An unstable world doesn’t necessarily mean a declining America

By Ian Bremmer
May 9, 2012

Who says America is in decline?

Not me. But, if you listened to a recent Rush Limbaugh show, you might’ve heard him dismiss my new book, Every Nation for Itself, as a “declinist” tract that says America’s time as leader of the world is “over.” Nothing could be further from the truth. There’s an inordinate amount of concern out there that writers who are trying to understand the seismic shifts the world has undergone in recent years are in fact doomsayers – wonks who are convinced the U.S. is no longer a superpower and has lost its swagger. On the other side of this false dichotomy is the camp that tries to pretend all the upheaval of recent years has changed absolutely nothing about America’s objective standing on the world stage.

The split is playing out right now, in fact, in the presidential campaign, with the GOP accusing President Obama of being a declinist, while Obama counters that he is merely being a realist and that the Romney camp doesn’t understand the complexities of foreign affairs in the world today. Here’s the thing – not only is that irrelevant, but the very way the debate is being framed for the public is misleading, at best.

Here’s a simple way to think of it: If you’re camping and suddenly find yourself being chased by a bear in the woods, you really don’t need to outrun the bear – you need to outrun the other guys who are in the woods with you. And so far, the U.S. is doing a fine job staying ahead of the pack.

The reason the question is being framed incorrectly has much more to do with the state of the world than the role the U.S. plays in it. No one has seriously considered that we would embark on some kind of new Marshall Plan to save the euro. No one has expected us to strike Iran on behalf of Israel, or overthrow Assad in Syria. But just because we’re not being as interventionist as we have been in years and decades past does not mean we’ve shirked our global leadership role.

In a world where the U.S. isn’t saddled with these responsibilities, how do things change? First, for Americans, global affairs mean a lot less at the moment. The U.S. public is concerned about debt and the feeling that their wealth won’t accrue to the next generation, not globalization and foreign aid. But the issues are more serious for the rest of the world. Look at the clamor, for instance, around Iran’s threats to close off the Straits of Hormuz, through which 36 percent of the world’s oil flows. That’s a much bigger problem for China than for the U.S. Yet few pundits call on China to be the region’s cop.

It’s all right to be unenthusiastic about this change. The past 70 years felt like a better world order for everybody; sure, we’d bring ourselves to the brink of nuclear war, and change was slow in coming, but between the fall of Communism and the promise of nuclear non-proliferation, big, important changes in the world order came to pass, with the U.S. in the lead.

Given that the world order of that era is never coming back, how does the U.S. do in the current framework? I believe the answer is: surprisingly well. Yet from the way some public intellectuals talk about it, you’d never guess that.

Recently, at an event I attended, I heard a famous speaker and writer for a preeminent publication say that U.S. college graduates should head to Singapore for opportunities. That’s – no other way to say it – a ludicrous statement. Half of the millionaires in China want to live in the U.S., which boasts the best universities, most incredible business opportunities and most resilient civil stability of any country in the world. As wonderful as Singapore is, its president was one of a number of Asian leaders begging for the U.S. to play an increased role in the region, to blunt the influence of China.

In short, we’re living in an unstable world – but everyone knows this, and the playing field is level. When you look around at growth opportunities, sure, several countries, from established to emerging, seem as if they might have more upside than the U.S. – right now, anyway. Until there’s a coup. Or a currency devaluation. Or a political scandal. Then, fortunes get washed away and returns evaporate. The capitalist motive is replaced by cronyism – if you’re lucky. Or the infrastructure necessary to do business gets blown up or washed away, or falls into the wrong hands. It’s a dangerous world out there, and will continue to be. In that light – considering the world as it is, not as pundits and naysayers dream it to be – the U.S., with its trifecta of resilience, stability and growth, not to mention its entrepreneurial spirit, continues to look very good.

This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.

6 comments

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You could add some double digits to your age. According to the replies, I must be the oldest on board – call me Senior ++.
BTW: 1957 was the best year for teenagers. You don’t know what you missed; You could buy bubble gum for a penny; I think gas was .25 cents; government didn’t intrude into your personal life; We had have half the laws that are on the books now; We had time for fishing and a weekly sock hop. TV was Black & White, but who cared? We listened to Dick Clark, American Bandstand, and 45 Record was .25 cents. Cops still forgave tickets, as long as you weren’t a repeat offender. One could hitchhike without worry – the 1st or second car would pick you up.

To be frank we are living in jail now without bars. The key to control is complacency and fear, and we allowed that generation after generation because no one looked back and a cohesive society became torn. Back then you didn’t have to be known or famous, everyone waved hello whether they knew you or not. Today we don’t even know who lives 3 houses down.

And most of all, it only required 1 wage earner to pay rent, feed the family, and have plenty left over for vacation or the savings account. A house was $5,000 therefore there weren’t too many rentals, other than in large cities. $2,000 bought a brand new screaming car, that today’s auctions brings over $100,000
I do wonder what future generations will say about today’s ? (It certainly has been a steady downhill road which is hard to imagine stopping any time soon.) Americans are know to have a short memory and an attention span of 30 seconds.

Posted by dddavid | Report as abusive

Dear Ian, thank you for sharing your insight. I recently saw your Charlie Rose interview and look forward to reading your new book. Best wishes, Ruth ~ Houston, TX

Posted by spaceshipblue | Report as abusive

Ian, besides hacking up that fabulous bear joke — tell it with some swagger, dude! — you could have tweeted your reply to Blathering Rush in two words “eff off,” and been done with it.

Henry Ford had it right: “Never complain, never explain, especially when it’s Rush Limbaugh on the other side.”

Posted by WeWereWallSt | Report as abusive

The West has evolved so much, it’s hard to tell. The West is not in a decline, and the United States is not losing political will. However, reminiscing on days or yore and reading ddavid’s post it strikes me that we have lost our broad American culture. It has been displaced by an even broader Western culture that we now share across North America and Europe as well as other places such as Australia. South America, Asia, and the Middle east will soon have a great influence in our culture, displacing what we all know today.

So, we have lost our cohesiveness, our uniqueness, and many of our liberties. The private sector has become the capitalist world, no longer loyal to the U.S., and our politicians are bought by special interests with tremendous influence from foreign cultures and governments.

Therefore, are we declining militarily, politically, or economically? No. Have we lost our identify? Yes.

Posted by SeaWa | Report as abusive

Who wants the USA to behave like it did in 1947 with the Marshall Plan?? That was, simply, a giant give-away. And it became the model “Greatest Generation” politicians laid down for themselves and their children. Interventionist. Imperial. Military. Aggressive. Very manipulative and self-righteous.

Most of that generation are dead now, and their children who want to carry on the family tradition try to push one invasion after another, “free trade” that is not free, and a quasi-religious claim to America’s history. That kind of thinking is, simply, doomed. We are so indebted by those policies that ordinary Americans face a future that has not been bleaker since 1934, during the Great Depression. Most Americans do not want to finish the initiatives already underway.

This country has never been even remotely close to as diverse as it is today. This is no longer a run away British colony. It becomes less Western daily. The world has changed. If you are an old style, chest thumping Superpower worshiper you are simply out of touch. Do your own fighting, spend your own money, but leave the rest of us to try to survive changes we struggle with. Who cares if you have bragging rights in some Country Club??

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

usagadgly, you have made a poor choice of the Marshall Plan to deride giant give-aways. The Marshall plan, begun in 1948 and continuing for 4 years, was one of the most cost effective foreign policy decisions in the history of the United States.

From the Marshall Plan Foundation’s website:

“Europe was devastated by years of conflict during World War II. Millions of people had been killed or wounded. Industrial and residential centers in England, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Belgium and elsewhere lay in ruins. Much of Europe was on the brink of famine as agricultural production had been disrupted by war. Transportation infrastructure was in shambles. The only major power in the world that was not significantly damaged was the United States.

Shattered European nations received nearly $13 billion in aid, which initially resulted in shipments of food, staples, fuel and machinery from the United States and later resulted in investment in industrial capacity in Europe.

Marshall Plan nations were assisted greatly in their economic recovery. From 1948 through 1952 European economies grew at an unprecedented rate. Trade relations led to the formation of the North Atlantic alliance. Economic prosperity led by coal and steel industries helped to shape what we know now as the European Union.”

Without the Marshall Plan, it is highly probable that Western Europe would have fallen to the Soviet Union. With it, Europe was able to recover swiftly and did not fall prey to the same kind of fascist leaders which a decade of economic depression produced in Germany by 1933. The Marshall Plan also enormously enhanced the soft power of the United States and the willingness of Europeans to stand with us during the Cold War.

Without the Marshall Plan, the economic prosperity of the United States and Europe of the last 70 years would not have been possible.

The rest of your comment reveals an abundance of emotional bitterness which I can relate to somewhat but am having difficulty understanding your precise point. Yes, times are changing and old strategies will need to be changed. That’s certainly true. But it remains important to understand history as it happened, and not view past events through the filter of modern bias.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive