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Power and Arrogance

Friday, April 1, 2011

Steven Weber and Bruce Jentleson. The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas. Harvard Press. 224 Pages. $22.95.

The most interesting questions for U.S. foreign policy are variants of the following: How much has the world changed? As America tries to prod world affairs along its preferred trajectory, how has that task been complicated by new international realities? The debate over whether America is in decline misses the point. The signs of a significant shift in international power are just too plain and numerous for anyone to doubt that the United States faces new challenges in exerting its influence. But again, this leaves plenty of open questions about the nature of those challenges.

Steven Weber and Bruce Jentleson’s new book, The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas, tackles these most basic issues head-on. The authors offer a bracing assessment of the international environment U.S. policymakers confront. If the first step in overcoming any self-delusion is to recognize that you have a problem, Weber and Jentleson are trying to jolt America out of its self-absorption. Just to stretch the analogy, consider the book an intervention — its authors giving tough love to fellow foreign policy thinkers who are addicted to an outmoded ideology of American leadership. They liken the delusion to the Copernican paradigm shift undercutting the image of the earth at the center of the universe; the United States has lost its political gravitational pull.

Putting it succinctly, the book answers this essay’s opening question by saying the world has changed a lot more than we have admitted to ourselves. Assumptions about America’s advantages are ripe for reexamination. The authors dissect even the milder conceptions of American exceptionalism. In other words, their critique covers conservatives and liberals alike.

Among their targets is the notion that the U.S. political and economic model faces no significant rivals, because the supposed contenders have such limited appeal or applicability. The argument is indeed familiar — and comforting in its reassurance. The Chinese dynamo of export-led state capitalism is very hard to replicate. The Singapore model depends on its peculiar geography. Fundamentalist Islam is too inhuman. Anti-Americanism is a purely negative phenomenon. American-style democracy and free markets are dominant paradigms because no others are as coherent or systematic or can match their record of success.

But this is a false comfort, Weber and Jentleson argue. The main fallacy — aside from the stubborn fact of China’s economic success — is that only universally applicable, all-encompassing theories can contend as rivals. In other words, while America presumes that it has won the grand historical argument about governance and economic management, we have misunderstood how that argument plays out in the real world of global politics. Resistance to American leadership and the emergence of counter-arguments don’t need to be undergirded by fully workable ideologies.

So it is a mistake to view American approaches as vying in a war of ideas, in which one model decisively vanquishes another. And despite the use of the Copernican revolution as a reference point, the book also warns against the image of scientific advances, with theories gaining acceptance due to their superior explanatory power. A much better analogy for how it works, say the authors, is the competition of the commercial marketplace.

In his recent state of the union address, President Obama adopted similar themes of American economic dynamism as strengthening national competitiveness, but End of Arrogance is a methodical reconception of U.S. foreign policy challenges in terms of the global competition of ideas. A main thread of the book is to warn against taking anything for granted, beginning with the “five big ideas [that] shaped world politics in the twentieth century”: the preferability of peace to war; benign (American) hegemony to balance of power; capitalism to socialism; democracy to dictatorship; and Western culture to all others. Jentleson and Weber portray an international order that is up for grabs at the beginning of the 21st century. Their claim that nations and leaders are working with a clean slate probably overstates the case, but most of the book charts a credible course to renewed U.S. global leadership.

The heart of the book’s first section describes essential market dynamics and key principles:

In a functioning modern marketplace of ideas, at least three things are true of a twenty-first-century leadership proposition. First, we offer, but they choose. A market leader is fundamentally more dependent on the followers than the followers are on the leader . . . Second, the relationships are visible and consistency is demanded. Market leaders don’t depend heavily on private deals and subterfuge to hold their bargains in place . . . Finally, there is real competition. Markets are relentless in their ability to generate new offerings.

The authors describe some key challenges in the contemporary marketplace, all of which lower the barriers to entry for our competitors. They highlight the revolution in information and communications technology, demographic trends that fill megacities with young people whose worldview is non-Western, the openings provided by the diffusion of authority, and the permeability of national borders. The section concludes with a sobering assessment:

In 2010, globally, there remains a deep skepticism about the proposition that the United States can be more powerful and the world can be a better place at the same time. The belief that these two things could be consistent or even reinforce each other was the most valuable and precious advantage America had in the post-World War II milieu. It has eroded and that changes the nature of ideological competition dramatically. A new foreign policy proposition has to find a way to put that belief back into play.

A stark, yet apt, summary of our current strategic challenge.

The book’s middle two chapters outline the substance of leadership propositions the United States could offer as a basis for equitably just societies domestically and new political terms for international order. Since the authors’ project is to shed those conceits that represent the toughest “sell” for the hegemon, their leadership propositions have a distinctly stripped-down character. In place of democratic ideology — electoral competition and the popular mandate — the essential elements of a just society are the empowerment of people to lead fulfilling lives and protection of the vulnerable, those buffeted by forces of rapid change such as extreme weather, industrial accidents, or spikes in the price of staple foods.

As the authors step out of ingrained American worldviews to gain perspective on democracy, they make a compelling point about the weaknesses that others perceive. After all, democracy is a decision-making process rather than a tangible benefit for people’s lives. In the wide swath of the world where daily life is a grinding struggle, to idealize process and treat material conditions as secondary and contingent must seem exotic.

Just as the book proposes revised standards of good governance, it issues a similar challenge to recast the international political order. Again the root of the problem is complacency; Americans are still trying to dine out on our authorship of the post-World War II order when the resonance of that creation myth has faded. Rather than dismissing the mere notion that the postwar order could be (or has already been) upended, we should try to get out ahead of the revision process. One of the authors’ refrains is that while the U.S. political elite is consoling itself that “there is no alternative,” much of the rest of the world is insisting that “there must be an alternative.”

The leadership proposition that Weber and Jentleson put forward is a response to the interconnected 21st-century world, and rightly so. The difficulty is that the precursors for a peaceful and prosperous order — which they identify as “security, a healthy planet, and a healthfully heterogeneous global society” — can only be achieved through combined effort. In other words, if all of the world’s key players deal with the international system by trying to maximize their own nations’ benefits and minimize their contributions, the world as a whole could face a pretty bleak future.

As a key to spurring a more civic-minded attitude from nations and their leaders, the authors offer an alternative to narrow and short-sighted conceptions of national interest: the principle of mutuality. When policy makers mull tough diplomatic compromises or tithes they might contribute toward global public goods, they should use an accounting system that takes a long view. They shouldn’t expect repayment or benefits of equal value, but should instead trust that if everyone does his part, “an ongoing set of mutuality moves will roughly balance out the accounts and leave us all better off than we were.”

The book’s concluding chapter highlights four major foreign policy dilemmas that will test America’s international strategy. To stress the importance of those tough choices, the authors give their thoughts on the discipline of strategy: “Anybody can tell a story about the world they want to live in. Strategy is the discipline of choosing the most important aspects of that world and leaving the other stuff behind.” As they see it, the trickiest questions have to do with the proper role of nonstate actors versus official authorities; multilateralism as a false panacea for international challenges; populist pressures demanding more than democratic governance and free markets can deliver; and the difficulty of reckoning short-term costs in light of long-term risks (think climate change).

Here’s how i would answer my opening question about how much the world has changed: not as much as Jentleson and Weber say it has. The End of Arrogance works very well as a provocation, yet the authors’ insistence that we are back to the drawing board of a new global order is a bit excessive. Their report of the postwar order’s demise is greatly exaggerated. While it may be overly complacent to assert that “there is no alternative,” it’s also too early to declare the old rules invalid.

Indeed, one of the book’s most dramatic claims is to declare the very notion of rules to be passé. In keeping with the idea of a relentlessly competitive, constantly churning marketplace, the new international order consists of a stream of intergovernmental transactions. As the authors put it, diplomatic deals are taking the place of international norms at the heart of the system.

If they’re right, the world has been turned upside down, and most of us in the foreign policy establishment failed to notice it — international politics as a new global Wild West. Can that be right, though? I don’t think so. It’s one thing to face up to the political strains that indeed jeopardize the norms put in place over the last 65 years, and yet another to declare that the old rule books have gone out the window.

When Weber and Jentleson describe a new political system in which each nation’s polity and social order are beyond the bounds of international relations, you have to give them credit for practicing what they preach about strategic discipline and abandoning secondary concerns. In one section, they try to get a jump on their critics with a preemptive defense against charges of betraying moral values. The authors insist that they fully share the values of liberty and democracy. It’s just that the authors’ own views — and by extension those of the American leadership and public — do not represent the weight of international sentiment and therefore do not set the terms for the global political order. As a matter of political assessment, they see only enough consensus among governments for them to deal with one another as equally sovereign authorities in the international arena. Governance principles for how they act within their own borders are too divisive and controversial to serve as a basis for international order.

In such a system, would the United States be compelled to back Hosni Mubarak to the bitter end? End of Arrogance was published before the recent protests in Egypt, but the book says enough about the hazards of getting involved in others’ governance to allow for some extrapolation. Jentleson and Weber’s view doesn’t necessarily imply unstinting support for a dictator faced with mass discontent. Given their emphasis on political realities, it would be surprising if the authors called on U.S. policymakers to ignore the writing on the wall. Machiavelli himself would have recognized that Mubarak was neither loved nor feared enough to retain power.

On the other hand, the authors’ views seem to align them with the series of U.S. ambassadors in Cairo who counseled against any serious pressure by Washington on Mubarak to reform Egypt’s political system. In other words, I interpret the book as an argument for giving Mubarak a shove at the end, but not laying a finger on him before then. Among their comments on democratic principles, the authors remind us of the long record of American hypocrisy — the dictators supported, the democratically elected governments overthrown. And remember, among their tenets of the marketplace of ideas is that a nation must be consistent to remain credible, given the market’s high degree of transparency. The apparent answer is to give up any pretense of defending democratic principles abroad.

Given the scope and speed of change in today’s world, it is highly useful to have a book that keeps us from being too comfortable. U.S. foreign policy indeed confronts hard choices and trade-offs and must do a better job in wrestling with these dilemmas. Yet I have to ask whether this framework has boxed us in more than necessary. Must the discipline of strategy be so stringent that second-tier concerns be jettisoned rather than kept in proportion? Just because the norms of the old order have come under significant new skepticism and resistance, does that mean they are null and void? Does the global market demand such consistency that international publics cannot understand the competing pulls of democratic principles, stability considerations, and power realities?

The United States must undoubtedly be more conscious of how it appears to others, less presumptuous about the advantages and self-righteousness it has enjoyed in the past, and more respectful of the needs and perspectives of other nations. U.S. foreign policy cannot press for democratic reform as if its value were universally recognized or it’s equally achievable everywhere, regardless of local power structures. Democratic values cannot be the top concern in countries where nuclear proliferation or global economic stability is the main worry.

None of which, though, requires the extensive revision of American strategy that Weber and Jentleson advocate. Even if post-World War II legacy documents like the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights hold limited sway over abusive governments, as the authors point out, that doesn’t render them invalid. We should not be so quick to accept this kind of tacit withdrawal from the udhr or the other pillars of the so-called “international bill of rights” (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its twin Covenant on Social and Economic Rights). Repressive leaders should have to renounce such longstanding norms by formally abrogating the treaties their nations have previously ratified.

The United States must undoubtedly be more conscious of how it appears to others, less presumptuous about the advantages it has enjoyed in the past, and more respectful of the needs and perspectives of other nations.

The recent events in Egypt show the difficulties on both sides of the equation. It could hardly have been helpful to renounce the role of human rights norms in the international order when faced with such a popular outcry for political reforms. Nor would it have been a simple matter for the United States to question Mubarak’s legitimacy much earlier than it did. Clearly we haven’t figured out the right foreign policy balance, in this instance like so many others. To be sure, it’s vital that we do so, for America’s credibility, influence, and competitiveness.