Reading journalist Paul Starobin's stimulating inquiry into what the world may look like when the United States ceases to be the dominant power is like sitting down for an evening of conversation with your smartest friend. You don't necessarily come away with definitive answers, but you do get a better handle on the issues involved—and a more realistic outlook on the state of global affairs.
Starobin's sensible appraisal offers a welcome respite from TV-news sound bites and the oft-hysterical pronouncements of partisan pundits. "America is not immune from the life cycle that all civilizations undergo," he reminds us. "America, in short, cannot exist outside of history." And what does history tell us? That all great powers eventually lose their preeminence, usually from a combination of economic difficulties and balky military commitments.
Since colonial times, America has seen itself as special—a unique place, somehow immune to the rules that govern others. During the years of "The Ascendancy" (Part One), this "founding myth of American Exceptionalism," as the author calls it, had some basis in truth. In Part Two, "End of the Ascendancy," it gets a sobering reality check.
No longer can the 21st-century U.S. "claim to be the dominant pacesetter civilization," Starobin bluntly asserts. The widening income gap between rich and poor calls into question our claim to the title "land of opportunity." Economic mobility, he notes, is now higher in Denmark, Canada, and Finland. The American corporation, once a global benchmark of excellence, is foundering (for evidence, look no further than the automobile industry). Our health-care system is more expensive and less effective than any in Western Europe, where life expectancy is higher. Surprisingly, we lag behind other developed countries in the speed and cost of our cell-phone service and digital connections to the Internet. And our massive foreign debt (overseas ownership of Treasury securities surpassed domestic for the first time in 2008) may soon begin to shape our foreign policy, Starobin suggests, citing a former U.S. Treasury official’s warning that "a debtor's capacity to project military power hinges on the support of its creditors."
The author devotes roughly a third of his text to tracing America's rise and stagnation. This contextual material undergirds his main point—that history is not merely a matter of "great men and great deeds," but is "bottom-up and contingent." Applying his "organic interpretation," which scrutinizes specific societies and situations, Starobin comes up with not grandiose predictions but suggested possibilities. These are laid out in Part Three.
Starobin discerns five possible "After America worlds":
As he sketches out each potential scenario, Starobin shuns abstractions, shepherding the reader to a panoply of locations and consulting a variety of experts. Amid an otherwise thoughtful and well-written narrative, this focus on particulars gives rise to some occasionally irksome scene-setting: "Our conversation at the Chinese embassy in Santiago began over jasmine tea." It's a small price to pay for the broad spectrum of opinion and experience that the author has assimilated and presented here.
Starobin travels to Turkey, for example, to profile a secular state challenged by a rising tide of Muslim religious fundamentalism. A meltdown there could threaten everything from the U.S.-backed Caspian oil pipeline (which ends in Anatolia) to the military base at Incirlik (where U.S. troops stage germ-warfare drills). A new Dark Ages, Starobin sounds the tocsin, is not inconceivable.
Yet a chaotic globe could also be a "happy" globe, Starobin muses, citing "the new technologies of personal empowerment," including Internet search engines and social networks, that could subvert top-down political control and usher in a more anarchic—but more democratic—world. Steeped in history as always, he points to the settling of the American West as a "profile in chaos" that turned out fairly well.
Starobin also offers a historical analogy for the multipolar possibility (see "After America" scenario #2, above): the 19th-century European balance of power. A multipolar order, Starobin argues, requires that the principal political unit remain the nation-state—but, this time around, not just Western nation-states. Visiting India, he finds a country busily expanding its military and economic reach, and strengthening its ties with China and Iran—two other nation-states that could anchor a multipolar world.
Starobin's examination of Chinese investments in Latin America proves that if economic might alone sufficed, the 21st would almost surely be "a Chinese Century." But if China is to dominate in the way the United States once did, Starobin contends, it needs "to develop a winning narrative so that a sufficient number of lesser powers… will want to live in a world led by the Chinese." Although the jury's still out on that one, the book posits that Americans must realize that the liberal, democratic, laissez-faire model we consider our gift to the world is not necessarily the model everyone else wants to follow.
The chapters on city-states and universal civilization hint where the author's heart lies: with the tolerant cosmopolitans. These two possibilities, he states in his conclusion, are "the great bets of the twenty-first century." Indeed, it seems likely they could work in tandem. Global cities, which have more in common with one another than with any rural area, could kill off the nation-state, giving rise to a universal civilization that lightly binds together these sovereign metropolitan regions.
Nurtured by immigrants from around the globe, cities from Bangalore to Toronto constitute the forward-looking keystone of a new world order. And as Starobin’s surprisingly optimistic assessment of the chances for world government reminds us, the financial system is already global, like it or not. Corporations are multinational. Environmental protection can be accomplished only with the cooperation of the entire planet. And public opinion increasingly accepts the notion that international law must vouchsafe certain basic human rights.
Many Americans, of course, will find pain in the prospect that our shining City on a Hill will not be an eternal light unto the world. Starobin's no-nonsense analysis invites us to 1) get a grip and 2) get over it.
"Empires come and go," he concludes. "It is up to Americans to figure out how they can fit into a new phase of history."
Wendy Smith, a contributing editor of The American Scholar, reviews books frequently for the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post. She previously reviewed Still Alice on AARP The Magazine Online.