The superpower vacuum
Where is a superpower when you need one?
Many Americans suspect that their country’s relative decline is being met with gloating in other parts of the world — and not just in the dictatorships that have good reason to fear a strong United States. Americans imagine that even many firm friends have long nursed quiet resentments of the rule of their big brother, and that those historic slights mean a certain pleasure is being taken in America’s waning.
Those suspicions aren’t wrong. If you have trouble understanding how even the most ardent ally can also have a younger sibling’s sense of grievance, watch “In the Loop,” the BBC comedy loosely based on the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
In one scene, the British prime minister’s enforcer, a character modeled on Alastair Campbell, arrives at the White House for a meeting on the impending war only to discover that his counterpart is a 22-year-old. His poetically obscene response is classic Campbell, and an illustration of why even some loyal Brits might not be totally dismayed by the humbling of the superpower.
Although the schadenfreude is real, it is swiftly being replaced by an even more powerful emotion — nostalgia. From Berlin to Benghazi, it is becoming increasingly clear that in a crisis it is awfully handy to have a superpower around.
That sentiment is being felt most strongly this week in Europe. The Americans missed most of all across the Atlantic are American consumers — if only they were buying as voraciously as they did before the 2008 crisis and the U.S. economy was playing its old role as consumption engine for the world, Europe’s financial woes would be a lot less severe.
But the Europeans are also struggling with a lack of global political leadership. When Henry Kissinger was secretary of state in the 1970s, he pointed to the lack of a European political center with his celebrated question: “If I want to call Europe, who do I call?”
Today Europe has one central banker Kissinger could dial up, but it still lacks a single political boss. That absence is one reason the Europeans need U.S. leadership now more than ever.
In the late 1990s, when Russia’s economic woes menaced Europe, the United States dispatched the “Committee to Save the World,” the troika of Alan Greenspan, Robert E. Rubin and Lawrence H. Summers made famous in the iconic Time cover that depicted them as superheroes.
That team did help prevent the eventual Russian default and devaluation and the economic collapse in Asia from sinking the global economy. Today, though, that troika’s equivalents are mostly consumed by the effort to save their own nation’s economy — and, in the case of the U.S. central banker, to avoid the pitchforks of some of their more aggrieved compatriots.
But Europe is discovering that it is hungry for all the attention it can get, even from a politically distracted and economically weakened United States. On Friday, Timothy F. Geithner, the secretary of the Treasury, attended a meeting of European finance ministers in Wroclaw, Poland, at the Europeans’ invitation. That will be his second trip across the Atlantic in just seven days — Geithner was in Marseille at the beginning of the week, where he told the Group of 7 meeting of finance ministers and central bankers that Europeans needed to “act more forcefully” to address the crisis.
“It is so interesting that Geithner is going to the Ecofin meeting,” said Jim O’Neill, chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management. “There is nobody inside the euro area who has the leadership ability to solve it. So it might be that it is convenient for them to have a superpower appear as the great savior.”
A muscular United States is being missed on the world’s battlefields, too. Canada is one of the world’s most ardent multilateralists, for reasons of geopolitical necessity as well as cultural inclination, and Canadians have more cause than any other nationality to suffer from little-brother syndrome when it comes to the behemoth with whom they share a continent.
But in the testing ground of Afghanistan, Canadian soldiers came to love Big Brother. “Our own guys learned in Afghanistan that if you’ve got American capabilities behind you, you’ve got the best there is, but you can’t rely on NATO the way you can on the United States,” said David Bercuson, head of the Center for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. “NATO is nothing without the United States. Our military discovered that.”
“The Europeans talked a very good game about setting up a European defense community. But now, with the deep budget cuts coming, the notion Europe would evolve into any significant military power seems further away than it was 10 years ago,” Bercuson said.
Both in Kandahar and in Wroclaw we are learning the unpleasant realities of living in what Ian Bremmer and Nouriel Roubini have dubbed “a G-Zero world.” As they argued in an essay in Foreign Affairs: “We are now living in a G-Zero world, one in which no single country or bloc of countries has the political and economic leverage — or the will — to drive a truly international agenda. The result will be intensified conflict on the international stage over vitally important issues.”
Michael Ignatieff, the writer and former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, said we shouldn’t waste our time debating whether the G-Zero world is a good thing. The point is that “this long transition to a world which is not run from Washington” is a reality, and one which we need to figure out how to adapt to fast. “The fact is that America is being forced to step back from certain tables — so the rest of the world needs to step up,” Ignatieff said.
But as we are seeing in Europe, acting in concert without a clear and willing leader is hard to do. As the sun begins to set on imperial America, even the sometimes resentful little brothers are realizing the extent to which Washington’s muscular pursuit of its own self-interest has served us all.