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America in the Global Competition of Ideas

Why is America's position in the global competition of ideas less robust than most Americans think?

September 21, 2010

Why is America's position in the global competition of ideas less robust than most Americans think?

Remember all the politically motivated talk in the wake of 9/11 about the "war" of ideas? We have to admit, sexy as it sounds, it just didn't click with us. Ideas fighting wars: What does that look like?

And should the underlying issue have been so neatly defined as freedom versus fundamentalism? That hardly fits into an era when so much else is in flux amid the ramifications of the end of the Cold War and the dynamics of globalization.

What all that talk did get right was the focus on ideas. Ideas matter. They always have, and they do especially now. World politics has entered a new and distinctive age in which ideas and influence are linked in a vibrant and sometimes ferocious competition for ascendance.

Core questions about how best to achieve world order and what constitutes just societies, seemingly settled at the end of the 20th century, have been re-opened in the 21st century.

Yet America's position in this global competition of ideas is less robust than most Americans think — and weaker than we need. While the Obama Administration has stanched some of the most raw and visceral anti-Americanism that grew during the George W. Bush years, the overall global competition of ideas challenge is bigger and more fundamental than changing presidents.

It is powerful to look inward at traditional American values for guidance about what to do next in foreign policy. But it is not powerful to look backward at what may have worked in the past when the competition took different forms and was much less vibrant.

A future leadership proposition has to be adaptive — not restorative. And, most important, it has to be designed first and foremost to appeal to the needs of the people abroad whose allegiance it is seeking to gain — not the people at home who want to feel good about their presence in the world.

This requires being grounded in three core truths:

It's a Copernican, not Ptolemaic, world. For the ancient philosopher-cum-astronomer Ptolemy, the Earth was at the center of the universe, with all the other planets, indeed the whole solar system, revolving around it.

And so too was the United States seen as at the center of the post-1945 world: militarily, politically, economically and ideologically.

The 21st century, though, is a Copernican world in which the United States/Earth is not at the center. While our gravitational pull is still strong, it is not so strong that others orbit around us. Not geopolitically, not economically, not ideologically.

TINA is not enough. The "there is no alternative" (TINA) argument — that whatever the flaws of a U.S.-led global system, there was in practice no substitute — was quite widely accepted for many years.

Much less so today. Rules and norms are subject to much more extensive and intensive debate. There also is some routing around American influence, marking a world without the West, with its own distinctive sets of rules, institutions and relationships.

No single alternative model is yet on the verge of replacing the old one, but TINA is giving way to THEMBA — "there must be an alternative."

It's a marketplace, not war, of ideas. The war metaphor is crisp, actionable and morally compelling: What American doesn't want to win a war against fanaticism, hate and intolerance? But it dangerously distorts the U.S. policymaking challenge.

The global competition of ideas is not the domain of armies and generals. There are no shock-and-awe tactics, no decisive victories, no unconditional surrenders.

It is a competition within a marketplace for which the rules of engagement are much closer to social and economic thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Milton Friedman than those set out by Clausewitz.

To win is to gain market share among consumers. Global publics pick and choose what most attracts them in a fully global competition of ideas.

Some still take heed of Churchill's oft-cited comment that "Americans will always do the right thing, after they've exhausted all the alternatives." Perhaps. But it will only be so through creativity, not complacency. It's the denialists who are the true declinists.

Public diplomacy addresses part of this. But only part. U.S. foreign policy practitioners, in and out of government, need to become at least as serious about ideological competition, and as proficient, as American capitalists have been about economic competition.

There is an evolving global digital infrastructure that will increasingly connect everyone to everyone, but not on equal terms nor at equal density. The Internet and its associated technologies are a "force multiplier" for many forms of persuasion and storytelling.

The Internet boosts "soft power" projection capability radically, while distributing those capabilities more widely and broadly. Governments are just one voice among many, and in some ways the least magnetic to many people simply because they are the least novel.

It's not just voices that are now engaged. More precisely, it is not just words. Call it the “YouTube phenomenon” if you like. Human beings are visual animals, and they respond strongly to images and pictures. Yet, the rules and processes of rational deliberation that Westerners tend to associate with Enlightenment thinking are mostly about how words argue with words.

What do we really know about how pictures argue with pictures? There are probably workable answers to that question, but we are only at the beginning of understanding them. They certainly have not been articulated in a meaningful way for foreign-policymakers operating in the global competition of ideas.

The demography of the population that makes up the global marketplace of ideas is increasingly young, urban and non-Western. The density of new urban life, particularly in the developing world, is the convergence point for the forces of globalization and their consequence in ideas. Think of it as a massive incubator.

Cities are quickly becoming the testing ground for new and old boundaries and identities, the transmission belt for beliefs, the birthplace of new ideologies, the laboratory for experimentation with culture, property, human rights and violence.

We believe that a globally competitive, forward-leaning, hopeful and effective leadership proposition has two fundamental ingredients — conceptions of a just society and world order.

When it comes to promoting just societies around the world, Americans have a few things to unlearn and forget before making use of our society's and state's fundamental strengths of justice on a global stage. These include much of what is "known" about American exceptionalism, ideology and the relationship between process and power.

We will have to examine closely some relatively unexamined "truths" about democracy. And we will have to modify and modernize what comes close for many Americans to a foundational belief: "That government is best which governs least."

For much of the world, that government is best which governs best. People in countries with mass poverty, prevalent disease and other pressing human needs are looking to be protected not just from government and from power — but also by government and given some of what they need by power.

Legitimacy depends on performance, not just process. Whether government is less or more, big or small, is not so important. What matters is whether government helps provide for human needs or fails to do so.

That's not to say process is irrelevant, because human beings everywhere are quite smart enough to recognize that the two are connected in some fashion over time. And getting process right helps protect against repression.

But to the extent that Americans advocate democracy for others as a core component of a just society, it needs to be a vision of democracy that delivers what others want for themselves — and not what Americans think they should want.

Another key element is making our own societal diversity a source of vitality that strengthens us at home and is truly exemplary in a world in which differences of individual and group identity breed so much fear of "the other."

This is even more challenging than in the past (and it was more challenging then than some of our myths recount). It has to be done amid immigration demagoguery and persistent racial and ethnic inequalities.

And it has to be done with many more "pluribuses" — out of which to forge E pluribus unum.

As to world order, the various versions of ideological convergence propagated by locating American voices over the last two decades — the end of history, the indispensable nation, the new Rome — need to be left behind.

Even the integrative international institutionalism that strives to keep the system largely as it has been since World War II underestimates how much is in play.

In short, the United States needs an actionable articulation of mutuality. Mutuality is not altruism or the abdication of national interest. No nation can be for others instead of for itself.

But in a global age, it is more essential than ever to have a credible claim to using one's power and position for seeking out actions and outcomes that serve shared interests.

What mutuality offers in return is a platform on which to advance three fundamental goals: security, a healthy planet and a healthfully heterogeneous global society.

Security does not mean being the world's full-service security provider. It does mean being a security enhancer, and most especially not a security detractor.

The goal of a healthy planet takes hold of the fact that environmental problems are now fully global phenomena at the center of human lives, not abstractions about global public goods, externalities and opportunity costs.

Acknowledging global heterogeneity builds on America's own societal diversity in ways that recognize the power of identity and the great range of human experience — and works to turn it into a virtue, not a vice, a source of new and recombinant ideas, not fear and hatred.

None of this mind shift will be achieved just by articulating soaring principles. Unbalanced bargains which have held in the past, ranging from overly discretionary use of force to intellectual property-intensive sectors such as pharmaceuticals, have to be redressed.

Big-picture strategic choices need to be made in a serious way that recognizes trade-offs and short vs. long-term net assessments of issues like the unilateralist caveat, the balance between state and market, the role of non-state actors as their universe widens, and the shadow of the future amidst pressing immediate concerns and full inboxes.

In these and other ways, the biggest, most basic questions about world order and just societies are open for debate. Succeeding means engaging the relentless competitive game that is the global marketplace of ideas as a full player — but without presumptions of entitlement.

The United States will be tested by global audiences in the next decade and beyond as never before. But so will every other contender for leadership in the competition of ideas.

That leaves us optimistic. Because if Americans understand the terms of this new international game, there really is no one who can lead more effectively.

Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from “The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas” by Steven Weber and Bruce W. Jentleson. Published in September 2010 by Harvard University Press. Copyright


World politics has entered a new and distinctive age in which ideas are linked in a ferocious competition for ascendance.

It's the denialists who are the true declinists.

The global competition of ideas is not the domain of armies and generals. There are no shock-and-awe tactics, no decisive victories.

To win is to gain market share among consumers. Global publics pick and choose what most attracts them.

The Internet boosts "soft power" projection capability radically, while distributing those capabilities more widely and broadly.