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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Roger Cohen: America Agonistes

Roger Cohen in today's NY Times:

Pax Americana, unlovely but effective, has endured for more than 60 years, the consequence of the post-war development of the United States as a European and Asian power. It has averted the worst, but it is safe to say that it is closer to the end than the beginning of its life.

I say this with no enthusiasm. As a beneficiary of America’s far-flung garrisons, and a member of a generation blessed (as the Germans say) with late birth, I have few illusions about what greater disasters might have befallen Europe and Asia without the offsetting presence of U.S. power.

But, as General Motors has discovered, history moves on.

G.M., in fact, is not a bad emblem for this moment when the world’s tectonic plates are plainly on the move. No corporation ever symbolized American might with greater vividness. It topped the first Fortune 500 list in 1955, the year I was born, and was in the top three by revenue every year until 2007. Now it is all but bankrupt.

There are many reasons for this debacle, including GM’s failure to adapt to the shift to a low-carbon economy, the general decline of manufacturing in the United States, and global competition. G.M. lost out as America changed. Emma Rothschild noted recently in The New York Review of Books that U.S. consumers spent less on new cars in 2007 than on brokerage fees and investment counseling!

Where that debt-driven American investment binge led is now clear: to financial meltdown, tens of millions of lost jobs and a global hunt for fat-cat scapegoats paying themselves bonuses for failure. Anglo-American capitalism is on trial, the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions exhausted.

From this wreckage, this ending, the Group of 20 must trace the contours of a 21st century global economy. The task embarked on here in London will be long. As it happens, it has begun in the same week as NATO leaders meet in France and Germany to mark the Atlantic Alliance’s 60th birthday. These gatherings — of an old and a new organization — both mark America’s changing place in the world.

At the G-20, the power of free markets — the American mantra of recent decades — is in retreat before state intervention, led in many respects by a chastened United States itself that has discovered some merit in the oft-mocked European model.

More fundamentally, it is clear that the answers do not lie in Washington, where consensus has long been sought, but increasingly in new centers of economic power and new forms of global cooperation. The G-20 itself — with the presence of the likes of China, Brazil, India and South Africa — reflects this reality.

China’s demand for greater power within the International Monetary Fund, its provocative questioning of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, and the ultimate dependence of a debtor nation like the United States on changed behavior from the mega-surplus powers of China, Germany and Japan are all indicators of American vulnerability.

Such vulnerability is not confined to the economic sphere. Its treasure depleted, its dominance eroded, its standing questioned, America cannot forever bankroll the security of the world.

That will be a reality of the 21st century, not perhaps its first couple of decades, but increasingly over time. The NATO summit, however celebratory in towns that symbolize Europe’s American-assisted overcoming of its collective suicide, must begin to grapple with this inevitability.

For beyond the troubled Afghan mission, itself an eloquent expression of NATO’s ongoing transformation, and beyond the critical question of the alliance’s relations with Russia, lies a still more fundamental issue: what exactly is a post-cold-war NATO for and how will American power be projected within it?

In pondering this, I’m struck by a defining event of this summit: the return of France to the integrated military command of NATO. Poor de Gaulle; he must be turning in his grave. But give President Nicolas Sarkozy credit where it’s due: there was no point in prolonging the quixotic Gallic pursuit of counterweight status to the United States when U.S. power itself was dwindling. Why counter an eroding weight?

One result of Sarkozy’s volte-face is that a French general will preside in Virginia over the Allied Command Transformation project, devoted to blue-sky re-imaginings of the alliance. I like the idea of a Frenchman in the United States rethinking the world: friction stimulates.

My own view, based in the conviction that Pax Americana cannot endure another 60 years in its current form, is that a NATO now tacitly or explicitly working for the defense and expansion of the liberal democratic order — a task with no obvious geographical limit — must in time evolve into an alliance of democracies in which the likes of Japan, India and Australia would logically take their place.

One of Barack Obama’s central strategic tasks is to forge a more balanced world order that will advance American interests, political and economic, even at the price of diminished American pre-eminence. Fortunately this most cosmopolitan of U.S. presidents is well suited to the task. A guiding intelligence has replaced a guiding anger at the White House.

(Zoon Politikon)



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