After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age
Is the sun setting on America’s empire? Has Washington’s influence in the world reached its apogee? Or has the U.S. just plain lost its mojo? Paul Starobin isn’t the first to ask these questions, but in his book After America he provides a uniquely informative take on what the answers imply for our global future. He argues that America has already lost its preeminence, weakened by imperial overstretch, rampant debt, and the decline of its economic power. Now it’s a matter of figuring out what the precise consequences of a post-American future will be.
In the first section of the book Paul describes the evolution of America’s exceptionalist self-image and a brief history of the circumstances that spurred the U.S. to end up dominating global politics in the second half of the twentieth century. In the next section he documents indicators of America’s decline in a number of areas relative to the rest of the world – everything from broadband internet access to health care. He argues that America’s vast military commitments have sapped the national spirit and inspired a growing spirit of opposition to Washington’s dominance among friend and foe alike. As a result, he concludes, the United States has lost its ability to inspire admiration and mobilize support for its policies.
This all adds up to a compelling argument, even if many of the details might not be totally unfamiliar. It’s the next part of the book where Starobin really allows the originality of his concept to unfold. Here he charts five likely scenarios for global politics the era following America’s loss of superiority. The first is, straightforwardly enough, chaos – namely, a world where the authority of nation-states, not just America’s, has fatally eroded without anything cohesive to take its place. Chapter Eight envisions a multipolar world, one shaped by a group of regional powers like China, Russia, India and Brazil rather than a single superpower. Next he tackles the prospect of a global order where America has been replaced in its role as the big kid on the block by a future Chinese hyperpower. In Chapter Ten, perhaps the most imaginative of them all, he envisions a future defined by key mega-cities, nodes of culture, business and entertainment that span national borders and perhaps even end up competing with the modern nation-state. A chapter entitled “Universal Civilizations” outlines the possibility of some form of “world government” evolving from the modern mesh of international human rights law and multi-national organizations. In Chapter Twelve, Starobin views all of these scenarios through the prism of modern-day California, and projects some of their ramifications forward into the uncertainties of the post-American future.
In his final chapter Starobin discusses the necessary adjustments that American civilization will soon find itself forced to confront. His message can be condensed, perhaps, into a single imperative: Get over it! “There are all sorts of dark scenarios for America in an After America world,” he writes. “All are manifestations of the same pathology: a failure to come to grips with present realities.” He proposes that, rather than lecturing to the rest of the world, it’s time for Americans to start learning from it. Some, he suggests, might be better at this than others. (Fly-over Republicans may have a harder time, while coastal Democrats are already embracing cosmopolitanism.) But apathy is no solution. This is the world, he concludes, and our place in it is changing – whether we like it or not.