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Washington’s Place in a New World

What will the United States do in a world of dispersed power?

June 1, 2009

What will the United States do in a world of dispersed power?

As the challenges facing the political parties suggest, the institutions most likely to fare well in an “After America” world are those not held hostage to the mythology of American Exceptionalism and the fate of the American imperium.

These institutions include not only Hollywood and Harvard, but also Wall Street, multinational corporations and Silicon Valley.

The toughest adjustments will be for the institutions of American empire. It will be hard on the Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force. And yet even within the military, there have always been skeptics of the "America" proposition — the idea that the world implodes into a dark chaos without an American Goliath to enforce the peace.

"We have to step back from that world-policeman-type mentality," Col. Kenneth Stefanek, the vice commander of U.S forces at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, told me. "There's too much blowback."

The American armed forces have less of an investment in an imperial mission than did the soldiers of the British Empire. That should ease the pain of accommodation to an After America world, especially if the future is a multipolar world made up of rising powers like Brazil and India — which show an interest in working cooperatively with American forces even though they do not see themselves functioning as junior partners.

The most difficult accommodation of all will be for those at the nerve center of American empire, in Washington, D.C. Nearly 70 years have passed since Washington became "the capital of a World in the Making," as the publishing magnate W. M. Kiplinger called the city in the early 1940s.

Whenever I am in New York or Los Angeles, I am reminded of how much less global Washington feels, notwithstanding its center-of-the-world pretensions. Still, the American Century has been good to Washington — so good that Washington doesn't really want to think about what comes next.

The American Century has allowed research fellows at think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute to have a hand in world-altering events, like the war in Iraq. It has allowed senior civil servants at the Pentagon and the State Department to shape decisions on weapons systems and aid programs affecting every major continent on earth.

It provided the dramatic material that the Washington Post — once a daily as sleepy and provincial as Washington was — used to turn itself into a world-class newspaper.

It has helped make millionaires of the top lawyers, lobbyists and public relations executives representing regimes from around the world, from Saudi Arabia to South Korea, for which good relations with the White House and the U.S. Congress are vital.

And it was the American Century that made Washington the natural home for the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and gave prestige to neighborhoods like Georgetown and Kalorama, favorite haunts of the diplomats and other foreigners who have flocked to Washington over the last six decades.

Given the scale of Washington's psychological and material investment in the American Century, a funk is unavoidable in the transition to the After America world. Sooner or later, Washington will have an "After Washington" moment — an unhappy flash of understanding that its global centrality is a thing of the past.

New York and Los Angeles may escape that kind of "after" moment, with their vibrant roles in global commerce and culture, but Washington cannot because of how tightly its identity is bound to the image of superpower America.

The institution of the presidency will suffer most. The imperial president is already, in some ways, an archaic figure. The "red phone" that the president is famously supposed to use in times of global crises is a relic of the Cold War and no longer exists.

The notion of the president as "leader of the free world" is a source of puzzlement in a place like India, the world's largest democracy, a nuclear power that regards itself, not America, as the guardian of its freedom.

These clichés are staples of Washington's political class. Official Washington has attached itself to the fantasy that the president can make all the difference in history. Once it becomes clear — unmistakably clear — that the time of American hegemony is over, the mood inevitably will take a turn for the bleak at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and for all those invested in the power of that particular address.

Washington's dejected mood need not abide. Indeed, for some in the capital, the transition to the After America world could be a liberating one. The think tanks, which house an impressive amount of intellectual capital, could take on a more global orientation, as postimperial London's have done.

So could the Washington fourth estate, also following the London example of devoting greater attention to the broader concerns of global journalism.

And the American prospect, a staple concern of the Washington journalist, could be better understood for what it already is — a subset of the global prospect.

Editor's Note: This feature is adapted from "After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age" by Paul Starobin. Copyright 2009 by Paul Starobin. Reprinted with permission of Viking Press.


Whenever I am in New York or Los Angeles, I sense of how much less global Washington feels — notwithstanding its center-of-the-world pretensions.

The American Century has been good to Washington — so good that Washington doesn't really want to think about what comes next.

Washington's dejected mood need not abide. The think tanks could take on a more global orientation — as postimperial London's have done..