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U.S. Foreign Policy and the Solar System

What do Ptolemy and Copernicus tell us about America’s changing global role?

November 8, 2007

What do Ptolemy and Copernicus tell us about America's changing global role?

During the Cold War, the U.S. position in the world was a lot like the ancient Greek philosopher Ptolemy’s theory of the universe. For Ptolemy, as you may remember, the Earth was at the center, with all the other planets — indeed the whole solar system — revolving around it.

And so, too, was the United States. We Americans, rightly or wrongly, saw ourselves as the pivot point of the entire Cold War universe. We were the wielder of power. And the economic engine. And the bastion of free-world ideology.

Indeed, when the Cold War ended with the demise and defeat of the Soviet Union, the centrality of the United States seemed to become even more definitive.

We were wrapped in the mantle of being the sole surviving superpower. The U.S. economy was driving globalization, plain and simple. Democracy, which we portrayed ceaselessly as our real gift to humankind, was spreading all over. In short, the world seemed more Ptolemaic than ever before.

Not anymore. While still the single most powerful country, global geopolitics are not revolving around the United States nearly as much.

The global economy has become much more competitive, and the U.S. economic position much weakened. While we like to still think of ourselves as the beacon of shared values to which others turn, the source of political wisdom to which they look up, and the rightful world leader, so much of the world is not seeing us this way.

It’s now a Copernican world in which the Earth — aka the United States — is not at the center. And it’s harder to analogize to what the “sun” is, but the crucial point is that we are not at the center. While our gravitational pull is still strong, it is not so strong that others orbit around us.

As bad as the Bush Administration’s foreign policy has been, and as much as it has pushed others away from us, the forces shaping this system run much deeper. Other powers have been rising (China), recovering (Russia) and seeking to invigorate (European Union).

Regionalism is strengthening and deepening politically as well as economically. Many of the 190-plus nations in the world finally emerging on the global stage after long histories of colonialism and superpower dominance are more assertive of their own interests and identities. There are a lot of players, a lot of orbits.

With globalization, the overriding trend has been toward “less of a ‘Made in the USA’ character,” as the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) put it in its “Mapping 2020” project report. The report, issued almost three years ago, was about realistically competing in this global future, not unrealistically colluding to undermine it. That’s to its credit. It’s also the key reason why little came of it in an administration that still is more Ptolemaic than Copernican.

Nor is America dominant in the “war of ideas,” as fewer peoples are as inclined to “be like us.” And that disassociation happens not just within the Arab-Islamic world.

Pick your measure: The consistently low numbers in global public opinion polls for views of the United States and especially American foreign policy. Anti-American demonstrations, violent and non-violent, in country after country.

Even the image of the United States itself is not what we would like to think it is. “Suppose a young person who wanted to leave this country asked you to recommend where to go to lead a good life,” asked a 2005 Pew survey in 16 different countries. “What country would you recommend?” Only in one country was the United States the first choice.

This is not about declinism. It is about the fallacy of assuming centrality. And the need to understand the nature of our era as a global one.

This problem does not just apply to Republicans. It goes for those Democrats, too, whose liberal internationalism still has alliances and institutions largely revolving around the United States — in ways that still tend to be too Ptolemaic.

Some of this reflects the conventional wisdom that talking about the United States as anything other than the global leader is political heresy amidst a public that is looking for greatness restored.

We’d do well to heed Copernicus, who when accused of the much greater heresy of challenging the Catholic Church and Holy Scripture, beseeched people to “face the facts, as they say, with both eyes open.” For even more than this or that policy proposal for this or that particular issue, we need to grasp the fundamental changes in the nature of the world in which the United States seeks to play its role.