The superpower vacuum

By Chrystia Freeland
September 19, 2011

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.

5 comments

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We need a superpower here in the USA to straighten out our crooked politics! And our crooked banks.

Like it or not, America is fragmenting and fast. When the top quintile thinks the bottom 4 quintiles are trash, you have a “representative” government in trouble. Generally the rate of decline is stunning and so is the lack of comprehension.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

And if I wanted to call the US, who should I call?
A president who became a lame duck after only 2 years?

I guess I should call the CEO of one of those big corporations who are the real rulers in the US.

Posted by garilou | Report as abusive

This sentiment has been apparent in Europe since the election of Obama.

But you tell only half the story. A superpower with Carter, Bush the Elder or Clinton at the helm is loved by everyone.

W?? Or, to a lesser extent, Reagan? No thanks. Nobody wants that kind of bully in the room.

With Obama in charge Europe hoped for more foreign policy activism. They (we) will stop hoping for that if Perry gets elected.

Posted by Dafydd | Report as abusive

@garilou

“I guess I should call the CEO of one of those big corporations who are the real rulers in the US.”

OUCH! True…so very true but Ouch. Poor Obama, poor us – he promised so much hope and then went right back to propping up the rotten edifice he wad elected to: repair were possible, replace as necessary or tear down where corrupt.

Instead he ran scared; kissed butt; showed no spine and well…none of those voters who came out for him before will come out for him again or possibly anyone. I won’t.

In a way he was worse than Bush because…well we knew Bush was bad but Obama…his spectacular failure was a deep betrayal that has broken, hearts spirits and wills; all those young people who wanted better now believe “what’s the point?”

Remember it was the failure of the Weimar Republic that gave rise to fascism. The tea party will get their wish with the election of Rick Perry or Mitt Romney (Michelle Bachman as vice president) – they will destroy the rest of the middle class and once that is complete and 20% of America sits upon 80%…something will build, something will SNAP and god help us then.

I fear something will rise out of that something so scary, those tea-bagger will pray for the good’old days when Obama was president.

Ouch.

Posted by FoxxDrake | Report as abusive

God…this whole article is just too much. A “Dutch rudder” if ever there was one! They would have been better off inviting a Chinese rep than Geithner. In fact who exactly invited him? Who is “they”? and if “they” invited him why was he brushed aside? Also the correct term is “hyper power” (since the fall of the USSR) we still have super powers without a doubt.

Posted by Pablito | Report as abusive