September 21, 2011
The World After ObamaBy James G. Wiles
In 1992, Francis Fukuyama predicted the End of History. What we have instead is the return of history, with a vengeance. President Obama will leave in his wake a weakened America, confronting an unstable and dangerous world.
While the West's attention is turned inward at its troubled economies, out there among the other 85% of the global population, a lot of chickens are coming home to roost. American chickens.
Voters could benefit from a different focus. In Present at the Creation, his memoir of his years as U.S. secretary of state from 1949-1953, Dean Acheson wrote as follows concerning the challenges facing American statesmen after the Allied victory in World War II: "Only slowly did it dawn on us that the whole world structure and order that we had inherited...was gone[.]"
We may be at such a world-historical moment again, akin to the Versailles Conference, the Congress of Vienna, the Congress of Berlin, and the end of the Second World War. It's more than likely that whoever takes office in January 2013 will face a prospect not unlike what Acheson described. No significant modifications were made to the world order after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its empire, and its client states.
Now, finally, it may well be time. If we simply continue to muddle through, it's the United States which will most likely get hurt. Ceding global leadership means we lose.
Here is what a new American president (and a Republican Congress) fifteen months from now is likely to confront:
Western Europe, once a military power and a driver of the world economy, is now that economy's Sick Old Man. The Libyan adventure has exposed NATO's military weakness. The Eurozone sovereign debt crisis has exposed its economic crisis. The whole EU Project is now at risk.
What should America's position be?
The Middle East is seeing a major realignment. American influence in what, when Barack Obama took office, were two American allies (Egypt and Turkey) is now waning or already kaput. Turkey's drift away from the West, as its economy has prospered and a middle-class Muslim majority has emerged, has been underway for some time. In 2003, for example, Turkey refused to let the U.S. military transit its national territory so as to invade Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein.
In Israel and the Occupied Territories, meanwhile, the demographic clock is ticking towards a Palestinian majority. What must Israel do to survive?
What must America do to preserve its influence in a region it has dominated since the Camp David Accords of 1978 -- with the significant exception of Iran? By the way, what about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, with its proxy states of Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza surrounding most of Israel?
The current view presents what, you might say, is a world of historical renewals:
Meanwhile, Western Europe and the United States are mired in sovereign debt crises, the highest unemployment since the Great Depression, and a relative decline in their economic, military, and political power in a globalized world. Across Europe, domestic populations are imploding. It's even worse in Japan, which faces China.
And, oh, sorry, no one can pay attention: the United State is going into its national election cycle.
No one's going to be paying attention in Western Europe, either.
Spain, with 21% unemployment, faces national elections -- and an all-but-certain change in governments -- in November. French national elections must be held in the spring. Conservative President Nicholas Sarkozy is barely holding on. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi is (as usual) tottering. Greece is rioting. And in Germany and the U.K., as well as parts of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, the EU Project and the Eurozone are under political pressure as never before.
Great Britain's Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition government has received an ultimatum from the official leader of the Tory back-benchers: conduct a national referendum on whether the U.K. should continue in the European Union or face the disintegration of the coalition. That could mean British national elections next year as well.
Under Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, the U.K. is already well on the way to dismantling the last of its significant military capability.
By January 2013, the new American president will -- for all practical purposes, anyway -- no longer have the "special relationship" with Great Britain which every president since FDR has been able to count on. The EU -- a project which, like NATO, has been a-building for 60 years to, as Lord Ismay famously said, "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down" -- may be disintegrating or severely truncated. And the return of China to world affairs, as Eric Hoffer predicted, is "as though Greece and Rome had come back to life[.]"
China has not had a blue-water navy since the 1400s and the Ming Emperors. They have one now. And it's steadily growing. The U.S. Navy continues to shrink. Our overall military establishment is now less than half the size of that which the United States had at the end of Desert Storm in 1991.
And, before you leap to answer that question, here's an arresting fact, courtesy of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: "[s]eventy-five percent of young Americans, between the ages of 17 to 24, are unable to enlist in the military today because they have failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record or are physically unfit." It's from Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum's new book, That Used to Be Us.
That's right. Seventy-five percent.
What should American policy be towards China? Can the post-World War II international order (monetary, military, and political) created sixty years ago in response to the challenge of fascism and Communism survive? Should it survive? Is something else entirely different now needed?
Should the dollar continue to be the world's sole reserve currency? How do we do that if this Great Recession lengthens into a Lost Decade?
The above are some of the questions which the men and women who seek to be our next president need to be prepared to answer. After a month of GOP debates, they still haven't been asked. They should be.
Without satisfactory answers, the United States will not long continue as the global hegemon. Now that history has returned, the world is moving, even if we aren't. The good news is that it's not too late.
As Dean Acheson said, "[t]he best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time."
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