Welcome to a Diminished America

By Kenneth Weisbrode
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In fact this wasn't too different from most contemporary imperial states. But many Americans insisted otherwise. Henry James, for example, supposedly said that empire civilized the British but barbarized Americans. An exceptional America, in other words, must be preserved against rather than with the rest of the world. So the United States became a much bigger global player but Americans have held on to a basic dichotomy which at once justifies their success and divides them from the less fortunate.They have also invoked their country's exceptional nature, paradoxically, in claiming that the so-called win-win principle is unique to America.

Meanwhile the loss of the nation's hegemony has come to be seen by both Americans and non-Americans as leading away from gentility and progress. It is not merely a result of a smaller pie. Rather it's due to the combination of socioeconomic and demographic disparities with rapid political and economic change at home and abroad. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has predicted that China and India alone will account for some 50 percent of world GDP in 2060, as opposed to about 25 percent today, and both countries' economies are expected to be larger than America's. Yet, the anticipated GDP per person in each country would still be a fraction of America's: China's about one-half, India's about one-third.

Critics in the circumstances may welcome the idea of the United States descending to a state of pre-modern - or post-modern, post-industrial - dystopia dominated by reactionaries. A glance at the front pages of many US newspapers suggests they have a point. By most measures, America is less violent and poverty stricken than at many other moments in its history. But that's not the perception. One reason may be that there is less to offset it. The high-mindedness that the media once adopted as a matter of course has faded as broadcast and newspaper audiences have shrunk. More resemble tabloids in form and content. They also resemble, at least in their partisanship, the press of the 18th and 19th centuries. James was wrong: high-mindedness and hegemony go hand in hand, even in America. But can one survive without the other? And what shall follow?

Political scientists G. John Ikenberry, Robert Keohane, Charles Kupchan, Fareed Zakaria and others have addressed the latter question at length in a contemporary context, for the most part structurally from the outside in. A few others, notably the British journalists Anatol Lieven and Edward Luce, have done so culturally from the inside out. The civilizing process is not always neatly cyclical. Many of the stereotypical adjectives associated with the American character - restless, competitive, acquisitive, mobile, free-spirited, informal, inventive, expansive - would appear to mar the evolution of a modest, quiet country at peace with itself in the world, content to cultivate its own garden. Somewhere there must be another frontier.

In an ideal post-hegemonic world, a vibrant American economy and society would continue to combine cultural inclusion, diffusion and diversification with the kind of prosperity and competition that many Americans embrace. Doing so humbly, as George W. Bush suggested, is not ideal, however: Self-professed humility results too easily in charges of hypocrisy. The US is still a big country; it can afford a few mistakes; it needn't magnify them by conflation with the national ego. A better policy would be to allow America's creative talent, sense of fair play and pragmatism to continue to flourish, minus the dichotomies. It is mainly up to Americans to decide if this can work on a smaller global scale and to start planning ahead before their country turns upon itself, irreparably.

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The author is a writer, editor and historian. His latest book is On Ambivalence. (MIT Press).

Rights: Copyright © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. Yale Global

(AP Photo)

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