From time to time during the Bush administration there have been outbreaks of nostalgia for the days when lonely district commissioners ruled hundreds of square miles of British Africa, and a small number of civil servants and local magistrates managed the affairs of 350 million subcontinental Indians. The explanation is not hard to find: the memory of imperial order contrasts favorably with such recent events as genocide in Rwanda, continuous civil war in the Congo, and the horrors of Iraq under Saddam Hussein and after. The Roman imperium brought the P ax Romana to Europe, Asia Minor, and North Africa; and at its height the British Empire controlled a quarter of the land area of the globe and a quarter of its inhabitants. The spectacle of global disorder excites a desire for global government. The target of these longings is inevitably the United States.
Setting aside the problem of how peaceful the Pax Britannica truly was, and how far the empire’s subjects—or the majority of the British themselves—benefited from its existence, this hankering after a world made safe by a benign imperialism raises a very large question. Could the United States replicate the Victorian British Empire and establish a Pax Americana? Five years into the horrors of the failed invasion of Iraq, with two million refugees having left the country, it is hardly a surprise that the almost unanimous answer is No.
That simple negative raises the possibility that some subtler version of a Pax Americana might emerge, that the United States can become the leading player in a pluralistic international system rather than a “hyperpower” or hegemon, whose persuasiveness extends only as far as its military reach. On that, opinions vary. Nobody denies that the United States is uniquely equipped to wreak physical destruction anywhere it wants. It currently maintains more than seven hundred bases on foreign soil, including in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Apart from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US has about 200,000 troops stationed overseas, and since September 11, it has also created numerous bases in Iraq and across Central Asia, including in such brutal dictatorships as Uzbekistan. A Web site that tracks security issues has estimated that in 2008, the US defense budget will be $711 billion, or about 48 percent of overall world military spending. This would be close to twice as much as the budgets of Europe and China, the second- and third-biggest military spenders, combined.
Nobody thinks America’s ability to construct social, economic, or political institutions is remotely as impressive. This is the problem of “soft power,” the concept used by Joseph Nye, the Harvard political scientist, to describe geopolitical influence that is exerted through the persuasive dissemination of culture, values, ideas, and economic aid rather than through direct projection of military or economic strength. The interesting question—although not to Robert Kagan, the foreign policy commentator, who sometimes seems to regard “soft power” as close to a contradiction in terms—is whether the United States can learn, or relearn, how to exercise “soft power.” Perhaps this thought has infiltrated the Department of Defense; the mandate of its newly created Africom, the US command for Africa, includes not only military security but economic development, humanitarian work, and nation-building.
The beginning of wisdom is to recall just how unlike the British Empire in its heyday America really is. Historical realism matters here. The essays and lectures collected in Eric Hobsbawm’s On Empire are all worth reading, and the last, “Why America’s Hegemony Differs from Britain’s Empire,” is especially so. “Current [political] debates,” says Hobsbawm,
are particularly cloudy, because the nearest analogy to the world supremacy to which the United States government is committed is a set of words—“empire,” “imperialism”—which are in flat contradiction to the traditional political self-definition of America, and which acquired almost universal unpopularity in the twentieth century. They are also in flat conflict with equally strongly held positive beliefs in the American political value system, such as “self-determination” and “law”—both domestic and international.
This does not rule out the possibility that the United States is destined—if doomed is not the more appropriate word—to exercise a preponderant influence over the world’s future. The size of the US economy alone would ensure that. But the United States cannot institute anything resembling the empire of the nineteenth-century British. The British Empire grew on the back of a commercially driven expansion of overseas trade, and at its heart was a small island state off the coast of northwest Europe. Certainly, military aggression played a large part in the empire’s expansion, but one must set against that not only the ease with which Britain recovered from the loss of its American colonies in the eighteenth century, but the ease with which Britain gave up its empire after World War II. Decolonization was often violent and messy, but its political repercussions in Britain were minimal.
The United States resembles Russia rather than Britain in its history of expansion across a continent. It imports immigrants where the British Isles exported emigrants; and even now, it is not essentially a trading nation. The United States has an annual trade deficit of some $800 billion, and it has borrowed over a trillion dollars from China. What America has is military might. For Hobsbawm that means that when the United States government sees itself having to exercise power overseas, it will do it fitfully, violently, and to secure change where it defines the activity of a state as inimical to the American way of life.
Many questions in Hobsbawm’s account are left dangling. The most obvious is whether he is so unalterably opposed to American military intervention overseas that he would rather see the innocent starved and massacred than see their tormentors evicted by the United States. It is not merely heartless to view intervention with skepticism, and to insist that it can easily do more harm than good. Kosovo has not so far been a great success, for instance. On the other hand, it is impossible to regret NATO’s intervention to stop Serbian atrocities in Bosnia, and many commentators think that one of the worst consequences of the Iraq debacle is that the international community will be deterred from intervening when it could really do some good. Darfur comes to mind.
One question that is tackled in passing by Hobsbawm, but that is less immediately relevant in a world where nobody admits to imperialist ambitions, is what makes for successful imperialism. The question is sparked by the observation that from the Achaemenid Empire onward, empires that persisted did so because subject populations cooperated with their imperial masters. The Romans could govern much of Europe, North Africa, and Asia Minor only with the more or less willing help of their subjects, just as the British could govern India only with the help of their Indian subjects. Amy Chua’s Day of Empire provides an answer to the question of what makes empires sustainable that is, at first sight, deeply astonishing. Successful empires, she argues, tend to be tolerant; if they become intolerant late in their history, as they often seem to, it is a sign of decay. To begin on the basis of intolerance is to start from the wrong place strategically. The Nazis could never achieve their project of world domination precisely because they could not tolerate the existence of not only Jews, but Gypsies, Slavs, and other ethnic “inferiors” as well.
Most readers will be startled by the thought that the Mongol Empire—one of Professor Chua’s main exhibits—was tolerant, but she is not arguing anything so implausible as that the Mongols were good Enlightenment liberals avant la lettre. Indeed, she goes out of her way to distinguish between the kind of toleration that allows an imperial power to maintain its authority over a widely dispersed, multiethnic population and the principled, liberal toleration enshrined in the separation of church and state of the US Constitution. Toleration in Chua’s sense amounts only to a readiness on the part of an imperial power to allow its subjects to believe whatever they liked so long as they remained peaceful and cooperative—much as the Romans did. Day of Empire is a thought-provoking book, covering as it does the rise and fall of the hyperpowers of their day from the Persians of the sixth century BCE to the contemporary United States. Its history is inevitably of the scissors-and-paste variety, but Chua is a professor of law at Yale and has a lawyer’s eye for the telling example.
The purpose of the book emerges in the introduction; Chua is a second- generation immigrant. Her father became a successful academic but was fiercely hostile to any idea of his daughter moving out of the traditional family he had established in his new country; he then acclimatized to the idea and is now proud of her independence of spirit. The United States became a great power not by building bigger and better weapons than anybody else but by inspiring the talented and the energetic to join in the American project. It has been a superpower built on toleration, both in the very broad sense Chua employs in other contexts—a capacity to employ the talents of all comers in a common project—and in the narrower, Enlightenment sense. But the implication is that there simply could not be an American Empire in the sense in which there was a British Empire. The British happily called Queen Victoria their “Queen-Emperor.” Americans preach self-determination as a universal value.
The unkind question lurking here is clear enough. Is the United States about to decline into insularity, xenophobia, and intolerance? Chua leaves the question open, hoping that the better angels of the American character will determine America’s future. The answer is certainly less simple than the question. In the 1990s, Lou Dobbs’s nightly ravings against immigrants from south of the border would have been dismissed as a joke, or at best a rather silly reprise of the hostility to Chinese migrants in the early twentieth century or the Red Scare of the early 1920s. These are not normal times, as Lou Dobbs’s current popularity suggests.
Tolerance comes more easily when we do not feel under threat. In the past two decades, the United States has lurched from a sense of omnipotence following the end of the cold war to a deep sense of insecurity since the September 11 attacks. Neither is justified. There is a great deal that cannot be achieved by brute force, and America’s real advantages in international competition lie elsewhere. There will inevitably be many regimes around the world that are both authoritarian and hostile to the United States; the democratic opponents of such regimes may take the American political system as a reproach to the local autocracy. US culture, moreover, is dangerously alluring to young people, and although its voracious consumers have enabled China and Japan to prosper, American protectionism (together with that of the European Union) has been bad for third-world farmers. Such conflicts, both of interest and ideology, are to be expected of international relations; they are what diplomacy is supposed to keep within peaceful bounds.
The oddity of the past eight years has been the determination of the present administration to alienate its friends and encourage its enemies. During a visit to England, Bush acknowledged for a moment that his Wild West rhetoric had been unhelpful to the American cause, although like Tony Blair, he remains unapologetic about having, as both men see it, liberated Iraq. Even so, it is clear that outside the narrow and unrepresentative circles of Islamic fundamentalism, anti-Americanism, as distinct from a high degree of hostility to the government of President Bush, is a minority taste. To be against all things American is to be against a modern way of life, and almost nobody is.
The question is whether the United States can capitalize on its material and human resources to steer the world in a peaceful direction. Parag Khanna’s The Second World is an ambitious but flawed attempt to answer that question. The title may mislead readers with long memories; it does not refer, as once it would have, to the “socialist states” that filled the space—both geographically and in the minds of political scientists—between the liberal democracies of the industrialized first world and the underdeveloped third world. Khanna’s “second world” contains all the places where the global competition between the United States, Europe, and China is being played out. His geopolitical speculations include Russia, Taiwan, and India as well as some plausibly “second-world” states—those poised uneasily between Europe and Russia, the “Southern Tier” of Islamic states on Russia’s southern borders, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, as well as Latin America and the Middle East.
Reading The Second World is hard work. Its author seems to have set out to antagonize the reader by writing both clumsily and self-praisingly. “During my travels through the second world,” he writes,
I never left a country until I had developed a sense of its meaning on its own terms, until I had assimilated a blend of perspectives from cities, villages, and landscapes, based on conversations with a wide variety of people, including officials, academics, journalists, entrepreneurs, taxi drivers, and students.
One’s confidence in his in-depth understanding of three quarters of the globe is not increased by his professed admiration for Arnold Toynbee’s sprawling volumes on the rise and fall of civilizations.
The virtue of The Second World is neither plausibility nor reliability, but boldness. The balance of world power, according to Khanna, is an unstable equilibrium between three imperial enterprises, the American, the European, and the Chinese. The striking absence from these pages is Russia. This will astonish European readers, whose confidence in the ability of the European Union to stand up to Russian bullying is currently very low. Russia sits on larger reserves of oil and natural gas than any other country, and it is a more important source of energy for Europe than the Middle East. Under Vladimir Putin, the Russian government was uninhibited in using the bargaining strength that its energy resources provide, and this will not change under Dmitri Medvedev. The “Great Russian chauvinism” of the nineteenth century seems to be reascendant, and on the evidence of the recent presidential election appears to be highly popular with the Russian people.
Khanna praises the European Union for its skill in using soft power. It is not just that the European Union has taken in the Baltic States and contemplates Ukraine and Belarus as potential members. Khanna sees almost no limit to Europe’s ability to draw its neighbors into its orbit. Since the continent of Europe is physically the western “nose” of the Eurasian land mass, the prospect of a European Union becoming a Eurasian Union ought not to be shocking. Nonetheless, it is, not least because the European Union either suffers, or thinks it suffers, a permanent crisis of identity. What makes Europe European? The idea that the European Union is the heir of “Christendom” was repudiated during the attempt to create a European Constitution and no large conception has taken its place.
For Khanna, Europe’s only competitor in soft-power politics is China. Indeed, the Chinese in his account emerge as masters of both hard and soft power. The Chinese buildup of their naval forces not only in the Taiwan Strait but all the way west to the Gulf of Arabia is familiar enough; but Khanna is rightly even more impressed by the reach of Chinese commercial interests, not only into expected places such as Angola, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, but into much of Latin America as well. In this competition, the United States is outclassed as a practitioner of soft-power politics.
The reasons why the US has failed to use nonmilitary forms of influence effectively are familiar; it is common currency among all these writers that the United States has not taken the trouble to understand the rest of the world. Moreover, the professed ideological purity of the United States’ motives—the argument that its foreign policy is aimed at spreading democracy and the rule of law—is doubly disastrous. It strikes half the world as hypocritical; it strikes the other half as threatening. The Chinese do not profess the universal values of the liberal democracies and they protect some of the world’s most disgusting regimes from censure and intervention by the United Nations. But as to that, Fareed Zakaria quotes a young Chinese official who asked the obvious question: “And how is that different from your support for a medieval monarchy in Saudi Arabia?” (The Saudis, it must be said, are not recently responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths.)
Fareed Zakaria’s analysis of the multi-polar world starts from the unchallenged hegemony that the United States enjoyed at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet bloc. Since then, there has occurred what he engagingly calls “The Rise of the Rest.” “This is a book” he begins, “not about the decline of America but rather about the rise of everyone else.” Still, the rise of other world powers means that in some respects, the United States has suffered a relative decline, and the optimism of the opening does not persist. The fact that highly educated Indians write software for around a tenth of the salaries of their American counterparts does not mean that American incomes will immediately fall, but it certainly puts downward pressure on the prices of many goods and services that can be traded on the world market. Welcome to globalization, says Zakaria.
The central question is not about living standards. It is about global leadership. Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and Luxembourg are among the most prosperous countries, but none is in the running for great-power status. Zakaria is interested in one question above all: Who will provide leadership in a multipolar world? Much of The Post-American World is devoted to canvassing alternatives for the multipolar future. It is very elegantly done, with a journalist’s keen eye for telling contemporary detail and a historian’s curiosity about the way the past constrains the present. There are few surprises, but Zakaria has a sharp eye for historical parallels and—more importantly—for the points where they break down. He is especially good on the ways in which the United States is unlike late-Victorian Britain; whatever ails the United States, it is not imperial overstretch. It has no class of imperial civil servants willing to settle with their families in foreign regions and spend their lives governing.
Zakaria begins with the obvious question: Will the United States or China be the leading power of the late twenty-first century? He reminds his readers that eighty-seven years before Columbus inadvertently discovered the continent of America, the Chinese admiral Zheng He set out on the first of seven vastly better equipped expeditions that took him all over the Indian Ocean. Zakaria does not say so, but some admirers of Zheng He think he explored the west coast of both South and North America as well. Immediately after Zheng’s voyages, however, the Chinese deliberately turned away from outward exploration, while Europe embarked on a still- unfinished project of Westernizing the entire globe.
Even someone as fluent as Zakaria might hesitate to write the history of the rise and fall of European imperialism in thirty-five pages. But this is less economic history than moral lesson. Five centuries ago, Western Europe demonstrated the power of practical, utilitarian, economically rational thinking. The key was social learning; discoveries once made were not forgotten, but refined and developed. The Chinese not only discovered gunpowder before Western Europe, but were employing it in cannons in the thirteenth century. Then they stopped.
Three centuries later, they needed the Portuguese to make cannons for them and needed Portuguese gunners to show them how to fire them properly. This process of discovery and loss was not peculiar to China; the ancient world came up with many separate discoveries that nobody had an incentive to develop for productive—or even for more effectively destructive—purposes. Zakaria seizes on the Chinese example not because it is unique but because of the double contrast between early modern Europe and early modern China on the one hand and contemporary China and the contemporary United States on the other.
As to why it was in Western Europe that the capacity for sustained social learning became established, Zakaria is undogmatic. Europe had many advantages, such as political decentralization, a geography that facilitated trade, and after the Reformation a religious culture that placed a high value on literacy. Nonetheless, there was no historical inevitability about the process. Technologically, fifteenth-century Europe was hardly in advance of the Roman Empire. Then, everything changed:
By the sixteenth century, Europe had moved ahead. With the revolution in thought that is termed the Renaissance, men like Copernicus, Vesalius, and Galileo gave birth to modern science. Indeed, the hundred years between 1450 and 1550 marked the most significant break in human history—between faith, ritual, and dogma, on the one hand, and observation, experimentation, and critical thought, on the other. And it happened in Europe, pushing that civilization forward for centuries.
This was not an industrial revolution. Until the development of steam power in the later eighteenth century, Europeans depended on human and animal muscle with the assistance of wind and water, as they had two millennia before. It was, as Zakaria suggests, a cultural revolution. The idea of efficiency—though not the word—had seized the minds of generals, entrepreneurs, philosophers, and theologians. The mechanical clock, invented in the late thirteenth century, has been seen by many writers as emblematic of this cultural change; but everything conspired together. A final twist was that compared with China, Europe was relatively short of labor; this provided an incentive to work larger farms and work them more efficiently, and it provided the same incentive to adopt the devices that launched the textile industry—Hargreaves’s multispindle spinning jenny and Arkwright’s spinning frame. An average English farm in 1800 was around 150 acres, and a Chinese farm one acre.
Since 1960, the Asian economies have grown at a faster pace than those of the West. First it was Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, then mainland China and, less dramatically, India. But they have also remained very different societies from their Western competitors. Have they Westernized, modernized, or what? Samuel Huntington—whose question it is—has no doubt that modern development and “Westernness” are quite different, and that the new Asian powers have modernized without Westernizing. Zakaria thinks they have done both. They have Westernized in those matters in which there is an obvious advantage in doing so, which is to say in technology, management, banking, and regulation; but they have also done so in their tastes as consumers and especially in their clothes. Unsurprisingly, where there is the greatest ambivalence about becoming part of the modern world, as for example in Saudi Arabia, there is—to take a telling example—the least willingness to see women adopt Western dress. Clothes make a cultural statement. Western dress for women says that they are men’s equals; the chador is not a fashion statement but an ideological commitment.
The most interesting rising powers are China and India, the first a former cold war enemy, the second increasingly an ally. Zakaria, originally from India himself, thinks that their politics, economies, and future prospects are very different. Although India’s economy has grown very rapidly in recent years, India began a long way behind China and the gap is not closing:
If there ever was a race between India and China, it’s over. China’s economy is three times the size of India’s and is still growing at a faster clip.
Moreover, there is little prospect of India converting economic growth into geopolitical power: “India is a strong society with a weak state. It cannot harness its national power for national purpose.”
That leaves China as the primary challenger to American hegemony. Like Kagan and Khanna, Zakaria emphasizes how differently China and the US approach the world; the rise of China is not the rise of an Asian United States. The Chinese do not want to export a vision of the world; they are not missionaries in the way Europeans and Americans have been. Certainly, Chinese foreign policy is motivated by a good deal of resentment at “the century of humiliation” that stretches from the Opium Wars of the 1840s to the Japanese occupation of the 1940s. It is not motivated by an enthusiasm for regime change, and it is strikingly unconcerned to make the world safe for democracy and human rights.
The regime wants no interference in China’s own backyard, and is visibly unhappy at outside nagging over its repressive one-party state. The aim of its foreign policy is not ideological, but primarily to secure the raw materials China needs for its breakneck expansion and to head off its competitors. Nonetheless, however unideological, the protection of Iran or the subvention of corrupt African regimes or pressure on North Korea to reveal its weapons has large political implications. The Chinese have gained a degree of veto power over international intervention, whether in Zimbabwe or Iran.
What comes next? In spite of aggressive rhetoric from the US government, there is no prospect of a US–China arms race to match the cold war rivalry of the United States and Soviet Union. But a more old-fashioned form of great-power rivalry seems all too likely. This is the theme of Robert Kagan’s essay The Return of History and the End of Dreams. As the title suggests, he writes with some animus against Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 best seller, The End of History and the Last Man. It is puzzling that he bothers. Fukuyama has moved a long way from the views he espoused then, while Kagan himself agrees that capitalist liberal democracy is by far the most attractive prospect for most of the world’s population. The point he insists on is one that few readers will resist: there is nothing inevitable about the triumph of democracy and universal peace and cooperation. Knowing just where Kagan stands is not easy. He writes as an old-fashioned realist. But an old-fashioned realist would not have supported the war in Iraq as he did, and as he apparently still does. Indeed, the future direction of US foreign policy gives plenty of room for anxiety. The British experience of Afghanistan in the nineteenth century and of Iraq in the twentieth gives every reason to fear both Obama’s enthusiasm for a wider war in Afghanistan and McCain’s for a continuing presence in Iraq. Perhaps understandably, Kagan has little to say about Iraq in The Return of History. He writes that the country has shifted to “dependence on the US,” mentioning neither any of the cost—hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded and some two million refugees—nor the greatly increased influence of Iran within both Iraq and the region.
Still, Kagan’s defense of disenchanted realism is well articulated. His negative thesis is that there is no particular reason to suppose that autocracies—Russia and China in particular—will naturally or inevitably evolve into liberal democracies. Autocracies can be, and often are, enthusiastically supported by large numbers of their subjects; for many of those who do not fall foul of the political leadership, they can provide peace, security, and prosperity. They can also engage in interventions such as the recent Russian incursion in Georgia, so long as they know that there are no national or international forces willing to stop them. This will not be news to anyone with the least knowledge of European history; but it is a useful corrective to overoptimism about the prospect of the rulers of Russia or China suddenly discovering a passion for human rights. Unlike Khanna and Zakaria, Kagan takes Russia seriously. He also takes seriously the old dictum that a great power has no permanent friends, but only permanent interests. One should not look to form alliances on the basis of common ideological positions but on the basis of common interests. Why would democratic India help protect the military dictatorship in Burma except to counter the influence of China?
Like most American commentators, Kagan finds it impossible to sustain the mood of disenchantment. Having led the reader to imagine a world that resembles nineteenth-century Europe with added nuclear weapons—liberal regimes on the one side, autocracies on the other, and great-power politics as a rather dangerous game of chess—he switches gear. Reaching for Immanuel Kant’s wonderful and prescient sketch of a league of nations in his essay Perpetual Peace, Kagan tells us that the goal of a concert of nations devoted to peace, cooperation, and the spread of liberal, representative institutions is a noble ideal, and one that the United States should certainly promote. Indeed, as Zakaria and Chua agree, the promotion of this goal by peaceful, cooperative means is exactly where the United States’ comparative advantage should be. We simply should not kid ourselves that the process will, at best, be anything more than partial. As Kant himself observed, “from such crooked timber as humanity is made of, no straight thing was ever constructed.”