 50s or 60s; even post-Vietnam our influence with allies was strong. We had a fractured manpower equation in the 70s, but our projected battlefield was nuclear. The manpower equation now is even worse, and at a time when we imagine our military mission as political interdiction. We control the seas, and the air; that's a significant advantage. But we also have the obligation to continue to fund that superiority with no clear mission for it.

Posted by: doghouse riley | Aug 27, 2007 9:51:30 PM

The story of the 21st Century will be the rise of Asia. This will come at the expense of America, but even more so at the expense of Europe. Gopnick can lament that fewer French students are coming to America to study, but who really cares.

The US would be wiser to extract herself from Middle Eastern politics and start paying far closer attention to parts of the world that really matter: India, China, and Japan.

Europe will still be a fine place to study, say, art history or cooking, but it's not a good place for young, ambitious people who want to play an important role in world affairs or business in the coming decades.

Posted by: Chris40 | Aug 27, 2007 10:37:49 PM

Unh, bringing it back to France - I read the New Yorker piece and it strikes me as glossing over in a big way the ethnic tensions that pervade the place. The UK also has a lot of issues with unemployed racial minorities but if you look at the British parliament there are a lot more coloured faces than in France (where there are quasi-no minority MPs). So it will take more than appointing talented minority women to head Ministries. Fixing the disproportionate unemployment of minorities would help but then again how do you compel racist employers to hire non-whites? Finally the reason a lot of people on the Left don't like Sarkozy is because they see him as xenophobic. Personally I like his straight-talkin' style but if his vision of catching up to the UK or the US is indeed to build more prisons and slash education funding then I suppose France might well go the way of these child-on-child murdering havens of competitive efficiency...

Posted by: matrok | Aug 27, 2007 11:24:57 PM

What Brown, Merkel, and Sarkozy all have in common is that they do not want to be defined by their response to America—either unduly faithful, as with Blair, or unduly hostile, as Chirac became. Instead, as Levitte says, they all want to normalize relations with a great power that is no longer the only power.

I don't know why this is supposed to be "brutal". It sounds like a much healthier situation for all concerned. It's not that the US has fallen to a level of total insignificance, but rather that the perception of power is more in line with that that we can actually project--which is to say enough enough that the world can't ignore us, but not so much that we can ignore the world.

Posted by: TW Andrews | Aug 27, 2007 11:38:03 PM

The fear is that at some point they will simply ignore us. I live here, and I know I am already ignoring half of what my fellow country men say as " factual givens" as nothing more than belief. The deitification of the market for example by even people who have nothing to gain from the status quo, and everything to gain from say universal healthcare.

Posted by: akaison | Aug 28, 2007 12:55:47 AM

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