FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES | NOVEMBER 16, 2018
A NEW FOREIGN POLICY
Beyond American Exceptionalism
By Jeffrey D. Sachs
253 pp. Columbia University. $17.95.
Sachs, whose long career has spanned academia and public policy, has never been one to focus on shades of gray. In stark prose, he announces that the United States today faces a binary choice, “poised between two possible futures — one of conflict, even nuclear war, and one of peaceful cooperation.” The only way to avoid the former, he argues, is for America to abandon its toxic notion of exceptionalism, the deep-seated (and in Sachs’s view mistaken) conviction that the United States is a nation unlike any other, destined for greatness and bound to lead. Whether that has taken the form of a belief in the American Century, which propelled the country throughout the 1900s, or the harsh strains of America First animating the current White House, the idea of exceptionalism has at times served American power but today, Sachs says, is a recipe for disaster.
It will come as no surprise that Sachs excoriates Donald Trump as the purest distillation of America’s worst instincts, “aiding the rich at the expense of the poor,” “impetuous, unstable and inexperienced.” But he sees Trump as simply the latest, albeit one of the more pernicious, manifestations of an exceptionalist mind-set that has involved America in endless, unnecessary and unjust wars of choice, covert and overt, from Guatemala and Iran in the 1950s to Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years. It has also led to a dangerous disregard for the environment, a blinkered approach to the Middle East and North Korea, and a failure to confront the challenge of China by investing in domestic economic growth and innovation. American leaders time and again have hypocritically looted the international system for purely nationalist ends. Trump is a dark symptom, but for Sachs he walks a familiar path blazed by generations of others.
What’s called for, Sachs concludes, is a new embrace of an internationalist approach that rejects a zero-sum mentality and does not pretend that the United States is a nation that can do no wrong. Forceful and angry, Sachs verges on hyperbole in his indictment of America past and present, but he does highlight the perils of continuing on the same path.
Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower
By Michael Beckley
231 pp. Cornell University. $29.95.
In contrast to the many voices warning of the imminent decline of the United States, Beckley — a political scientist at Tufts and a fellow at the Kennedy School — contends that the days of American hegemony are far from numbered. In his analysis, American “unipolarity is not guaranteed to endure but present trends strongly suggest that it will last for many decades.” He neither celebrates nor excoriates this dominance; he argues simply that it is a statistical fact, and he marshals reams of evidence to prove his thesis.
In measured, data-driven prose, Beckley demonstrates that no country is poised to upend American primacy, not economically, not militarily and not technologically. He methodically measures the relative power of nations today “by tallying the wealth and military assets of each country.” While other countries may surpass the United States in population or in total economic output or in numbers of soldiers, none, Beckley argues, comes close in terms of net assets.
China would appear the most logical candidate to surpass the United States. Beckley isn’t buying it. “China is big but inefficient. … The United States, by contrast, is big and efficient.” China has to spend egregiously to produce its growth, and while its results have been impressive, on no per capita metric (for example, education, productivity or income) is China close to the United States. Beckley also convincingly dents the emerging view of China as a military threat. It is surrounded by neighbors with formidable defenses and confronts a United States that has built up decades of military stock, forward bases and advanced systems.
The greatest threat to the nation’s hegemony for Beckley is not a rising power but domestic decay, which, he worries, will make life worse for most Americans. His suggestions that we end gerrymandering and try to increase voter turnout, while laudable, seem tacked on and thin compared with the overall statistical rigor of his argument. He also does not adequately grapple with the precipitous decline of American soft power in recent years. Still, if his perspective about the imperviousness of American power strikes a dissonant note in our current pessimistic climate, the evidence he assembles should be part of any serious debate about where we are heading.
THE JUNGLE GROWS BACK
America and Our Imperiled World
By Robert Kagan
179 pp. Knopf. $22.95.
The post-World War II liberal order of nation-states bound by treaties and international institutions, and favoring democracy, capitalism and the rule of law, has, in Kagan’s telling, seen more peace and prosperity than any other time in history. But its continuance is anything but guaranteed, and its emergence after 1945 was “a great historical aberration” that saw the simultaneous collapse of the old power centers of Europe and Asia and the rise of a liberal, capitalist, democratic United States committed to internationalism and locked in a competition with a nuclear Soviet Union. The result was a sharp break from a past of endless cycles of powers rising, warring and falling, and one that saw “amazing progress over the past seven decades.”
Now, however, that system is in jeopardy. The jungle — that place of chaos and disorder and war — “is growing back. History is returning. Nations are reverting to old habits and traditions.” Kagan does not lay all the blame on the United States, but he does see the country as responsible, through acts of omission and commission, for letting the system unravel. Trump is accelerating that, though he cannot be faulted for the rise of antidemocratic nationalism in Europe or the return of Asian rivalries. Kagan passionately believes that the only way to beat back the jungle and reverse these dangerous trends is for the United States to recommit itself to lead.
To do that, Kagan concludes, Americans must first address the fraying of the liberal order domestically. On that score he is fairly sanguine: “Americans will come out of it.” They “cannot escape the principles of the Declaration, even if they want to. They have nowhere else to go.” Not so the rest of the world. As much as many Americans would like to turn inward, that path will imperil the United States. Kagan may well overstate the role the United States can and should play going forward, but he powerfully underscores just how tenuous the world order is and always has been.