As Americans celebrated an Osama bin Laden-free Fourth of July, it seems that the endless warnings of our end on the world stage continued to fill the pundits’ columns.
Are we, as historian Walter Russell Mead said, “headed into an assisted-living facility for retired global powers?”
No, the bard of Bard College said, “fashionable chatter could not be more wrong.” Mead, writing in The Wall Street Journal, did not play down America’s challenges, from the national debt to the evolution of the world’s international system — the latter more and more important to our economic well-being.
But he rejected parallels with Europe in 1910, when the rise of a belligerent Germany upset the balance of power and resulted in the carnage of World War I. Even a century later — the war began in August 1914 — the tremendous and shattering impacts of that conflict still live with us.
Mead argued that the rise of China is not the same as the rise of Germany, in part because it is only a piece of a general increase in Asia’s wealth and power. From Japan — still “a formidable presence” — to Taiwan to India and Australia, democracies in the east are not interested in Chinese dominance over their affairs.
“This fits American interests precisely,” Mead said. “The U.S. has no interest in controlling Asia or in blocking economic prosperity that will benefit the entire Pacific basin, including our part of it.”
While Francis Fukuyama is famous for predicting “the end of history” because of the dominance of liberal Westernism at the end of the 20th century, that isn’t Mead’s theme — but he also sees in our approach to organizing society something that will continue to fascinate our friends around the globe.
“When it comes to the world of ideas, the American agenda will also be the global agenda in the 21st century,” Mead said. “Ninety years after the formation of the Communist Party of China, 50 years after the death of the philosopher of modern militant Islam Sayyid Qutb, liberal capitalist democracy remains the wave of the future.”
That doesn’t mean that there won’t be turbulence in the waves.
From our enemies in a still-deadly al-Qaida to our difficulties in building “coalitions of the willing” to pay the military price of maintaining world order, the costs of the future remain substantial.
In turbulence, though, Mead sees a strength: The “great trend” of this new century is the speed of change, in science and entrepreneurship.
“Scientific and technological revolutions trigger economic, social and political upheavals. Industry migrates around the world at a breathtaking-and accelerating-rate,” Mead said. “Hundreds of millions of people migrate to cities at an unprecedented pace. Each year the price of communication goes down and the means of communication increase.”
Americans ought to welcome the way that change undermines old orthodoxies and empowers the young to imagine different outcomes for their societies across the globe.
“Everybody is going to feel the stress, but the United States of America is better placed to surf this transformation than any other country,” Mead said. “Change is our home field. It is who we are and what we do. Brazil may be the country of the future, but America is its hometown.”
Mead’s is a bracing vision not of a quiet future but a tumultuous one. And it is a future that countries, businesses and other organizations need not fear if, like the United States from its birth, they are willing to embrace change and make it work for them.