Magazine article The American Conservative

We Are Not All Westerners Now

Magazine article The American Conservative

We Are Not All Westerners Now

Article excerpt

No One's World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn, Charles A. Kupchan, Oxford University Press, 272 pages

In Blind Oracles, his study of the role of intellectuals in formulating and implementing U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War, historian Bruce Kuklick equated these scholars with the "primitive shaman" who performs "feats of ventriloquy."

We tend to celebrate foreign-policy intellectuals as thinkers who try to transform grand ideas into actual policies. In reality, their function has usually been to offer members of the foreign-policy establishment rationalizations--in the form of "grand strategies" and "doctrines," or the occasional magazine article or op-ed--for doing what they were going to do anyway.

Not unlike marketing experts, successful foreign-policy intellectuals are quick to detect a new trend, attach a sexy label to it ("Red Menace" "Islamo-fascism"), and propose to their clients a brand strategy that answers to the perceived need ("containment" "detente," "counterinsurgency").

In No One's World, foreign-policy intellectual Charles Kupchan-a profes- sor of international affairs at George-town University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations--tackles the trend commonly referred to as "American decline" or "declinism," against the backdrop of the Iraq War, the financial crisis, and the economic rise of China.

While I share Kuklick's skepticism about the near zero influence that intellectuals have on creating foreign policy, I've enjoyed reading what thinkers like Charles Kupchan have to say, and I believe that if we don't take them too seriously (this rule applies also to what

yours truly has written about these topics), they can help us put key questions in context. Such as: is the U.S. losing global military and economic dominance and heading towards decline as other powers are taking over?

The good news is that Kupchan's book is just the right size--around 200 pages-with not too many endnotes and a short but valuable bibliography. Kupchan is readable without being too glib. He is clearly an "insider" (he is a former National Security Council staffer) but exhibits a healthy level of detachment. And Kupchan displays a commendable willingness to adjust his grand vision to changing realities.

In a book published ten years ago, The End of the American Era: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics ofthe Twenty-first Century, Kupchan advanced the thesis that an integrating Eu- ropean Union was rising as a counterweight to the United States, with China secondary to the EU. That was his view then. The thesis has since been over-taken-let's say, crushed to death-by the crisis in the eurozone and the failure of the EU to develop a unified, coherent foreign policy. But unlike neocons who spend much of their time trying to explain why, despite all the evidence to the contrary, they have always been right, Kupchan doesn't even revisit his now defunct thesis.

While this suggests that we should treat his current book and its claims that the global balance of power is shifting from the United States and the "West" and towards the "Rest"--non-Western nations like China, India, Brazil, and Turkey-with many grains of salt, we should nevertheless give Kupchan credit for pursuing a non-dogmatic, pragmatic, and empiricist approach to international relations.

Kupchan may once have worked on implementing the liberal-internationalist agenda of the Clinton administration, but the views advanced in his latest book-in particular his pessimism about America's ability to "manage" the international system and his emphasis

on the role that history and culture play in relationships between nation-states-place him in the intellectual camp of realist foreign-policy intellectuals like George Kennan and Henry Kissinger, at a time when not many of them are around in Washington.

Kupchan's thesis that America and its Western allies are losing their global military, financial, and economic power, and that the rising non-Western powers are not going to adopt Washington's strategic agenda, may not sound too revolutionary these days, when even the most non-contrarian strategists and economists working for the Pentagon and Wall Street recognize that the dominance of the West is on the wane. …

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