America's Hard Sell

Article excerpt

For more than half a century, the United States ensured that five Big Ideas shaped international politics. Now, as the Big Ideas of the 21st century are formed, just who will corner the new global market of ideology is anyone's guess. One thing is certain, though. If the United States wants to remain a player, it's going to have to refine its sales pitch.

Although their presidencies had little in common, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all spoke about the world from essentially the same starting point. In a time of sole-superpower dominance, most of the world had seemingly come to understand that the utility of military force was on the decline. Free markets were ascendant, creating wealth and contributing to the growing sense that a wave of democratic transition was inevitable. Mobile phones and the Internet were spreading elements of Western culture and behavior to a global population that was ready, even eager, to receive and assimilate them.

These presidents basically had it right. For most of the second half of the 20th century, five Big Ideas shaped world politics:

1) PEACE IS BETTER THAN WAR.

2) HEGEMONY, AT LEAST THE BENIGN SORT, IS BETTER THAN A BALANCE OF POWER.

3) CAPITALISM IS BETTER THAN SOCIALISM.

4) DEMOCRACY IS BETTER THAN DICTATORSHIP.

5) WESTERN CULTURE IS BETTER THAN ALL THE REST.

On all five counts, the United States was widely seen as paragon and guarantor. American power brought peace through a combination of Cold War containment and deterrence. A United Nations was constructed largely according to American designs. American hegemony brought relative security and laid the foundation for progressively more open trade and capital markets. American capitalism taught the world how to create unprecedented wealth. American democracy inspired people around the world to change their relationships with political authority. And American culture became a magnet for the world's youth.

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Today, the prevailing consensus in the United States is that these five Big Ideas still hold. A variety of intellectual formulations have sprung up--the end of history, the democratic peace, the indispensable nation, the Rome-like empire--which, despite their differences, share the core belief that these fundamentals have not changed. Even the latest spate of books about the second or post-American world end up in the same place, accepting that the same five assumptions will still form the basis for the present and future world order.

Unfortunately, they will not. The five Big Ideas of the past century are no longer the sound and sturdy guides they once were. The challenge runs far deeper than the bad atmospherics created by the Bush administration. Nor is it the case that our international institutions are simply in need of remodeling or refurbishment to reflect the shift in power and wealth across the globe. Rather, the rules have changed, and the biggest and most basic questions of world politics are open for debate once again.

Of course, peace is still better than war. Unless, as some governments will profess, war is wielded as an instrument of national policy, as was the case with the United States in Iraq, Russia in Georgia, Ethiopia in Somalia, Israel in Lebanon, and others to come. But does peace remain superior if states want to prevent the killing of people in Darfur, end the malign neglect in the aftermath of a natural disaster in Burma, or head off a pandemic incubating within someone else's borders? With authority more contested and power more diffuse, what are the rules for going to war and keeping the peace?

And who makes them? Hegemony, benign or otherwise, is no longer an option--not for the United States, not for China, not for anyone. A 21st-century version of a 19th-century multipolar world is hardly possible, either. There are too many players at too many tables for counting and balancing poles of power. …