COMMENT The mythical post-American era
By Ehsan Ahrari
In the context of civilizational history, the rise of the West is one of the
oldest events. The old colonial powers declined; some of them slid into the
category of "former great powers" (France, Germany and arguably Spain and
Italy); and others, like Britain - realizing that it could never be a power of
global influence again - found its niche as America's sidekick.
The European Union has emerged as a club that contains a number of former
colonial powers and an entity that is attempting to act as a "great power". The
former Soviet Union imploded, and Russia, as its chief successor, is still
tying to find its identity, both as a great power and as a hybrid of democracy
That leaves the United States as the lone superpower. In that capacity, it
remains a source of chief fascination and explanation
for a number of strategic thinkers within the US and abroad. They envisage the
rise of China and India as evidence of a power shift from the West to the East,
or discern the emergence of a world in which the US is no longer a hegemon,
thus, a world after America's "decline".
Such debates make the global community of strategic thinkers highly vibrant,
intellectually fertile, ingenious and challenging. But, if their bottom line is
that America is declining - which is either a subtle or a not-so-subtle message
in a number of analyses - that is a highly questionable proposition, bordering
on the portrayal of a mythical world.
One of the chief reasons why the former Soviet Union imploded and the US
survived is that, in its intense competition against the US during the Cold War
years, Moscow paid an inordinate amount of attention to building its military
arsenal and scant attention to becoming even a second-rate economic power.
Additionally, the proclivity of communism for collectivization inside the
Soviet Union sowed the seeds of its destruction from its very inception.
Economic power cannot be built through collectivization of various domestic
sectors and through the stifling of dissent and creativity through centralized
control. Promotion of the multiplicity of ideas, decentralization, autonomy,
critical thinking and open debate are essential fuels for progress of all
kinds. Another noteworthy - and problematic - characteristic of communist
economies is the absence of linkages between the civilian and defense
The former Soviet Union is a major example of a country that attempted to
become a world-class power by focusing largely on its military power. It did
become a major military power, but only temporarily, and only by developing a
large nuclear arsenal, while its economic power could never become vibrant and
productive enough to finance the gargantuan appetite of its military
The fact that the US not only survived the Cold War but also remains the sole
superpower is the ultimate tribute to the dynamic capabilities of its economic
sector to finance its military prowess.
Moreover, no one should, even momentarily, ignore the role of America's
educational institutions in sustaining creativity, innovation, critical
thinking and vibrancy in the vitality of its economic and defense sectors.
The secret underlying the rise of China and India is that both adopted the
American "blueprint" (if it can be so labeled). China adopted that blueprint in
1978 under the rubric of Deng Xiaoping's "four modernizations", and India
adopted it in 1991 by incorporating economic reforms under the highly capable
leadership of its then finance minister (and current Prime Minister), Manmohan
But why is it that, while China and India emerge as "rising powers", there are
so many suggestions of a "post-American" world, or that the world is witnessing
America's decline, or that there is a power shift from the West to the East?
These phenomena are certainly not interrelated.
One can develop scenarios of irreversibility of the economic progress of China
and India. But such scenarios must take into consideration the domestic milieu
of both countries, which are characterized by large degrees of corruption,
nepotism, religious tension (India), and ethnic tension (China), and most
importantly, the acute absence of modern civilian infrastructure. However, one
frequently misses (or ignores) those facts when one studies the subject of the
rise of those countries in the coming decades from abroad. One tends to be
impressed by repeating the frequently quoted statistics related to various
aspects of their economic growth.
However, when one visits those countries, one is overwhelmed with the "Third
World" nature of their polities. This phrase describes corruption,
inefficiencies, acute environmental pollution, casual attention to general
hygienic conditions, and the unrelenting prevalence of illiteracy and poverty.
Those are not characteristics that would make one highly optimistic about
predicting the unimpeded rise of either China or India as great powers.
But why, one wonders, is the subject of "post-Americanism" becoming so popular
in the world? Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Singapore-based Lee Kuan Yew
School of Public Policy, develops a thoughtful thesis of a power shift from the
West to the East in his latest book, The New Asian Hemisphere. Newsweek
International editor Fareed Zakaria talks about the post-American world in his
latest book of the same title. But the theses of both books, approximately
described, prove the success of Western ideas, such as modernization,
rationalization of governance, and globalization, etc. In fact, Zakaria states
that the chief challenge for the US is not that it is a fundamentally weak
economy, "But that it has developed a highly dysfunctional politics." The
suggestion of political inertia has been identified as a problem, and it is,
indeed, becoming increasingly serious.
However, no one presents any one idea that is typically Chinese, Indian or
Eastern in origin. If these ideas are regarded as engines of the rise of China
and India as great powers in the coming decades, then why is it that those very
ideas are not going to help the United States to maintain its dominance? It is
certainly true that China and India have created vibrant economies. However,
there is no reason to believe there have emerged assorted irreversible
structural dysfunctionalities that are pushing the US economy relentlessly
toward permanent decline.
The current signs of economic recession may have a lot to do with the George W
Bush administration's misguided war-related expenditures in Iraq. But that
phenomenon may either disappear, or may undergo radical mutations in the
aftermath of the forthcoming US presidential elections.
The forces of globalization may be reducing the "developmental gap" between the
US and China, the US and India, and China and India. However, they do not
necessarily force one to conclude that the US has become a declining power.
Such suggestions of decline were heard before. During the 1980s, a popular
proposition was about the emergence of Japan as an economic superpower and a
related decline of America's economic prowess. In the first decade of the 21st
century, the promise of Japanese superpowerdom seems to have faded. Japan, to
be sure, is a major economic power, but it has failed to surpass the US in that
The intellectual fad in the first decade of the 21st century is a "power shift"
and post-Americanism. The ground realities are that America's economic
dominance will be challenged; however, there is no conclusive evidence that
America's decline is "inevitable". Those who make a case for the ineluctable
rise of China and India assume that such phenomena would also result in a
similarly inexorable decline of the US. Such a description is more a product of
the flight of imagination of some strategic thinkers than a reflection of facts
as studied through a variety of indicators of economic, political, social and
One last explanation of the supposed American decline may be related to the
dominance-related fatigue that may have clouded the thinking of global
strategic thinkers. The unipolar power arrangement definitely encouraged the US
to invade Iraq as an option of the "war of choice". There was no more Soviet
Union to deter its ambitions.
However, the long and bloody events in Iraq have proven that, even in a
unipolar system of global power, the decision to invade does not lead to
unhindered power to govern. If anything, the continued occupation of Iraq has
intensified, among politicians, constraints on their country's power in the
global arena. That realization might be the chief reason why the lone hegemon
is forced to discipline its appetite for another potential war of choice
However, that realization, related to limitations of power, does not prove that
the global hegemon is, indeed, declining, or that a post-American world is
really emerging with power centers that are capable of counterbalancing the
Zakaria cites a poignant quote from Arnold Toynbee - an eminent British
historian who died in 1975 - when he describes the alleged permanence of Great
Britain's status as a world power. Toynbee, recounting his feelings at the age
of eight when he was watching a parade celebrating the 60th anniversary of
Queen Victoria's ascension to the British throne, wrote: "I remember the
atmosphere. It was: Well, here we are on top of the world, and we have arrived
at this peak to stay there forever. There is, of course, a thing called
history, but history is something unpleasant that happens to other people. We
are comfortably outside all of that I am sure."
As wrong as Toynbee was in thinking that thought, it is safe to say that, for
America, that inevitable moment of decline has not yet arrived.
Ehsan Ahrari is professor of Security Studies (Counterterrorism) at the
Asia-Pacific Center of Security Studies. Views expressed in this essay are
strictly private and do not reflect those of the APCSS, the United States
Pacific Command, or any other agency of the US government.