NEW YORK - It has become popular to suggest that when the dust settles from the global financial crisis, it may become clear that the United States-led post-war world has come to an end. If so, the global system that has secured peace, security, openness, and economic growth over the past six decades could be in grave danger.
Inspired by American leadership since World War II's end, Europe, then Japan, then much of Asia and the world rose to new levels of prosperity; the world economy globalized upon the foundation of international institutions, norms, and standards; and foreign students educated in American universities returned home with new ideas about free markets, entrepreneurship, and democracy. The US military's protective umbrella gave large swaths of the world a vacation from war, making it easier for them to focus on economic growth and regional integration.
America not only took the lead role in building the institutions of a globalizing world - the United Nations, World Bank, IMF, NATO- it also became the model that many other countries looked to for inspiration.
After eight years of compromised American leadership, a botched war of choice in Iraq, failure to take the lead in global efforts to address climate change, Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, running up a $10 trillion debt, and igniting a global financial crisis - America's once-glittering model has lost a good deal of its luster and America's leadership has been questioned by many.
The point was driven home at the 7th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Beijing this autumn, where European and Asian leaders began exploring ideas for a new global financial structure. For much of the past 60 years, it would have been impossible to hold such a fundamental dialogue without US participation. Today, it is almost becoming a new global norm that neither the international committee nor the US is prepared for.
Despite talk about American decline, the world is not prepared for a post-American era. As irksome as some of America's actions have been, particularly over the past eight years, America remains the world's most critical champion of the progressive values that have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty and political repression. If the US were to play a relatively smaller role in world affairs, and no other system was created to pick up the slack, these values could be at risk.
Although many states now hide behind an alleged universal principle of inviolable state sovereignty, for example, would the international community really want to go back to the old model where states did whatever they wanted to their citizens within the confines of their own borders? Do countries around the world believe that they will be better off if the global trade system breaks down or international shipping lanes become less secure?
Are countries like China willing to step up and pay their fair share of dues to keep the UN running (China currently pays 2.1% of UN dues, compared to more than 25% for the US), or to capitalize revised international financial institutions or the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria in a meaningful way? Unless other countries become more willing to step forward for the common good, a post-American world could quickly become a far more frightening environment than what it would replace.
To make its case for a continued global leadership role, America must, however, step up to the plate. While the go-it-alone impulse of the Bush administration has been discredited by its consequences, the inverse lessons regarding how important collaborative action is in today's interconnected world are still being learned.
Even at the apex of American power, America's greatness was always based on inspiring others, and the opportunities for building market share in that particular category remain unlimited. It is impossible to overestimate how significant a step Barack Obama's election is in this direction, but America's actions over the coming years will be the ultimate determinant of whether the power of America's model can be restored.
America can and should, for example, become the global leader combating climate change through major investments in alternative energy, conservation, and energy efficiency, and by taking strong actions at home to reduce America's greenhouse gas emissions. It should transform its immigration policy to recruit the best and brightest people from around the world to move to the US and become citizens, and remain the world's leading champion of open markets, especially during the current financial crisis.
Closing the prison at Guantánamo and reaffirming America's commitment to international law and human rights will also be an important step in this direction. The world wants to believe in an America that lives up to its own best values.
The prospect of a truly global community of nations working together to achieve the greater good for all is indeed exciting. But, although America has been far from perfect over the last six decades, the end of the pax Americana has the potential to create a dangerous void in international affairs.
If the world is going to shift in the direction of a new and more globally democratic system, other nations will need to meaningfully step forward to assume new responsibilities. It is in America's and the world's interest that they do so. The evidence of this will be seen not only in global institutions but also in places like Darfur, Zimbabwe, and Burma. Until this happens, let us all hope that America can get back on track as the global champion of collaborative action to address the world's greatest challenges and work with as many other countries as possible to move collectively in the right direction.
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