The End of American Centrality
Why are world-shaping events increasingly passing the United States by?
May 5, 2011
Here is a central paradox for today’s United States: It’s hard to come out on top, even in your own self-estimation, when you believe that many countries around the world are, in one way or another, your client state, or that they owe you something. The potential for disappointments is high.
At the same time, there is a clear need for the global community to take on more responsibility for running the international system. Too much has rested on U.S. shoulders in the past.
But, then, when the other nations then step up to the plate and do get engaged, Washington shrinks back almost immediately. In its heart of hearts, it does not really appreciate any such display of engagement. Instead, it tends to utter a collective sigh of disappointment: What, we’re no longer in charge?
The global rebalancing of responsibility requires two big changes in attitude: Other nations need to understand that they need to do more. And the United States — and especially Washington’s policy elites — need to understand, and accept, that they are less central to the process.
That may be a big point of departure for Washington, but it is a necessary one in order for the international system to evolve. Americans outside the capital are likely to welcome it, because the country already has enough domestic problems to contend with. This requires the full attention of the nation’s policymakers.
Leader — by default
A first, crucial step in this rebalancing process was taken during the years of the Bush Administration. Other nations gradually came to the realization that they could not, and should not, rely so much on American leadership, given its periodic embrace of radicalism and recklessness.
The world has fortunately become so interconnected, and other nations so battle-worn and experienced, that for the first time the thesis of the United States doing less globally is not giving rise to any worried calls about a renewed rise in American isolationism. Could there be a clearer sign that the international system has matured?
It is quite a different matter inside the United States itself. There, opinion leaders apparently just can’t let go. They feel an almost obsessive need to shape the global agenda. And they take every move that is not in reflexive support of U.S. goals as an insult.
However, it is high time for Washington’s elites to abandon their domestic attention deficit disorder. They ought to realize that talk about what other nations should do tends to be cheap.
“Egypt now opening up to Russia? Pakistan talking to Afghanistan on the post-U.S. era? Acts of impertinence!” So goes the breathless whispering about a world that is finally getting in charge of its own destiny without everything being mediated by — or fixed in — Washington, D.C.
The world outside Washington replies to this constant flow of nervous reactions inside the Beltway by arguing that the globe will be a better place. America is likely to be stronger once U.S. policymakers shed their impossible-to-fulfill delusions of global omnipotence.
Being no longer central doesn’t mean being irrelevant — not by a long shot. All it should mean is that the Herculean complex, at long last, ought to fall off America’s shoulders. It’s high time to focus all the strength on fixing the home front anyway.
Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on May 5, 2011. It was updated by the author on June 3, 2014.
There is a clear need for the global community to take on more responsibility to run the international system than before. Too much has indeed rested on U.S. shoulders in the past.
It's high time for Washington's elites to abandon their domestic attention deficit disorder.
The world outside Washington replies that the globe will be a better place once U.S. policymakers lay aside impossible-to-fulfill delusions of global omnipotence.
Being no longer central doesn't mean being irrelevant — not by a long shot.