When President Obama steps off Air Force One in Mumbai this weekend, he’s going to get a chance to do something he hasn’t done much of in a while now: Have a conversation with someone who doesn’t vote in American elections. Those people who live in that thing called the ROW (rest of World).
Elections focus the mind. Midterm elections — and this one more than most — tend to focus American’s minds on the internal state of the nation and rarely on America’s presence in the world.
I think that’s a strategic error. If you believe that globalization is real, that it drove America’s prosperity over the last decade and there is no going back, then it is hard to imagine that we can ‘recover’ from the latest series of global shocks on our own. We need what Americans (sometimes disparagingly) call The Rest of the World – as much or more than they need us.
That’s a mindset shift for much of America. The last three generations of American leaders and elites (at least) have seen the world much as Ptolemy saw the universe — with America at the center and the ROW revolving around us. US policy discussions started with the presumption that the first thing an Indian diplomat, a Chinese entrepreneur, a Venezuelan oil worker, and an Egyptian human rights activist asked themselves when they woke up in the morning was, ‘what is America going to do today’?
Those days are gone. The global playing field is now much more like the universe according to Copernicus, with many planetary ‘centers’ owning their own gravitational attractions. Which means the US no longer has any presumptive claim to leadership. In fact we now have to earn it, every day, in something that acts and feels more like a vibrant competitive market.
That’s not principally a consequence of economic or military power. Put today’s fashionable pessimism aside. The broad parameters of how those components of national power will evolve over the next decade are roughly known. In 2020 the US will still be a major global economic power, regardless of how our recovery from the Great Recession may turn out. And the 2020 US military will still be the most capable military on earth, perhaps (as it is today) by not just a large but a very large measure.
Where America’s global power position is in fact weaker than most Americans believe, and weaker than we need, is in the realm of ideas. This is absolutely central to national power, because the world is entering a new and distinctive age where influence and ideology are linked in a vibrant competition for leadership. As I say in my recent book (along with my coauthor Bruce W. Jentleson) The End of Arrogance, the ‘big ideas’ about democracy, peace, western culture, markets, and liberalism that were the foundation of 20th century world order are truly up for grabs in the 21st. And they are up for grabs in a marketplace of ideas that is fast-moving, technologically-connected, extraordinarily diverse, noisy and infuriating — and still suspicious of American motives.
It may be that the most damaging intellectual legacy of the Bush administration was the notion of a ‘war of ideas’. Ideas don’t fight wars; they compete in a marketplace. Nobody ever wins, they simply gain market share. And so the question Americans ought to ask themselves right now is, what exactly are we offering to this global marketplace? And we should evaluate that offer not as to whether it makes us feel good about ourselves but as to whether the other participants in the marketplace of ideas find it attractive. Leaders need followers more than the other way around.
The new reality is this: The rest of the world no longer believes that the only alternative to American-led order is chaos. We are not ‘the indispensable nation.’ Far from it. In Western Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and most certainly in East Asia, what America offers as a motivating set of ideas to the world, is now simply one among many options — with real alternatives coming from places like Beijing, Abu Dhabi, Caracas, and, of course, the Al-quada stronghold in tribal regions on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It’s remarkably seductive for Americans to see these alternative ideologies as retrograde, and as temporary diversions from liberalism’s gradual yet inevitable triumph. But a clear-headed look at the evidence points in exactly the opposite direction. None of these ideologies are in a process of anything like ‘inevitable’ evolution into liberal democracy. Just because Americans don’t think they should have appeal, doesn’t mean that they don’t.
Here’s why this matters to the immediate issues of the election. The ROW does not put America’s prosperity at the top of its agenda. The ROW does not prioritize American jobs. The ROW does not believe, as Martin Wolf argued recently, that the dollar must by necessity win the currency wars that we’ve embarked upon, with the only question remaining the terms on which the ROW surrenders to the US Federal Reserve. The ROW does not believe that it’s least-bad option will be to ease America’s withdrawal from failing wars.
The 2012 Presidential election began in full force on November 3. Foreign policy issues will be back on the agenda soon enough. Which candidate has the guts to call the world as he or she sees it, not as he or she wishes it would be?