Oct 21st 2008

Is America Ready for a Post-American World?

by Francis Fukuyama

Francis Fukuyama is author of the seminal post-Cold War book The End of History and the Last Man. The following is an edited transcript of a commencement address by Fukuyama, delivered at the Pardee RAND Graduate School, in June. The full transcript can be found at www.the-american-interest.com.

Los Angeles-Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria has labeled the world ahead a "post-American world." I do get a very strong sense that conditions in the global economy are changing in very dramatic ways. The assumptions that undergirded either the Cold War world, or this extended period of American hegemony since, are not going to be sufficient to guide America in the world that is emerging.

The first obvious change the United States faces has to do with the emergence of a multi-polar world. This is not a story about American decline. The US remains the dominant power in the world, but the rest of the world is catching up. The power shift in terms of economic earnings is very dramatic. Russia, China, India and the states of the Persian Gulf are all growing while America is sinking into a recession. This underlines how the rest of the world has become decoupled from the American economy.

In the Clinton years and in the Bush years, the US was used to lecturing the rest of the world about how to get its economic house in order, but those kinds of lectures tend to ring a bit more hollow given our financial crisis of the past year. The most dramatic evidence of this shift in power is the simple fact of the indebtedness of the US, and the accumulating reserves on the part of a lot of countries in the rest of the world. The People's Republic of China has $1.5 trillion in reserves; Russia, $550 billion; South Korea, $260 billion; Thailand, $110 billion; Algeria, $120 billion. The little states of the Gulf Cooperation Council collectively have about $300 billion in reserves. Saudi Arabia just by itself is saving money at the rate of approximately $15 billion every single month as a result of energy exports.

This kind of accumulation of reserves is a phenomenon that in the short run doesn't signal a shift in power because money of this sort doesn't obviously translate into military or other kinds of power. On the other hand, a few hundred billion dollars here, a few trillion dollars there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money. As time goes on, this kind of earning power is going to be translated into important shifts in the way that countries interact. It is inevitable that we are going to be facing a world in which American options are much more constrained.

This may be due to shifts in the military balance of power down the road, but it's also in terms of soft power. Today, the Chinese and Indians export movies, there are Korean pop stars who are popular all over Asia and the Japanese produce anime and manga. There are, in short, other sources of cultural creativity besides the sort that comes out of Hollywood. One particularly worrying trend is the growing reluctance of foreign students to study in American universities due to the obstacles we have put up to their coming here. Over the past few years, students from around the world have been finding alternatives other than going to American universities.

The emergence of this economic multi-polar world has been much commented on. But there's a second important respect in which the world has changed that has to do with the very character of international relations today. If you look at the part of the world that extends from North Africa through the Middle East into the Persian Gulf, Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, all the way to the borders of the Indian subcontinent, you are dealing with a world that is quite different from the international relations that characterized the world of the 20th century.

That world was dominated by strong, centralized states. International politics was the story of the interaction of these strong, centralized states-Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, the former Soviet Union and the like. What is different about today's international world is that it is dominated not by strong states, but by weak and sometimes failing states where the usual instruments of power-in particular, hard military power-don't work that well.

The characteristics of the weak-state world were noted after the Lebanon war in 2006 by Henry Kissinger, who said that Hezbollah "is in fact a metastasization of the al-Qaida pattern. It acts openly as a state within a state....A non-state entity on the soil of a state, with all the attributes of a state and backed by the major regional power, is a new phenomenon in international relations."

Unfortunately, it's not simply new, and it's not simply characteristic of Lebanon. It is true of many countries throughout that part of the world. Why does this weak-state world exist? It has to do with the fact that around the world, as development occurs, new social actors and groups are mobilized that were formally excluded from power, like the Shiites in Lebanon. It extends to our continent as well. We've had tremendous turmoil in the Andean region of Latin America because indigenous peoples in places like Bolivia and Ecuador who were largely cut out of power are now demanding their share of it.

This weak-state world has a lot of implications for American power. We need to consider this very perplexing fact: The US spends as much on its military as virtually the entire rest of the world combined. And yet it is now five years and counting since the US invaded and occupied Iraq, and to this day we have not succeeded in pacifying it fully. That is because of the changing nature of power itself. We are trying to use an instrument-hard military power-that we used in the 20th century world of Great Powers and centralized states in a weak-state world. You cannot use hard power to create legitimate institutions, to build nations, to consolidate politics and all of the other things that are necessary for political stability in this part of the world.

There are other things afoot in international politics in reaction to American dominance over the last two decades: Other countries are mobilizing against the US. You have alliances like the Shanghai Cooperation Council, which had organized itself to push the US out of Asia after our post-9/11 entry into that region. We cannot call on our democratic allies to the extent that we used to be able to. This was obviously true in Iraq, but even in a country like Afghanistan, where our allies in principle agree with the legitimacy of the intervention, we have had tremendous difficulties in getting them to pony up the necessary resources, troops and support.

Even a country like South Korea that has been a traditional American ally has been convulsed with anti-American demonstrations over the past couple of months because of the controversy over imports of American beef.

In short, we face a world in which we need a very different set of skills. We need to be able to deploy and use hard power, but there are a lot of other aspects of projecting American values and institutions that need to underlie a continuing leadership role for the US in the world. The Clinton administration's efforts in the Balkans, Somalia and Haiti to do nation building were criticized as "social work." The critique was that real men and real foreign policy professionals don't do this kind of nation building or deploy soft power, but rather deal with hard power with military force.

But, in fact, American foreign policy has to be preoccupied with a certain kind of social work today. Opponents of American power around the world-the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, as well as populist leaders in Latin America like Hugo Chavez, Rafael Correa or Evo Morales-have succeeded in coming to power because they can offer social services directly to poor people in their countries.

The US, by contrast, has really had relatively little to offer in this regard over the past generation. We can offer free trade, and we can offer democracy; these are very good and important things, the basis for growth and political order. But they tend not to appeal to poor populations that are the real constituents of this struggle for power and influence in the world.

The requirements of an American leadership role are thus quite different today. This raises the question: "Is America really ready to deal with a world in which it cannot assume its own hegemony?"

I do not believe in inevitable American decline. The US has enormous assets in technology, in competitiveness, in entrepreneurship; it has flexible labor markets and financial institutions that are in principle strong, but, admittedly, are having a little bit of difficulty at the present moment.

One of America's greatest advantages is its ability to absorb people from other countries and cultures. Virtually all developed countries are experiencing a severe demographic decline. They are getting smaller with every passing year, because of falling birthrates of native-born people. Any successful developed country in the future is going to have to accommodate immigrants and people from different cultures, and I believe the US is unique in its ability to do so.

The problems that the US face are really ones that are we ourselves have created. None of the problems and challenges that the US faces are insoluble. The problems are really political and institutional ones.

There are three particular areas of weakness that the US must remedy if it is to get through the set of challenges I've outlined. These three are, first, the diminishing capacity of our public sector; second, a certain complacency on the part of Americans about understanding the world from a perspective other than that of the US; and third, our polarized political system that is incapable of even discussing solutions to these problems.

We have seen in the past few years a depressing number of policy failures due to the inability of our public officials to actually carry out, plan and implement policies that we agree on. The most obvious case of this was the failure to adequately plan for the occupation and subsequent counter-insurgency war that broke out in Iraq. Part of that was the result of a political miscalculation as to how the US would be received. Even after it was clear that the US would be in Iraq for the long haul, it took an extraordinary amount of time to adjust to those conditions and move to a counter-insurgency strategy. Indeed, it took President Bush longer to find a good general, Gen. David Petraeus, than it took Lincoln to find Grant in the American Civil War.

We've engaged in two major reorganizations of the federal government in Washington over the last few years: the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the reorganization of the intelligence community. Stunningly, we are less capable in both of those areas than we were prior to the reorganizations. The Department of Homeland Security was supposed to enable the US to respond to major urban disasters, and yet the response to Hurricane Katrina was a total fiasco.

The second issue has to do with complacency about the outside world.

After Sputnik in the late 1950s, the US responded to the Soviet challenge by making massive investments in basic science and technology. This proved to be a very successful set of investments that reaffirmed American technological leadership. After 9/11, we could have reacted in a similar way, by making large investments in our ability to understand complex parts of the world that we did not understand very well, like the Middle East. It is a scandal that in this monstrous new embassy we've created in Baghdad, we only have a handful of fluent Arabic speakers.

The final issue has to do with the deadlock that we face in our political system. Polarization has put off the table serious discussion of how to solve some of these long-term and very clear challenges that every public policy expert understands. It is not possible for the Right to talk about raising taxes to pay for badly needed public goods. It is not possible for the Left to talk about issues like privatizing Social Security or raising the retirement age.

Neither the Left nor the Right has had the political courage to suggest raising energy taxes, which has been the obvious way of dealing with foreign energy dependency and encouraging alternative sources of energy. And so the political culture that we have created as a result of this kind of politics is incapable of making the decisions that we need.

I've focused here on how the US must face the future. But no one around the world will benefit from an America that is inward looking, incapable of executing policies and too divided to make important decisions. That hurts not just Americans, but the rest of the world as well.


Copyright: New Perspectives Quarterly, NPQ

If you wish to comment on this article, you can do so on-line.

Should you wish to publish your own article on the Facts & Arts website, please contact us at info@factsandarts.com. Please note that Facts & Arts shares its advertising revenue with those who have contributed material and have signed an agreement with us.


Watch below Professor Francis Fukuyama being interviewed on May 28, 2008

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Aug 10th 2022
EXTRACT: "Central banks are thus locked in a “debt trap”: any attempt to normalize monetary policy will cause debt-servicing burdens to spike, leading to massive insolvencies, cascading financial crises, and fallout in the real economy. ---- With governments unable to reduce high debts and deficits by spending less or raising revenues, those that can borrow in their own currency will increasingly resort to the “inflation tax”: relying on unexpected price growth to wipe out long-term nominal liabilities at fixed rates."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACT: ".... the likelihood is that Biden, who spent his life as a senator, played a central behind-the-scenes role in turning Manchin around and keeping the Democratic Party Senators together on this pared-down version of Build Back Better. Biden’s legislative accomplishments, not to mention his administrative ones, will likely end up being very impressive for the first two years of his presidency. ------ In matters of climate, every ton of CO2 you don’t put into the atmosphere is a decrease in how hard life will be for our grandchildren. They will have reason to be grateful to President Biden and the Democratic Party if this bill becomes law."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Right-wing media outlets including Fox News, One America News (OAN), Newsmax, and talk radio are grossly abusing the right to free speech and are causing profound, if not irreparable damage to our country at home and abroad. They have been engaged in these deliberate practices of spreading poisonous misinformation all in the name of free speech." ---- "A team at MIT, analyzing propaganda techniques in the news, underscores the use of logical fallacies – such as strawmen (the misrepresentation of the other’s position), red herrings (the provision of irrelevancies), false dichotomies (offering two alternatives as the only possibilities), and whataboutism (a diversionary tactic to avoid directly addressing an issue). ---- Whataboutism is worth considering more closely because it is becoming ubiquitous among Republicans – perhaps this is not surprising given that it is certainly Trump’s “favorite dodge.” It is one of the fundamental rules by which he operates: when you are criticized, say that someone else is worse. In an interview with Trump, Bill O’Reilly states the obvious fact that “Putin is a killer,” and who can forget Trump’s response: “There are a lot of killers. You got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?” That is classic whataboutism. And it is also of course all over Fox News’ most popular line-up."
Jul 24th 2022
EXTRACTS: "For three hours, against the unequivocal advice of his counsel, friends, and family, Trump purposefully and steadfastly declined to give the mob he had summoned any signal to disperse, to exit the building peacefully, or to simply cease threatening the life of his vice president or other members of Congress." ------ "Trump is corrupt to the core, a traitor who deserves nothing but contempt and to spend the rest of his life behind bars because he remains a menace to this country and an existential threat to our democratic institutions."
Jul 21st 2022
EXTRACT: "For some countries, diasporas also are not new. Just ask the Russians. For three-quarters of a century, Stalin’s NKVD and its successor, the KGB, kept close tabs on expatriate Russians, constantly worrying about the threat they might pose. And now, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s security service, the FSB, is continuing the tradition. According to recent FSB estimates, almost four million Russians left the country in the first three months of this year. Obviously, FSB statistics are hard to verify. But the sheer magnitude of this year’s departures is striking."
Jul 20th 2022
EXTRACTS: "We need leaders who will be honest about our problems in the short, medium, and long term. We are becoming poorer than our neighbors, with our per capita growth and productivity lagging behind theirs. We confront surging energy prices, soaring inflation, and public-sector strikes. Our fiscal deficit is uncomfortably high. Our influence is diminished. Far from recognizing these challenges, let alone proposing sensible solutions, the candidates to succeed Johnson are trying to win votes with reckless proposals like ever-larger tax cuts." ----- "There is one exception. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak refuses to abandon the notion that expenditure should bear some relationship to revenue. "
Jul 13th 2022
EXTRACT: "Looking ahead, five factors could make today’s energy crisis even worse. First, Putin has opened a second front in the conflict by cutting back on the contracted volumes of natural gas that Russia supplies to Europe. The goal is to prevent Europeans from storing enough supplies for next winter, and to drive prices higher, creating economic hardship and political discord. In his speech in June at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Putin made his reasoning clear: “Social and economic problems worsening in Europe” will “split their societies” and “inevitably lead to populism … and a change of the elites in the short term.” ...... As it is, Germany is now anticipating the need for gas rationing, and its minister for economic affairs, Robert Habeck, warns of a “Lehman-style contagion” (referring to the 2008 financial crisis) if Europe cannot manage today’s energy-induced economic disruptions."
Jul 5th 2022
EXTRACT: "Fortunately, I am not alone in claiming that the survival of democracy in the US is gravely endangered. The American public has been aroused by the decision overturning Roe. But people need to recognize that decision for what it is: part of a carefully laid plan to turn the US into a repressive regime. We must do everything we can to prevent that. This fight ought to include many people who voted for Trump in the past."
Jul 2nd 2022
EXTRACT: "The Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit described this succinctly in his book On Compromise and Rotten Compromises. In “politics as economics,” material interests are “subject to bargaining, everything is negotiable, whereas in the religious picture, centered on the idea of the holy, the holy is non-negotiable.” This, then, is why politics in the US is now in such a perilous state. More and more, the secular left and the religious right are engaged in a culture war, revolving around sexuality, gender, and race, where politics is no longer negotiable. When that happens, institutions start breaking down, and the stage is set for charismatic demagogues and the politics of violence."
Jul 2nd 2022
EXTRACT: "...EU enlargement is essentially a political decision by member states, based on a multitude of considerations that sometimes include dramatic events. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is such a turning point."
Jun 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "Most market analysts seem to think that central banks will remain hawkish, but I am not so sure. I have argued that they will eventually wimp out and accept higher inflation – followed by stagflation – once a hard landing becomes imminent, because they will be worried about the damage of a recession and a debt trap, owing to an excessive build-up of private and public liabilities after years of low interest rates." ----- "There is ample reason to believe that the next recession will be marked by a severe stagflationary debt crisis. As a share of global GDP, private and public debt levels are much higher today than in the past, having risen from 200% in 1999 to 350% today (with a particularly sharp increase since the start of the pandemic). Under these conditions, rapid normalization of monetary policy and rising interest rates will drive highly leveraged zombie households, companies, financial institutions, and governments into bankruptcy and default."
Jun 28th 2022
EXTRACT: "It is tempting to conclude that today’s central bankers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Maybe if they sit tight, they will ride out the storm. Then-Fed Chair Paul Volcker was Public Enemy Number One in the United States in the early 1980s, when he squeezed post-oil-shock inflation out of the system with double-digit interest rates. But in his later years he was revered, and became a national treasure, called on to advise successive presidents in any financial emergency. ----- But central bankers would be wise not to assume that their reputations will automatically recover, and that the status quo ante will be restored. We live in a more disputatious age than the 1980s. Public institutions are more regularly challenged and held to account by far less reverential legislators." ----- "Moreover, former central bankers have joined the chorus of critics. Former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, breaking the unwritten rule not to reproach one’s successors, has said that today’s Fed made “a mistake” by responding slowly to inflation. And Bailey’s immediate predecessors, Mervyn King and Mark Carney, have weighed in, too, with challenges to the BOE’s policy. The fabric of the central banking fraternity is fraying."
Jun 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "Public opinion in Belarus remains firmly against involvement into the war with Ukraine. Moreover, according to a Chatham House survey, 40% of Belarusians do not support Russia’s war, compared to 32% who do, while around half of those questioned see predominately negative consequences of the war for Belarus (53%) and for themselves (48%). The Belarusian military and security services are also aware of the determined and skilful resistance that Ukrainian forces have put up against Russia and the risks that they would therefore be running if they entered the war against Ukraine. This, in turn, means that the risk to Lukashenko himself remains that he might lose his grip on power, a grip which depends heavily on the loyalty of his armed forces." ---- "Ultimately, Belarus may not be on the brink of being plunged into war quite yet, but its options to avoid such a disaster are narrowing."
Jun 20th 2022
EXTRACT: "Russification (the policy of enforcing Russian culture on populations) appears to be being reinforced by ethnic cleansing. Last month the Ukrainian parliament’s commissioner for human rights, Liudmyla Denisova, informed the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, that 1.3 million Ukrainians, including 223,000 children, had been forcibly deported to Russia."
Jun 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "If Trump had his way, then Vice-President Pence would have also broken his oath to the constitution and derailed the certification of electoral votes. Our continued existence as a Republic might very well have hung on Pence’s actions that day. The mob’s response was to call for Pence to be hanged, and a noose and scaffold was erected apparently for that very purpose. What was Trump’s reaction when he was told that the mob was calling for Pence’s summary execution? His words were: “Maybe our supporters have the right idea.” Mike Pence “deserves” it."
Jun 10th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Speaking to journalist Sophie Raworth on the BBC’s Sunday Morning show recently, former war crimes prosecutor Sir Howard Morrison, now an advisor to the Ukraine government, highlighted the dangers posed by the negative – often insulting and dehumanising – statements made by some Russian politicians and media personalities about Ukraine and its people." ---- "The conditions and attitudes described by Morrison have existed for centuries: Russians have viewed Ukrainians as inferior since before the Soviet era." ----- "And, as Morrison said, stereotyping and denigrating a people as inferior or lacking agency makes atrocities and looting more likely to happen, as we are seeing in Ukraine."
Jun 9th 2022
EXTRACT: "Unless Russia realises that the west is willing and able to push back, a new, stable security order in Europe will not be possible. Concessions to Russia, by Ukraine or the EU and Nato, are not the way to achieve this. That this has been realised beyond Ukraine’s most ardent supporters in the Baltic states, Poland, the UK and the US is clear from German support for strengthening Nato’s northern flank and a general increase in Nato members’ defence spending."
Jun 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "Highly civilized people can turn into barbarians when demagogues and dictators exploit their fears and trigger their most atavistic instincts. Rape, torture, and massacres often happen when soldiers invade foreign countries. Commanding officers sometimes actively encourage such behavior to terrorize an enemy into submission. And sometimes it occurs when the officer corps loses control and discipline breaks down. Japanese and Germans know this, as do Serbs, Koreans, Americans, Russians, and many others."
Jun 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Like Metternich, Kissinger commits the fatal error of believing that a few wise policymakers can impose their will on the world. Worse, he believes they can halt domestically generated change and the power of nationalism. Many years ago, this is what Senator William Fulbright termed the “arrogance of power.” This approach failed in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It is also doomed to fail in Russia and Ukraine." ------ "Not surprisingly, Kissinger misunderstands Russia. He appears to believe that, because Russia has been an “essential part of Europe” for over four centuries, it is therefore fated to remain so for the foreseeable future.The claim is completely at odds with history." ---- "Finally, Kissinger misunderstands the implications of his own analysis for Western relations with Russia. “We are facing,” he said, “a situation now where Russia could alienate itself completely from Europe and seek a permanent alliance elsewhere." ---- "But what’s so bad about Russia’s isolating itself from Europe and becoming a vassal state of China? "
Jun 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "According to the latest figures from China’s National Bureau of Statistics, China’s population grew from 1.41212 billion to just 1.41260 billion in 2021 – a record low increase of just 480,000, a mere fraction of the annual growth of eight million or so common a decade ago." ----- "China’s total fertility rate (births per woman) was 2.6 in the late 1980s – well above the 2.1 needed to replace deaths. It has been between 1.6 and 1.7 since 1994, and slipped to 1.3 in 2020 and just 1.15 in 2021."