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Read other short works about the Peace Corps experience America’s Role in a Post-American World

by Carl Pope (India 1967–69)

In August there was a gathering of RPCVs in Fort Collins, Colorado, organized by the non-profit Beet Street which is a collaborative learning community in Fort Collins. One of the speakers was Carl Pope,Printer friendly version Executive Director of the Sierra Club since 1992 and a veteran leader in the environmental movement having been with the Sierra Club for nearly thirty years. Carl was kind enough to share his notes from his talk entitled, “America’s Role in a Post-American World” with us.
LAST WINTER’S UNITED NATIONS CONFERENCE in Bali, Indonesia, on global warming stood out less for its outcome — a modest global agreement to keep talking — than for its dramaturgy. The conference was stage managed not by the US or Europe, the historic protagonists on climate, but by China, India, Indonesia and South Africa — emerging economies that for the first time moved, sometimes cautiously, sometimes boldly, out of their “you in the industrial world caused the problem of global warming — you fix it” trenches.
     
The climactic line in Bali belonged to Papua New Guinea’s Kevin Conrad, who confronted US delegate Paula Dobriansky, as she attempted to block the agreement. “If you cannot lead, leave it to the rest of us. Get out of the way,” Conrad chided the world’s hyper-power. Dobriansky and the US delegation promptly blinked.
     
Travelling in Vietnam after the conference, my wife, who was borne in Bombay, raised an intriguing issue. Everywhere we went the gradual ebbing of the “American century” was palpable. Korean tourists are the shiny new object at the temples of Angkor Wat, Singapore’s Ching Mai airport puts Kennedy or LAX to shame in the efficiency with which it loads passengers into taxis. On a hundred mile boat trip in the Mekong Delta we passed under not one but three new cable-stressed mega-bridges under construction – each one larger than the planned replacement for the San Francisco Bay Bridge that has taken California since 1989 to get underway.
     
It’s no longer just that Asian populations are bigger, younger and in some cases better educated, or that their economies are growing faster. Asian countries are also following Japan’s path by developing capacities in an increasing number of fields that put America to shame. Sometime in the not too distant future the US will no longer have the world’s largest economy. Sometime this century it will fall to number three or four.
     
“It’s going to be a new world,” my wife observed, in the context of the next presidential election. “I’m not sure if Americans are ready for that reality.”
     
I’m pretty sure they are not. At Bali the most reviled US statement came from the chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality James Connaughton, who declared, “We will lead, we will continue to lead. But leadership also requires others to fall in line and follow.” Connaughton’s line did not suggest that he has internalized a new global reality.
     
But it’s not just the Bush Administration that’s not ready. Most of the discussion of the foreign policy contrast between this year’s presidential candidates focused on their emphasis on soft power vs. hard power — almost none asked which had a vision of how America should transition to being a competitive, not a hegemonic, power.
     
Losing your place as the undisputed number one is never easy. No one has ever done it well. Perhaps America, an open society built by successive waves of immigrants, has a better shot at a graceful evolution into a nation that leads a multi-polar world by its values, once it loses its sheer heft, than Rome or Britain, our two imperial ancestors.
     
But for even a nation with America’s advantages to accept the rise of a genuinely multi-polar world will take skilled leadership — and probably luck.
     
There is a lot at stake here – and not just for Americans. One of the other realities at Bali was that in confronting global warming, the US is not only a “major emitter,” but therefore an essential party to any solution. However, without American leadership, it was clear that Europe and the developing world cannot resolve their own internal conflicts and embrace bold change — American engagement is still essential.
     
Even as my wife and I were tracing the ebbing of American hegemony in the spider webbed cables of new bridges, writers and publishers were getting ready to make this narrative one of the 2008’s hot stories. Whether it is in books by the Indian Diaspora like Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World or Kishore Mahbubani's The New Asian Hemisphere or in “Who Shrank the Superpower?: Waving Goodbye to Hegemony” in the New York Times magazine [by Parag Khanna 1/27/08], no serious reader on foreign policy has not heard the argument — the American era is over.

     But while the phenomenon has become big news, the debate seems to be remarkably half-hearted. Some reviewers critique whether American power really is as diminished as the new wave of writings claims, or are these merely yet another series in the “decline and fall of the American empire” vein. Others take refuge in arguing about whether Mahbubani is correct in claiming that India is a good bet to assume America’s role as a global honest broker, or offering their own policy prescriptions for how America’s leadership.
    
There is none of the serious anguish that signaled previous “we must change courses moments” in recent history — say the launching of Sputnik. Thomas Friedman’s argument for a new “global green” economy is almost the only big new idea out there.
     
Almost none of the analysis asks the question, “What are the American people going to make of this transition?” And very few seem to explore whether or not America’s leadership is asking that question. Indeed, no one wonders whether our establishment has been primarily motivated by finding ways for America to continue as a global leader, or whether the loss of American credibility and effectiveness is the understandable result of an elite pursuing domestic, rather than global goals, albeit on a globalized stage.
     I am going to suggest that America’s leaders have been making it as hard as possible for the average American to cope with the 21st century reality that America is no longer the hyper-power. As globalization has matured, American policy has become less and less suited to maintain public consent for American leadership in a globalized world. By leaders I am NOT referring solely or even primarily to the Bush Administration. In this context Bush appears to me as a malignant extreme – but only the extreme — of a bi-partisan leadership policy approach that began as a trickle and has swollen to a flood over the last thirty-five years.
     
The heart of this approach was to take America’s supremacy, and America’s engagement, for granted. These were givens, realities to be exploited and taken advantage of for other domestic political, cultural and economic purposes — not hard won and fragile assets to be stewarded and preserved. The primary domestic purpose for which the changing rules of the globalized economy were to be deployed was to reduce the income equality, social solidarity and relative homogeneity that emerged from World War II. Globalization was an opportunity to make the rules of the game inside America better for the winners, and harsher for the less successful. The American government approaches the world with a set of strategies whose impact makes America less fair, less inclusive, and less balanced — and as a result less competitive in the new multi-polar world, and less willing and able to assume the burdens of global leadership.
     
This didn’t have to be the consequence of globalization — but it was the result of the way the US government approached it. And by reducing the sense that all Americans are facing the challenge of globalization together, we have made it much harder for the average American to accept the new global realities.
     
It’s not accidental that the nations that have caught up with the US economically and socially since WWII — first those in Europe, then Japan, Korea and Taiwan, and now China – all emerged from devastating experiences which created a strong sense of internal solidarity. All invested heavily in trying to bring their entire populations into the modern world. They were about competing with other nations internationally, not internally.
If a country wants to be able to respond quickly to the demands of a changing global economy, it’s important that everyone pull in the same direction. This capacity — to cooperate for the common good — is what America has been gradually losing.
      
The sense of a common American destiny in the world which emerged from the Depression and WWII has been hollowed out by a set of policy strategies adopted by America’s national elites. Whether the issue was trade, education, the structure of our military, or the impact of immigration on wages, America’s leaders took care of themselves and the knowledge class from which they emerged — America’s most comfortable — and correspondingly left the middle and lower rungs of the social hierarchy naked to the storms of change.
     
Instead of getting ready to compete with the world, our leaders have been focused on psyching us up to compete with each other, with rules of the game that ratchet up the odds that the results are winner take all.

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