The power of the United States looks very different in the aftermath of September 11. Since the attacks, the earth’s major nations — ranging from the nato countries to Russia to China to Japan — and so many others have put aside their differences with the United States. The U.S. and Russia may even emerge, at least for a time, almost as allies and not just against terrorism. There is talk of agreements on nuclear downsizing and missile defense, all but unimaginable before the attacks.
So in the face of a new kind of threat, new international alignments may be emerging. Perhaps the world will be reborn. But if a truly new order is to endure, the United States must take a hard look at one of the most discussed and least understood sources of international antagonism towards it, a source that is part myth and part deceptive reality: the idea that the United States is the dominating global nation, powerful to a degree and to an extent never before seen.
In particular we must come to grips with the differing forms of U.S. power, how these differing forms are shaping the international landscape and how they shape the response of others to us. Voices around the world have decried and denounced America’s overwhelming presence on the global scene. The question is, why the discomfort? Why the criticism?
After all, in its foreign policy the United States is a “status quo” state. It deploys its material power to preserve the present constellation of nation-states within their current boundaries. It does not attempt to coerce favorable trade deals or tribute from others. It has supported and encouraged the move towards nation-neutral, rule-based mechanisms for governing international economic relations, in other words a system that restricts the sway of its own material might. And indeed, in relative terms the United States is a less imposing force today than in the early Cold War years, when in contrast to now Washington took considerable interest in the internal affairs and international posture of even its closest allies. Yet, although the hand of what is called “hegemony” is lighter, perhaps even nonexistent, today, the voices against that hegemony are louder. What are these critics and antagonists thinking?
Is it simply that, as one scholar of international relations, William Wohlforth, has put it, “[e]lites will not stop resenting overweening U.S. capabilities”? Perhaps those global elites know or sense something that Americans by and large miss. Although America’s active, material power is smaller than it was half a century ago, America also commands a remarkable passive, immaterial power — what some have dubbed “soft power” but might more accurately be called cultural power. This form of American power has never been greater or expanding more rapidly. And while in active, material ways, the U.S. is a status quo nation, in these passive and immaterial ways it is a highly disruptive, even revolutionary, global force.
How? why? The answers have, perhaps, not been fully sorted through. Instead, from global leaders, scholars, journalists, and activists have come disquiet, disapproval, and denunciation about something generically known as American power.
This theme of the unprecedented dominance of the United States on the world stage has been among the enduring topics of international discourse since the collapse of the Soviet Union. French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine has famously termed the United States the world’s “hyperpower” and has called for turning Europe into what he characterizes as a necessary counterweight to America’s global dominance. But he has hardly been the only one to embrace — happily or unhappily — the notion of America’s untouchable global sway.
On the happy side have been mainly Americans. Clinton administration Secretary of State Madeleine Albright proclaimed the U.S. the international order’s single “indispensable” nation, a benign equivalent of Védrine’s formulation. Similarly, one of her Republican predecessors and critics, Henry Kissinger, in an article published last summer, referred to “America at the Apex,” able to insist on its view and prevail in almost any arena, even if, as he worried, it remained unsure of the ends to which it should apply its might or even at times the importance of global political and military engagement at all.
On the less than happy side has been a wide range of voices spanning the Eurasian land mass. Védrine found soulmates throughout the French elite, of course, including both a full complement of his fellow Socialists on the left and Gaullist President Jacques Chirac on the right. Elsewhere, Swedish Prime Minister Goran Perrson echoed Védrine during his country’s tenure in the presidency of the European Union when he called for Europe to position itself “as a balance to U.S. domination” of global affairs.
Beyond Europe, even as the Clinton administration spoke of “strategic partnerships” with both Russia and China, leaders of those two countries had begun exploring how to transform the “unipolar” world into a “multipolar” one. In 1996 Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Chinese Premier Li Peng met and, as one observer noted, “all but branded the United States a threat to peace” and explicitly labeled it the world’s “hegemon,” guilty of “repeated imposition of pressures on other countries.” Third World figures ranging from Egyptian Foreign Minister Amre Moussa to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad voiced at least as emphatically the same analyses and concerns as had come from their European, Russian, and Chinese counterparts.
America has looked much more vulnerable since September 11, as have all traditional nation-states. But even before the devastating suicide attacks and the advent of bioterror, a disenthralled observer would have concluded that American power, while impressive, was not as overwhelming and unchallengeable as it had been a half-century earlier.
Yes, the Soviet Union was gone and no great-power rival had emerged to take its place. But from the perspective of the prior half-century, using many of the traditional measurements of state strength (that is, a nation’s relative economic, demographic, and military position), the United States had become less powerful and less dominating between the mid-twentieth century and the new millennium. A few benchmarks trace the slippage.
Economic Strength: The U.S. share of global gross domestic product has gone down, not up, over the past five decades. In 1950, the United States produced 27 percent of the global gdp. Today it produces 22 percent. Share of world exports? Same story. In 1953 the U.S. represented 24.6 percent of global exports. Today it is down to 16.1 percent.
In recent years it has been the perverse pastime of advocates of industrial policy and protectionism to hold up such declining numbers as signs of America’s eroding competitiveness, and therefore a source of concern. In fact the smaller relative economic position of the United States represents the triumph of 50 years of American global policy, not its failure.
Coming out of World War II, the nation was united in the conviction that for the world to be peaceful it had to be prosperous. From the Marshall Plan to the American-led movement toward freer global trade to billions in foreign aid, American policy was to encourage rapid economic development in all parts of the non-communist (and later formerly communist) world. After five decades the U.S. has grown, but thanks in part to U.S. actions, the rest of the world has grown even more. And while the result has indeed been a broad global peace, it has also been a relatively less dominating American economy.
Despite their rhetoric, the Europeans have been quick to notice and act on this diminished U.S. economic hegemony. Who would have thought, even 10 years ago, that European regulators could successfully block a major merger of two U.S.-based corporations (as they did with ge and Honeywell) or initiate antitrust action against a major U.S. company (as they have with Microsoft)? Only because of changes in relative economic power are such actions now possible.
Demographic Strength: America’s share of the world’s population peaked in 1927, remained constant for a quarter century, and then began to fall. And while American Enterprise Institute scholar Ben Wattenberg has argued that, thanks to immigration, this trend may be about to reverse, Wattenberg is speaking of the future, not the present. As of today, the U.S. share of global population is the smallest it has been since 1950.
Demographic power also derives from how well-educated a country’s people are. Here, too, America may be losing its edge. At one time it was the staple of international commentary that the American people were the best and most broadly educated on earth. Now hardly a month goes by without another article on the amazingly poor performance of American high school students in international achievement tests — not just tests given this year or last year but over the past several decades.
Military Strength: During the 1950s and 60s, American planners talked of “assured annihilation,” a one-sided concept. Beginning in the 1960s, this changed to “mutually assured destruction,” suggesting that in a nuclear exchange, the U.S. would be annihilated, too — unthinkable a few years before. The Reagan buildup of the 1980s halted the ongoing erosion of our nuclear position. A partial dismantling of the nation’s strategic deterrent may soon emerge from a U.S.-Russian rapprochement. But will it and can it take account of challenges coming from emerging and poorly understood factors, such as an ICBM-equipped China or even Iraq?
Changes in conventional force planning reflect a similar stepping down. From the 1950s to the 1990s, Pentagon planners assumed that our conventional forces could fight a two-front war, essentially a replay of World War II. As dazzlingly capable as our forces are today and as certain as they are to prevail in the current conflict, planning now calls for a one-and-a-half front war, reflecting that our capacity may have diminished faster than our hazards.
Meanwhile, al Qaeda was the first to see that a major challenge could be launched against the United States without a major challenger. It’s not likely to be the last. From the Russian mafia, to the Irish Republican Army, to Hamas, to the Latin American drug cartels, it’s all too easy to list other non-states that might jointly or separately do damage to U.S. national security over the next several decades.
The point here is not that the United States lacks power. Obviously, America retains the world’s most potent combination of national assets. It is only that, despite the disappearance of the Soviet Union, by these traditional and easily counted economic, demographic, and military measures, our relative power is not as overwhelming as it once was. By the numbers that gauge these propellers of power, America’s apex came and went decades ago, and all the recent handwringing about the “hyperpower” has been little more than jealous hyperbole.
Nations do not, however, live by numbers alone. Again and again in everything from the pronouncements of statesmen to the chants of anti-globalization demonstrators to the manifestos of terrorists, a fourth factor of American power keeps coming up, a factor that often gets a nod of U.S. heads but rarely a close examination — and yet a factor that may emerge as the pivot on which the twenty-first century turns one way or the other. This elusive factor is American cultural power.
A loud chorus of international voices has joined in denunciations of the American culture of Coca-Cola, Disney, McDonald’s, and Levi’s, a culture that they charge is pushing out all others and taking over the world. They lament the passing of local language, local habits, and local social life in the global rush to be just like the United States. In the words of a Randy Newman song, they complain that soon the whole world round will be just another American town. Warning of the dangers of being “infected with Americanization,” one head of state even intoned, “We must be wary of McDonald’s.”
For the moment, international leaders, at least, have set aside these common complaints to deal with the common enemy — which makes this a good time to catch our breaths and ask seriously and searchingly, what could people who say things such as “we must be wary of McDonald’s” really be thinking? Do they really believe that where their countrymen grab a snack — or what they wear or where they find light entertainment — has any significance worthy of their attention? At least before terrorists brought down the twin towers, it sometimes seemed that serious people had lost the serious (and one would think easily grasped) distinction between, on one hand, such gigantic questions as national and international security and global economic growth and, on the other hand, lunch. They were consumed with trivialities.
And even a casual U.S. observer might have been forgiven for asking: Whose culture is being imposed upon whom? If a McDonald’s in the neighborhood compromises French or Middle Eastern or Asian culture, what do the Italian or Indian or Chinese or French or Mexican restaurants that are within five blocks of the typical urban American McDonald’s do to the culture of this country? What does it do to our culture for foreign markets to have become so critical to American film producers that even the makers of the recent movie “Pearl Harbor” (surely a topic that invited flag waving) toned down appeals to patriotism and strove for balance, so as not to put off Japanese audiences? One reason for the proliferation of action flicks is that they depend only minimally on language, making them more accessible and popular with non-English-speaking global audiences. And how is American culture compromised by more than a decade of mass immigration, producing the highest levels of first- and second-generation Americans in the U.S. population since the beginning of the twentieth century?
So even a casual American observer might be forgiven for asking those who have wrung their hands about the Americanization of other cultures if this mixing of cultures doesn’t go both ways and all ways. Have not communications, transportation, migration, and the mingling of tastes and broadening of perspectives beyond local borders happened to all nations everywhere?
Still, there is something real behind the complaints about the Americanization of global culture. But this something is precisely behind the complaints, not at the front of them, not on the surface. And this something is profound, even if it is not what those who wring their hands with such manifest silliness say about it. Rather, it reflects deep demographic and economic changes that are occurring in every nation where these complaints are heard and in many others besides — changes that will define the social upheavals of at least the first half of the twenty-first century.
The vast, new global middle class
From europe to the Middle East to Asia and Latin America, perhaps (although this is much less certain) also in Africa, new classes are rising. Far more than unleashing global corporations, the fall of communism and the rise of markets have ignited the energy of the shopkeeper, the small craftsman, the local manufacturer, and those who aspire to be them. Where local societies are rigid and local elites entrenched, these rising classes (they are not the same everywhere) are profoundly disturbing to established ways. And particularly in more rigid societies, these new classes are likely to look “American” to others. They are likely to be many if not most of those eating at the nearby McDonald’s, wearing jeans, and going to see American movies. And more than other groups, they are likely to be, in one form or another, breaking from the restrictive past, reaching out to a future open to ambition and innovation — just like Americans.
Who are these people? Take first the developing world. Many if not most work in what economist Hernando de Soto, in his The Mystery of Capital, labeled the “informal sector.” These are the people who make their livings in businesses outside local legal systems, because in most Third World countries it is all but impossible to create new businesses or acquire new property within the law. Together with a team of researchers, de Soto has spent much of the past two decades documenting the height of the legal barriers against upward mobility in developing countries. Wherever these investigators have traveled, they have asked how many steps and how long it would take legally to start an enterprise or acquire a piece of property. Their findings include: 168 steps, 13 to 25 years, to gain formal title to urban property in the Philippines; 77 steps, 6 to 14 years, for the same to desert land in Egypt; 111 steps, 19 years, in Haiti; a mere 289 days, devoting six hours a day, to obtain the business licenses required to open a one-worker garment shop legally in Lima, Peru.
The result, of course, is that working outside the law long ago became a necessity for those who are launching ventures or acquiring land and who do not have the bribe money or family and class connections that make these systems work.
Two decades ago, when de Soto started studying this extra-legal activity in his native Peru, the “informal sector” looked like a hopeful curiosity. Last year, however, de Soto published the results of expanded studies that have taken him and his teams to the countries listed above and many more. In particular he attempted to estimate the volume of activity in informal sectors across the developing and formerly communist worlds. His results suggested something vastly larger and more powerful than anything previously imagined. A few examples: In Venezuela more than half the workforce is employed in the informal sector. In Brazil, more than 60 percent of new rental housing is in the informal sector. In 1994 in the states of the former Soviet Union, at least 37 percent of all production came from the informal sector (triple the percentage of three years earlier). The same year Mexico officially claimed 2.65 million informal sector businesses. Meanwhile, in Egypt, 92 percent of city dwellers and 83 percent of the rural population lived in homes without clear legal title, that is, in informal sector homes.
De Soto’s teams went to considerable lengths to estimate the value of the wealth locked up in real property in various national informal sectors and compared that wealth to the value of major indicators of economic development. They found that in Haiti the value of informal sector real estate was “four times the total of all assets of all the legally operating companies . . . nine times the value of all assets owned by the government and 158 times the value of all foreign direct investment . . . to 1995.” In the Philippines it was “four times the capitalization of the 216 domestic companies listed on the Philippine Stock Exchange, seven times the total deposits in the country’s commercial banks, nine times the total capital of state-owned enterprises, and fourteen times the value of all foreign direct investment.” In Egypt, it was “thirty times the value of all shares on the Cairo Stock Exchange and . . . fifty-five times all foreign direct investment.”
Globally, the de Soto team estimated the value of informal sector real estate alone in the Third World and former communist nations at $9.3 trillion or “very nearly as much as the value of all the companies listed on the main stock exchanges of the world’s twenty most developed countries . . . more than twenty times the total direct investment into all [these nations] in the ten years after 1989, forty-six times as much as all the World Bank loans of the past three decades, and ninety-three times as much as all development assistance from all advanced countries to the Third World in the same period.”
These stupendous numbers suggest something far greater than simple capital formation. Viewed as political and social phenomena, they suggest a titanic tide of human ambition and intellectual and financial power pounding at the ancient sea walls of Third World social structures. They suggest that the entrepreneurial revolution that has so transformed the U.S. economy, society, and politics since the early 1970s has a global counterpart. But they also suggest systems that not only attempt to keep their equivalents of Bill Gates and Sam Walton from challenging their equivalents of ibm and Sears but to keep ordinarily ambitious men and women in their places as well. And they suggest that the sea walls may be beginning to crack.
The people of this new human wave may be termed the new global middle class, but they are not a middle class in the sense that most American journalists appear to recognize. Recent reports have portrayed the ringleader of the September 11 attacks as a product of the Egyptian middle class. But with a university education and a father with a university education, he was hardly middle class by the standards of the rising informal sector. Like his patron encaved in the Afghan mountains, he was a child of the old elite.
Instead, this rising “middle class” includes the likes of the “phone ladies” of Bangladesh. With micro-loans from the Grameen Bank (which invented micro-lending), these village women buy mobile phones and rent time on them to their neighbors. Local farmers pay the phone ladies to call for prices on the regional commodity markets, freeing themselves from the elite of local brokers who once could set any price they chose on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. It is the local maker of concrete in a Manila slum and the jitney driver who ferries him downtown. Wherever they are, it is people whose grandparents did things the way their grandparents did them, lived in places where their grandparents lived, and depended on the systems of family and favors that had defined their societies for centuries. This new and vast “middle class” of the developing world is made up of people who, while still poor by U.S. standards, are fueling the engines of their aspirations with the energy of the marketplace to break free from the old ways.
A similar change is occurring in Europe, with a variety of political manifestations. The eminent political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset has written about the move of one socialist party after another — from Britain to Sweden to Denmark to Spain, Germany, and Italy — away from the old hard left to something “far more like the Democrats and Republicans, instead of socialists and capitalists.” Lipset argues, “Many political scientists . . . do not fully appreciate the extent to which the left’s new course, its centrist Third Way, is the product of common developments throughout the economically advanced democracies rather than of events or leaders peculiar to each country.”
According to Lipset, these changes include the decline of national working classes and the increase of middle-class numbers, the availability of advanced education, growing productivity that has diminished lifestyle differences among the European classes, the decline of unionism, the rise of the knowledge and service industries, and the growing appeal to young people of self-employment and entrepreneurship.
A young German has told me of how inhospitable Germany is to entrepreneurship compared to the United States, which is surely true. But he and every one of his friends are starting or involved in new businesses. Like the phone ladies of Bangladesh, they are disrupting old ways, and to the old order, they are doing it in what look like distinctly American ways. In democratic Europe, political parties of both left and right have accommodated these changes, even as leaders complain of the new class’s influence by complaining of the new force of American culture. In the less democratic countries of much of the Third World, the accommodation is less complete, the resistance is often stronger, but the complaints about America’s cultural power are the same.
Cultural power and moral power
And if, by so many traditional measures, talk of America as the hyperpower is overblown and comments like “we must be wary of McDonald’s” surpass silliness, in this way those who are anxious about America’s cultural power are absolutely right. In the end the answer to “what could they possibly be thinking?” comes down to this: These ordinary people pursuing their simple aspirations are profoundly disruptive to old systems and old ways. Even more unsettling, these new men and women are achieving a measure of wealth and with it independence and dignity that is challenging the old order. Yes, these new people and their families may eat occasionally at McDonald’s. They may occasionally watch a Disney movie. They may wear jeans. But the real way in which they have become carriers of something like American culture is in the quiet, daily manners in which they assert their personal hopes despite the opposition of tradition, custom, and power — in other words, despite the opposition of their home cultures and elites.
The great battle of the twentieth century was between freedom and totalitarianism — an entirely political conflict. The great battle of the twenty-first century may well be between the forces of creative destruction and those of destructive preservation — much more a social and cultural conflict. Americans will wonder, what have we done to be drawn into conflicts like the present one? The answer is simple: Our example is the hope of those who are striving and rising. We cannot escape this conflict by changing what we do in foreign policy or other arenas of action, because in this arena our power derives not from what we do but from who we are — and what we represent to these new classes and those who oppose them.
In recent books both Tom Wolfe and David Brooks have portrayed American culture at the new millennium as almost entirely oblivious to the outside world. Tom Wolfe’s archetypal American is an air-conditioning mechanic, a blue collar man who “was fulfilling . . . nineteenth century utopian socialists’ dreams of a day when the ordinary workingman would have the political and personal freedom, the free time and the wherewithal to express himself in any way he saw fit and to unleash his full potential.” But if his hero gives a moment’s thought to anything outside his immediate circle, much less outside the country, Wolfe doesn’t notice it. Similarly David Brooks’s new professional and managerial class — as he calls them, “Bobos,” bourgeois bohemians — “have been trained, nurtured and [college and graduate school] educated. They have been freed of old restrictions and they have forged some new bonds. . . . [T]hey have the ability go down in history as the class that led America into another golden age.” But it is America he sees them leading, not the world.
Yet like it or not, the world will not let us go. It might be said that in country after country, those who are threatened on the top are seeking to combine with those who are frustrated on the bottom against those who are rising in the middle. We ask why they hate us, and the answer is that “they” hate and fear so many people in their own countries for whom America has become an emblem — and so far as they feel the same tug that these new men and women feel, they hate themselves.
The disdain and hate we have come to recognize in at least one part of the world since September 11 seems so new to us, but in a way it is very old. For America’s cultural power is of a piece with its moral power, the hope the nation represents to humanity and the deepest source of America’s strength from the very beginning.
This year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, V.S. Naipaul, has written of this moral and cultural force. He has noted in particular “the beauty of the idea of the pursuit of happiness.” He explains: It “is at the heart of the attractiveness of the civilization to so many outside of it and on its periphery. . . . I don’t imagine my father’s parents would have been able to understand it. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end will blow away.”
So America’s singular hegemony is not of dollars or numbers or guns. It is a hegemony of the heart, and America’s critics are right: The world has truly never seen anything like it.