NEW YORK – August 8, 2008, may someday be remembered as the first day of the post-American era. Or it could be remembered as another “Sputnik moment,” when, as with the Soviet foray into outer space in 1957, the American people realized that the country had lost its footing and decided it was time for the United States to get its act together.
There was no mistaking the power and symbolism of the opening ceremonies for the Beijing Olympic Games on August 8. That multimedia spectacular did far more than trace China’s 5,000-year history; it was a statement that China is a major civilization that demands and deserves its rightful place in the global hierarchy.
There was also no mistaking the symbolism of seeing President Bush, waving cheerfully from his spot in the bleachers while Chinese President Hu Jintao sat behind what looked more like a throne. It is hard to imagine that China’s government, which obsesses over every minute issue of diplomatic protocol, had not orchestrated this stark image of America’s decline relative to the country to which it owes $1.4 trillion. It would be hard to imagine Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan accepting a similar relative position.
At the very same time that Bush was waving from the stands, Russia was invading Georgia, America’s closest partner in the Caucasus. Russia’s message to other West-leaning countries in the former Soviet world was clear: America cannot protect you.
Frighteningly, the Russians were likely correct. While the Iraq quagmire has made it difficult for America to project force around the world, America’s growing debt, conflicts with friends and enemies alike, absence of any perceivable strategy for changing times, and its political system’s seeming inability to take action to address these challenges have combined to turn America into a struggling giant.
Today, from Iran to Darfur to Zimbabwe to Georgia, the world is witnessing the effects of a budding post-American world, and the picture does not look pretty. As much as we all value the rise of new powers like China and India, it remains to be seen whether these countries will become as benevolent a power as America, however flawed, has been over the past half-century.
Neo-colonialism is returning to Africa, the global project of human rights is in retreat, and the world trade system is becoming far less open. Brutal dictators go unpunished because their interests are protected by large powers with stakes in their natural resources. Reversing this trend is not only in America’s interest, but also in the world’s interest.
To do so, Americans must identify and address the great challenges the United States faces, starting from the ground up. Fixing America’s campaign finance structure, which leads to massive misallocations of government funds, resuscitating America’s wildly uneven and often moribund education system, building an immigration system that actively recruits the most talented people from around the world via a fast track to US citizenship, and developing a national energy policy that moves the US far more quickly toward energy independence would all be important steps in this direction.
Working to rebuild the traditional bipartisan foreign-policy consensus would also make the US a far more predictable partner to friends and allies around the world. And America must be a respectful partner in order to encourage rising powers like India and China to play more constructive roles in international affairs.
The world is not ready for the post-American era, and countries like China and India must play a far greater role in strengthening the existing institutions of world peace and, where appropriate, building new ones that can promote a positive agenda of security, dignity, rights, and prosperity across the globe.
The world community is not there yet, and until it is, the world needs a new kind of American leader – a leader able to inspire Americans to fix their problems at home and work with partners across the globe in promoting a common agenda as bold and progressive as the order built from the ashes of World War II 60 years ago.
The Beijing Olympics could be remembered as a new “Sputnik moment” for the US, inspiring the country to meaningfully face the music of a changing world. But America can make it so only by recognizing the great challenges it faces and taking bold steps towards addressing them, at home and with allies abroad.