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America and the Crisis of Global Power

What steps does the United States need to take to boost its global standing in the decades ahead?

March 8, 2012

What steps does the United States need to take to boost its global standing in the decades ahead?

The argument that America’s decline would generate global insecurity, endanger some vulnerable states, produce a more troubled North American neighborhood, and make cooperative management of the global commons more difficult is not an argument for U.S. global supremacy.

In fact, the strategic complexities of the world in the 21st century — resulting from the rise of a politically self-assertive global population and from the dispersal of global power — make such supremacy unattainable. But in this increasingly complicated geopolitical environment, an America in pursuit of a new, timely strategic vision is crucial in helping the world avoid a dangerous slide into international turmoil.

America’s global standing in the decades ahead will depend on its successful implementation of purposeful efforts to overcome its drift toward a socioeconomic obsolescence and to shape a new and stable geopolitical equilibrium on the world’s most important continent by far, Eurasia.

America can significantly upgrade its domestic condition and redefine its central international role in keeping with the new objective and subjective conditions of the 21st century. But, in order to achieve this, it is essential that America undertake a national effort to enhance the public’s understanding of America’s changing, and potentially dangerous, global circumstances.

America’s inherent assets still justify cautious optimism that such a renewal can refute the prognoses of America’s inevitable decline and global irrelevance. But public ignorance of the growing overall vulnerability of America’s domestic and foreign standing must be tackled deliberately, head-on, and from the top down.

In America, truly comprehensive national decisions require a unique degree of consensus, generated by dramatic and socially compelling circumstances (such as, at their extreme, a great financial crisis or an imminent external threat) and/or propelled by the persuasive impact of determined national leadership. And since only the President has a voice that resonates nationally, the President must drive America’s renewal forward.

Thus, America’s central challenge and its geopolitically imperative mission over the next several decades is to revitalize itself and to promote a larger and more vital West, while simultaneously buttressing a complex balance in the East, so as to accommodate constructively China’s rising global status and avert global chaos.

Without a stable geopolitical balance in Eurasia promoted by a domestically renewed America, progress on the issues of central importance to social well-being and ultimately to human survival would stall. America’s failure to pursue an ambitious transcontinental geopolitical vision would likely accelerate the decline of the West and prompt greater instability in the East. In Asia, national rivalries, foremost between China and India and Japan, would contribute to greater regional tensions while eventually intensifying the latent hostility between China and America, to the detriment of both.

Enlarging the West

Alternatively, a successful American effort to enlarge the West, making it the world’s most stable and also most democratic zone, would seek to combine power with principle. A cooperative larger West — extending from North America through Europe into Eurasia and embracing Turkey and a truly democratizing Russia — would geographically reach Japan, the first Asian state to embrace democracy successfully, as well as South Korea. That wider outreach would enhance the appeal of its core principles to other cultures, and thus encourage the gradual emergence in the decades ahead of varied forms of a universal democratic political culture.

At the same time, America should continue to engage cooperatively in the energetic and financially influential but also potentially conflicted East. If America and China can accommodate each other on a broad range of issues, the prospects for stability in Asia will be greatly increased.

Hence, to respond effectively in both the western and eastern parts of Eurasia, America must adopt a dual role. It must be the promoter and guarantor of greater and broader unity in the West, and it must be the balancer and conciliator between the major powers in the East.

Both roles are essential — and each is needed to reinforce the other. But to have the credibility and the capacity to pursue both successfully, America needs to show the world that it has the will to renovate itself at home.

Editor’s note: This essay is an excerpt from Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power by Zbigniew Brzezinski (Basic Books). Published with permission of the author. Copyright © 2012 by Zbigniew Brzezinski.


The strategic complexities of the world in the 21st century make a return to U.S. global supremacy unattainable.

It is essential that America undertake a national effort to enhance the public's understanding of America's changing, and potentially dangerous, global circumstances.

Only the President has a voice that resonates nationally, so the President must drive America's renewal forward.