The End of the American Era: U.S. foreign policy and the geopolitics of the twenty-first century was a book published in 2002 by Charles A. Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University (which also gave us Madeleine Albright). Quick to press after September 11, 2001, this was a book that quite specifically was not about terrorism. 'Terrorism is to geopolitics what a strong wind is to geography,' writes Kupchan in an inimitable style, 'a potent, spectacular, and destructive element, but one that affects surface features, not underlying tectonic forces and the location of fault lines'.1 Perhaps.
Kupchan's book is about great power politics. He's what international relations theorists call a realist2 - more concerned with who has the capability to do what to who than with ideology, or culture, or soft power. He's all about the hard stuff. At the moment, the dominant feature of the world system is that America has all the hard, military power. But, he says, this situation isn't going to last long: he sees Europe rising from the ashes of totalitarian domination to once again assume a central position on the world stage. 'It has simply not been given,' wrote Paul Kennedy in 1989, 'for one society to remain permanently ahead of all the others because that would imply a freezing of the differential pattern of . . . developments which has existed since time immemorial'.3 America's time is up.
In one respect, Kupchan's book is merely the latest in a long line of pronouncements about the limits of American power. This genre in its modern incarnation dates back at least to the end of the Vietnam War and the 1973 oil crisis. That conflict saw the U.S. throwing billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives and being unable, due to the limits it placed on itself, to win the battle. In today's New York Times, we learn that a recent U.S. government report estimates the cost of a year's insurgency in Iraq at $200 million. That's less than the Pentagon spends in a single day, and still victory seems unobtainable.4
Still, these statements often seem tautological. The U.S. can't bend the whole world to its will, but it never claimed it would be able to. It's still the most powerful guy in town. That's why American strategists like Kupchan can talk about a global strategy, whereas most countries just think in terms of their own region and a particular set of distant allies. But what if another country emerges which can also pursue a global strategy and rival America, just like the Soviet Union used to? And when might this happen?
Kupchan places his bet on Europe, which makes me wonder when the last time was he came here. I don't see the European Union taking on an assertive global role anytime soon (call me when it starts off with an assertive regional one! Actually, don't. I live here). But the rise of China appears inexorable, barring a major internal disaster there. Already it competes with Washington for the attention of countries in Africa and elsewhere, with the Chinese having the decisive advantage in this case that they don't give a hoot about the human rights record of those with whom they deal. And don't bet the farm on Russia, which still wields considerable influence in many quarters of the globe, not making a dramatic resurgence - although one in their case which may stem from the necessity of weakness, not the opportunity of strength.
Then there is the other pressure militating against the continuation of the American era - American disinterest in the outside world. Between the end of the Cold War and September 11, 2001, interest in the rest of the world declined rapidly within America. News channels stopped devoting much time to foreign news, and American politics became obsessed with less than existential domestic issues. Kupchan argues, and I agree, that terrorism will not be a basis for continued engagement in the outside world, especially after the disastrous withdrawal from Iraq which will surely soon occur. When it comes time to ponder the 'lessons of Iraq', one can be relatively certain that continued interventionism will not top the list. The focus will move to multilateralism, co-operation, and negotiations.
There is a crucial difference. It turned out that the Communist victory in Vietnam did not have particularly severe consequences for the United States. But the fragmentation of Iraq, the boon this will deliver to Iran, and the crushing of Lebanese democracy which is likely to ensue are all serious consequences for the U.S. Eventually, the United States will face a huge strategic question - to re-engage, or not to re-engage?
Sooner or later, another terrorist strike will come. Terrorism is such a large threat because of its ability to do an amount of damage totally disproportionate to the amount of force used. Imagine if somehow al-Qaeda managed to blow up Capitol Hill, killing all of the Congress in the process. What would happen next? Would American democracy ever be the same? Cool heads would hopefully prevail, but what if it happened again?
Barring such a catastrophic strike, there would still be questions to be asked. Most likely, investigations would soon turn up evidence that agents of a foreign power were involved in the strike - perhaps Pakistan, perhaps Iran, maybe even some segment of what remains of Iraq. What would happen next? What would the United States do in retribution against a nuclear Pakistan, which is already a reality, or a nuclear Iran, which can't be far off either? It is no coincidence that Pakistan is accomodated while Afghanistan was invaded; the difference is the costs of using military force against a nuclear power. Would the American public be willing to bear the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, economic sacrifice for all, and a renewed committment to somewhere most of them consider a godforsaken mess?
These are the questions that will confront us within the next ten years. Whether this is the end of the American era will depend on the willingness of the American people to bear the costs of continuing to be the lynchpin of the international system, and continuing to don the badge of world policeman. The draft will again become a serious issue. Everyone will argue about what the national interest is. Given the nation's apparent aversion to even the historically small sacrifice in Iraq, it seems unlikely that anything short of a looming great power confrontation will stir the U.S. to action.
As I have noted elsewhere, the Bush administration promised the world and delivered very little. If Iran is able to acquire a nuke - and who at this point can seriously believe the United States will stop it? - then the world will become a very dangerous place indeed. This, and not Iraq, may prove to be the Bush administration's worst strategic legacy. And in Iraq, those who wished to maintain and perpetuate American power have in fact led it into a period of purgatory. But when America leaves Iraq, the world will not suddenly become safer. In fact, it will become all the more dangerous.
At exactly the time when America's domestic situation militates against bearing costs in foreign policy, Washington will find the costs of such action - and the costs of abstaining from such action - are rising dramatically. Nothing less than a fundamental reassessment of American foreign policy goals and interests will ensue; and it will ensue at a time when there will be no rival superpower to focus the mind and build consensus, only a world of smaller threats and an incipient rival.
We are in the middle of a time of fluidity in international affairs such as has not been seen since the 1940s. We are without consensus, our power has been humbled, and many things that we thought we knew about our role in the world have been proved questionable. Chaos is unfolding across the Middle East and Africa, and in the background sits an emerging rival, untarnished by the failures we have experienced in the last few years.
Iraq is no longer the prime issue. The prime issue is whether its consequences will prove to not just be a setback, but to be the end of the American era.
1. Charles A. Kupchan, The End of the American Era: U.S. foreign policy and the geopolitics of the twenty-first century (New York: Vintage Books, 2002), p. 109.
2. Actually, some would call him a neo-liberal institutionalist. If you're keen to learn more about such distinctions, pick up a copy of John Baylis and Steve Smith, The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
3. Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York: Random House, 1987), p. 333.
4. "U.S. Finds Iraq Insurgency Has Funds to Sustain Itself ", New York Times, November 26, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/26/world/middleeast/26insurgency.html? ei=5065&en=517dd351bce05056&ex=1165122000&partner=MYWAY&pagewanted=print