Storm Clouds over a New American Century?

Storm Clouds over a New American Century?

Trade talks in Cancun failed in September when developing nations protested U.S. agricultural subsidies.

International Institute Vice Provost comments in the South China Morning Post on America's current place in the world.

[The following article appeared in the September 25, 2003, South China Morning Post.]

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These have not been good weeks for the Bush administration. The second anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks was marked by low-key remembrances that were overshadowed by mounting problems in Iraq -- in stark contrast with the confident march to war a year earlier. Then, a few days later, poor countries' worst fears about empty promises in the "development round" of World Trade Organisation talks were confirmed in Cancun, as the U.S. and Europe failed to accept any measures to open their agricultural markets.

These events underline the two central fault lines in the global politics of the new millennium. For the United States under President George W. Bush, security is more about defending and fighting for freedom than about balancing power, and globalisation is the means to long-run peace and prosperity for all.

Unfortunately, much of the rest of the world disagrees, not so much with the two principles as with how the U.S. is implementing them.

America today is so dominant in global politics, economics and culture that it is tempting to brush aside criticism of how American power is projected as just so many flies on an elephant. But history shows that arrogance often hastens an empire's subsequent decline.

The U.S. will no doubt play a major role in global affairs for centuries to come. But the sheer weight of demographic change, particularly in Asia, will make it hard for the U.S. to be as influential in the next 100 years as it was during the last "American" century.

A humbler, more cosmopolitan and more co-operative America would galvanise support to tackle today's most pressing problems. A new and more enlightened stance would also better position the U.S. if and when its power wanes.

But this appears to be the last thing on the minds not only of the Bush administration but also of many Americans in whom the shock and horror of September 11 engendered renewed patriotism and support for an aggressive and unilateral foreign policy.

The 1990s was a comfortable and confident decade for Americans that seemed to vindicate decades of rhetoric about the innate desire for freedom in the human spirit.

At home, Americans could obsess about O. J. Simpson and Monica Lewinsky while enjoying the longest bull market in history. And Americans left their leaders free to formulate a new post-cold war foreign policy based on international economic integration as the solution to most of the world's problems and on embracing human rights and democracy abroad as legitimate parts of "the national interest."

But all that began to unravel around the turn of the millennium. The December 1999 battle in Seattle between protesters and the WTO was a wake-up call for America's new foreign policy, underscoring that for many people, globalisation only lines the pockets of a tiny elite at the expense of the poor, age-old cultures, and the planet.

Less than two years later, a far more devastating blow was struck against "globalisation as Americanisation," with hijacked planes striking at the heart of U.S. capitalism and military power. Moreover, global economic stagnation has led many to question just how real the "new economy" was.

America's reaction to September 11 is the war on terrorism, which began with almost universal support among the international community. The U.S. responded to the backlash against economic globalisation by claiming that free trade is good not only for the poor but for fighting terrorism as well (by eliminating its breeding grounds among "failed states"). At the same time, it tried to smooth the rough edges of the global economy through the WTO's Doha Round and the kinder, gentler public faces of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Both policies are now failing because other countries believe American leaders have one set of rules for themselves and another for anyone who disagrees with them. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has dismissed multilateralism in security affairs with the blithe assertion that the mission (defined by the U.S.) must determine the coalition; the coalition (manifest in the United Nations and other international bodies) cannot determine the mission.

Mr Bush's political strategists argue that agricultural and steel subsidies are electoral necessities in the farm and rust belts at the same time that the president preaches that the U.S. is building "a world that trades in freedom and therefore grows in prosperity."

To be sure, there have been recent instances when the rest of the world has been thankful for American unilateralism -- notably in the Balkans.

And the evidence does suggest that economic globalisation has largely been a force for good in the developing world, increasing national incomes without exacerbating inequality. But these realities are often lost in the rhetorical symbols of today's global divide between the U.S. and much of the rest of the world.

As the price tag for American involvement in Iraq mushrooms not only in dollars but also in global political fallout, and as the U.S. is painted as the villain undermining the prospects for a global economy that is fair to the developing world, the costs of what is seen as American hubris mount. The U.S. may be able to absorb these costs today, but its behaviour is only likely to make things harder for future American leaders when the global dominance of the U.S. begins to erode.

Geoffrey Garrett is vice-provost of the International Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles

Published: Thursday, October 02, 2003