The shrinking of U.S. power, now pretty much taken for granted and in some quarters relished, may hurt news coverage of human rights and the uncovering of abuses to them. But not necessarily. Journalism is showing itself to be resilient in adversity, and its core tasks – to illuminate the workings of power and to be diverse in its opinions – could prove to be more than “Western” impositions.
When the British Empire withdrew from its global reach after the World War Two, the space was occupied, rapidly and at times eagerly, by the resurgent United States, at the very peak of its relative wealth and influence in the immediate postwar years. What it brought with it was a culture of journalism that was increasingly self-confident in its global mission: not just to describe the world, but to improve it. Some European journalism had that ambition too, but these were nations exhausted by war. The Americans, at the peak of their influence in the postwar years, had the power, wealth, standing and cocksureness to project their vision of what the world should be.
Now, American power too will shrink, and the end of U.S. hegemony (it was never an empire in the classic sense) will mean that there will be a jostling for power, influence, and above all resources by getting-rich-quick mega-states like China, India and Brazil. They will project their view of what the world should be — they have already begun, some (China) more confidently than others (India, Brazil).
Whether this will mean that the illumination of the workings of power around the globe will be better or worse will be one of the large themes for journalism of the next decades. In his The World America Made, Robert Kagan thinks, by implication, that it could be worse, because he believes the U.S. did most for human freedom round the world and a loss of American power means a threat to the protection it offered to democratic change. He writes that “perhaps democracy has spread over a hundred nations since 1950 not simply because people yearn for democracy, but because the most powerful nation in the world since 1950 has been a democracy.” I think he’s right in this, and that his “perhaps” is pretty definite. And if he is right, it means that the impulse to probe and expose will be weaker.
The U.S., however imperfectly, often hypocritically, and at times mendaciously, nevertheless possesses a default mode in favor of freedom and human rights. So do the European states. But though the European Union is more populous and has a higher GDP than the U.S., it’s disunited and likely to stay that way. So the decline of the U.S., even if it remains only relative rather than absolute (as Kagan believes), is the important issue. It could mean that the narratives of human rights, told by Western governments, by NGOs and above all by journalism, will become fainter.