A Writer Writes

America’s Role in a Post-American World

by Carl Pope (India 1967–69)

    In August there was a gathering of RPCVs in Fort Collins, Colorado, organized by the non-profit Beet Street which is a collaborative learning community in Fort Collins. One of the speakers was Carl Pope, Executive Director of the Sierra Club since 1992 and a veteran leader in the environmental movement having been with the Sierra Club for nearly thirty years. Carl was kind enough to share his notes from his talk entitled, “America’s Role in a Post-American World” with us.

    LAST WINTER’S UN CONFERENCE in Bali, Indonesia, on global warming stood out less for its outcome — a modest global agreement to keep talking — than for its dramaturgy. The conference was stage managed not by the US or Europe, the historic protagonists on climate, but by China, India, Indonesia and South Africa — emerging economies that for the first time moved, sometimes cautiously, sometimes boldly, out of their “you in the industrial world caused the problem of global warming — you fix it” trenches.
         The climactic line in Bali belonged to Papua New Guinea’s Kevin Conrad, who confronted US delegate Paula Dobriansky, as she attempted to block the agreement. “If you cannot lead, leave it to the rest of us. Get out of the way,” Conrad chided the world’s hyper-power. Dobriansky and the US delegation promptly blinked.
         Travelling in Vietnam after the conference, my wife, who was borne in Bombay, raised an intriguing issue. Everywhere we went the gradual ebbing of the “American century” was palpable. Korean tourists are the shiny new object at the temples of Angkor Wat, Singapore’s Ching Mai airport puts Kennedy or LAX to shame in the efficiency with which it loads passengers into taxis. On a hundred mile boat trip in the Mekong Delta we passed under not one but three new cable-stressed mega-bridges under construction – each one larger than the planned replacement for the San Francisco Bay Bridge that has taken California since 1989 to get underway.
         It’s no longer just that Asian populations are bigger, younger and in some cases better educated, or that their economies are growing faster. Asian countries are also following Japan’s path by developing capacities in an increasing number of fields that put America to shame. Sometime in the not too distant future the US will no longer have the world’s largest economy. Sometime this century it will fall to number three or four.
         “It’s going to be a new world,” my wife observed, in the context of the next presidential election. “I’m not sure if Americans are ready for that reality.”
         I’m pretty sure they are not. At Bali the most reviled US statement came from the chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality James Connaughton, who declared, “We will lead, we will continue to lead. But leadership also requires others to fall in line and follow.” Connaughton’s line did not suggest that he has internalized a new global reality.
         But it’s not just the Bush Administration that’s not ready. Most of the discussion of the foreign policy contrast between this year’s presidential candidates focused on their emphasis on soft power vs. hard power — almost none asked which had a vision of how America should transition to being a competitive, not a hegemonic, power.
         Losing your place as the undisputed number one is never easy. No one has ever done it well. Perhaps America, an open society built by successive waves of immigrants, has a better shot at a graceful evolution into a nation that leads a multi-polar world by its values, once it loses its sheer heft, than Rome or Britain, our two imperial ancestors.
         But for even a nation with America’s advantages to accept the rise of a genuinely multi-polar world will take skilled leadership — and probably luck.
         There is a lot at stake here – and not just for Americans. One of the other realities at Bali was that in confronting global warming, the US is not only a “major emitter,” but therefore an essential party to any solution. However, without American leadership, it was clear that Europe and the developing world cannot resolve their own internal conflicts and embrace bold change — American engagement is still essential.
         Even as my wife and I were tracing the ebbing of American hegemony in the spider webbed cables of new bridges, writers and publishers were getting ready to make this narrative one of the 2008’s hot stories. Whether it is in books by the Indian Diaspora like Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World or Kishore Mahbubani's The New Asian Hemisphere or in “Who Shrank the Superpower?: Waving Goodbye to Hegemony” in the New York Times magazine [by Parag Khanna 1/27/08], no serious reader on foreign policy has not heard the argument — the American era is over.
         But while the phenomenon has become big news, the debate seems to be remarkably half-hearted. Some reviewers critique whether American power really is as diminished as the new wave of writings claims, or are these merely yet another series in the “decline and fall of the American empire” vein. Others take refuge in arguing about whether Mahbubani is correct in claiming that India is a good bet to assume America’s role as a global honest broker, or offering their own policy prescriptions for how America’s leadership.
        There is none of the serious anguish that signaled previous “we must change courses moments” in recent history — say the launching of Sputnik. Thomas Friedman’s argument for a new “global green” economy is almost the only big new idea out there.
         Almost none of the analysis asks the question, “What are the American people going to make of this transition?” And very few seem to explore whether or not America’s leadership is asking that question. Indeed, no one wonders whether our establishment has been primarily motivated by finding ways for America to continue as a global leader, or whether the loss of American credibility and effectiveness is the understandable result of an elite pursuing domestic, rather than global goals, albeit on a globalized stage.
         I am going to suggest that America’s leaders have been making it as hard as possible for the average American to cope with the 21st century reality that America is no longer the hyper-power. As globalization has matured, American policy has become less and less suited to maintain public consent for American leadership in a globalized world. By leaders I am NOT referring solely or even primarily to the Bush Administration. In this context Bush appears to me as a malignant extreme – but only the extreme — of a bi-partisan leadership policy approach that began as a trickle and has swollen to a flood over the last thirty-five years.
         The heart of this approach was to take America’s supremacy, and America’s engagement, for granted. These were givens, realities to be exploited and taken advantage of for other domestic political, cultural and economic purposes — not hard won and fragile assets to be stewarded and preserved. The primary domestic purpose for which the changing rules of the globalized economy were to be deployed was to reduce the income equality, social solidarity and relative homogeneity that emerged from World War II. Globalization was an opportunity to make the rules of the game inside America better for the winners, and harsher for the less successful. The American government approaches the world with a set of strategies whose impact makes America less fair, less inclusive, and less balanced — and as a result less competitive in the new multi-polar world, and less willing and able to assume the burdens of global leadership.
         This didn’t have to be the consequence of globalization — but it was the result of the way the US government approached it. And by reducing the sense that all Americans are facing the challenge of globalization together, we have made it much harder for the average American to accept the new global realities.
         It’s not accidental that the nations that have caught up with the US economically and socially since WWII — first those in Europe, then Japan, Korea and Taiwan, and now China – all emerged from devastating experiences which created a strong sense of internal solidarity. All invested heavily in trying to bring their entire populations into the modern world. They were about competing with other nations internationally, not internally.
    If a country wants to be able to respond quickly to the demands of a changing global economy, it’s important that everyone pull in the same direction. This capacity — to cooperate for the common good — is what America has been gradually losing.
          The sense of a common American destiny in the world which emerged from the Depression and WWII has been hollowed out by a set of policy strategies adopted by America’s national elites. Whether the issue was trade, education, the structure of our military, or the impact of immigration on wages, America’s leaders took care of themselves and the knowledge class from which they emerged — America’s most comfortable — and correspondingly left the middle and lower rungs of the social hierarchy naked to the storms of change.
         Instead of getting ready to compete with the world, our leaders have been focused on psyching us up to compete with each other, with rules of the game that ratchet up the odds that the results are winner take all.

    How an average American might view globalization
    An average voter in Cleveland sees his manufacturing job outsourced to Asia. When his kids are ready for college he finds that decent education has become a prerogative of affluence. He reads that American kids are falling behind the rest of the world. He shares the struggles of his neighbor’s family — unable to get health care while she serves in a silent draft in Iraq. He suspects that by relying on a steady flow of low wage immigrant workers employers keep the remaining job base — jobs that can’t be outsourced such as those in the construction and service sectors – poorly paid.
    Meanwhile, the US government makes sure that American investors and knowledge workers — the top of the social pyramid — get what they need from trade treaties, have access to elite educations, avoid military service and have access to cheap agricultural, service and construction labor.
         This is not, I would suggest, a formula that makes it easy for that voter to embrace a multi-polar world, to accept America’s leadership responsibilities, or to cope with the need to rethink our relationship with the global community.
         It is not surprising that a late winter poll showed that Americans had turned resoundingly sour on globalization.
         If global engagement offers this kind of outcomes for most Americans, they will take refuge in various forms of isolationism and withdrawal, and no amount of editorial hectoring from the Washington Post will change this.

    Trade
    In the last thirty years American trade negotiators have pursued a strategy that prioritized economic advantages for American investors, financial service companies, drug manufacturers, agribusiness giants; and Hollywood “Free trade” agreements are actually complex “trade compromises” in which each nation pursues its own interests. There is nothing wrong with this. But the American trade negotiating posture has consistently presumed no future for high-wage manufacturing jobs — as if America’s only interest lay in “knowledge” workers, and corporate profits. This strategy was the fundamental priority for Bush’s father in launching NAFTA. It was often and explicitly articulated by Robert Reich, Clinton’s Secretary of Labor. It continues today under W.
         The conventional response to this concern is that we simply can’t expect to preserve manufacturing jobs here — our wages are too high. High wages are, indeed, one factor in the decline of manufacturing jobs in the US. But the underlying economics are not nearly as simple as Americans are told, or our trade negotiators seem to assume. Take Korean steel, for example. Back in 1999, with a strong dollar, Korean steel on the average cost $130 a ton less than US steel — but labor costs amounted to less than 25% of that differential. But the conventional media wisdom was that the loss of American steel was simply the result of high wages.
         And, to the extent that wage competition makes it hard to keep manufacturing jobs in the US, then higher manufacturing wages in places like Mexico and China should be a very high priority for US negotiators. Instead, America’s trade negotiators have fought bitterly to keep labor and wage issues out of trade agreements — as irrelevant “side” issues — while insisting that American foreign investors garner unprecedented rights to challenge any and all government regulations limiting their operations overseas, making it even more attractive for them to move their factories somewhere else.
         This trade policy has been enabled by the media’s willingness to parrot a series of demonstrable untruths. One of the standard defenses of American trade policy in the press has been to admit that trade agreements were hurting manufacturing, but nonetheless were creating far more jobs than they destroyed overall. But in 2006 the New York Times quietly reported that 2005 was the first year in a decade in which trade actually contributed positively to American economic growth. But even this did not cause the Times to reflect this reality in its frequent editorials decrying declining public and political support for trade.
         So what do trade liberalization advocates suggest we should do to cope with what US trade policy is doing to blue-collar workers? Simple — we need for Americans to be better educated to compete in a globalized world. This is undoubtedly and unquestionably true. Even if we changed our trade negotiating priorities, only better educated Americans can continue to realize the American dream.

    Education
    But education for whom? Over the same period of time that US trade policy has hollowed out the middle class manufacturing job base, US education policy has also make it harder and harder for the children of middle class families to get good education. 
         When I went to college in the 1960s, America’s new suburbs were investing phenomenally in public schools. State universities — even the best like California and Michigan — were broadly affordable. Private schools in most communities outside New England were for those who thought social snobbery was more important than learning. Parents did not hire tutors to enable their children to do better on the College Boards. Kids didn’t come out of college with crippling levels of student debt. Yes, rural schools were often quite poor. And the stain of segregated, sub-par education for African-Americans was shameful. But American public education remained a strongly democratizing force. With a little federal assistance and intervention, we were confident in1965 that the remaining underserved students could be brought into the mainstream.
         That educational world today seems hopelessly far away and utopian. Education has now become a powerful tool for affluent parents to give their kids an edge over the children of the less affluent. Even state university tuitions often require kids to assume horrendous student loan obligations — while many colleges colluded with lenders to steer students to expensive equivalents of “subprime” mortgages — predatory lending on campus.
          In California what was once the nation’s leading public educational system has been so devastated that my own organization, the Sierra Club, cannot recruit mid-career employees from out of state because they conclude they would have to put their kids in private schools. Education in the inner cities, where most minority children go to school, is worse than it was in 1960.
         The whole “school choice” movement is premised on the notion that it is parents — not the community — who need to see that their own kids get a good education. And while Congress and the President agreed that “no child should be left behind” it is obvious that neither party meant it since none of the underlying social and financial pressures that leave children behind were addressed in the bill of that name.
         If Robert Reich is correct, and a competitive America must have educational results that look more like Korea’s than those in Watts, it’s clear that America’s leaders over the past 20 years have not been getting us ready to compete as a nation, against the world. They have been restructuring education to foster more cutthroat, winner take all competition among Americans — and to make certain that the children of America’s elite got a solid head start in that competition.
         That won’t help us in a world in which we are no longer undisputed top dog.

    The military
    Another critical, and problematic, ingredient in America’s world role is our largely unchallenged global military supremacy. Has defense policy in the last decades helped — or hindered — the task of bringing us together as one people?
         Internally, America’s armed services are one of our tremendous solidarity success stories. They are unquestionably the most effectively racially integrated institutions in the nation, and military leaders regularly advocate policies like affirmative action designed to help the rest of America catch up.
         But in late 20th century America, no good deed went unpunished. After Vietnam, there was no GI Bill of Rights. Can we blame this failure on the strongly anti-military feelings of much of America during the war, and on the Democratic party’s ambivalence about military power? Perhaps.
         Fast forward to Iraq. Surely we should have expected the Bush Administration and its neoconservative foreign policy elite in particular, to understand the importance of taking care of the troops?
         Unfortunately, a whole series of scandals has laid bare the reality that the social safety net for America’s military families has been further shredded by the pressures of a poorly planned war strategy, and a willingness to privatized as much of the war as possible. While National Guard and Reserve troops on second and third tours of duty — effectively draftees — struggle to find basic health care for their families stranded behind, VA hospitals turned into a national scandal.
         And when Congress proposed to restore a genuine GI Bill of Rights by increasing the sizes of college grants for veterans, both the Bush Administration and Republican Presidential candidate John McCain opposed the bill because it would encourage veterans not to reenlist if they had an economic future outside the service. (This is a voluntary army?)
         It’s difficult to avoid the obvious conclusion. Everyone’s kids fought World War II. Only a few graduates of elite universities went to Vietnam. No one is forced into Iraq. An all volunteer, largely working class and minority, armed services may have been the best military choice for high tech warfare. But once we made that decision, America’s elites no longer had to suffer the consequences of their own foreign policy and military funding priorities — someone else’s kids died, someone else’s kids couldn’t get health care, someone else had their families destroyed.
         And when the kids of America’s elite were no longer part of the problem, finding solutions just didn’t seem as important as other things. So America’s military, through no fault of its own, has become another ingredient in the collapse of social consensus and common purpose.

    Immigration
    Finally, I come to the hot button issue in this year’s Republican Presidential primaries — immigration. Immigration deeply divides Americans. We are handling it in a way that ensures that it will continue to divide us — and I’m going to argue that we could do much better if we thought about it differently.
         We can’t ignore that some Americans are uncomfortable when the ethnic, linguistic or racial composition of their community changes. Most research suggests that this discomfort goes up dramatically when people are economically insecure — but still, diversity is a challenge, even for a country with a long history of assimilating immigration.
         But why is immigration suddenly such a huge issue? Quite simply because current economic policy ensures lots of immigration AND low wages — and rightly or wrongly, people make the connection. The wage problem is particularly acute in the unorganized construction and service sectors, where outsourcing and trade are not the big problem. If our trade strategies have destroyed the manufacturing middle class, our approach to wages is undermining the ability of construction and service workers to improve their lives — and we have positioned immigrants to take the fall.
         The US generates more new jobs than its own citizens can fill — US labor markets need some level of immigration. The US labor market does not generate enough jobs for all of the desperate people in China, Mexico, India and Africa who, if we had truly open borders, could make their way here and would choose to do so. We cannot be the world’s employer of last resort. Finally, the current mix and level of legal and illegal immigration appears to many observers to be higher than US labor markets can absorb without putting downward pressure on wages. We don’t really know how much, because lots of other things put downward pressure on wages.
         So under today’s economic policy immigration may be driving down some wages. But immigrants get blamed disproportionately for the failure of the American economy to sustain the middle class dream.
         So what should we do?
          One faction in the current debate insists that we should, somehow, find and deport ten million illegal immigrants and seal our border against future illegal immigration.
         The other camp, more thoughtfully, says we ought to give the existing illegal population a pathway to citizenship, try to decrease the flow of future illegals, and hope that the problem becomes manageable.
         Economic columnist Robert Samuelson summed up this second approach in a column in which he argued that the first step should be to “build a real fence or a wall along every foot of the 1,989 miles of the U.S.-Mexican border.” Then, he suggested, employers would have to raise wages to fill the jobs left vacant by the decline in illegal immigration.
         Samuelson is right, our present policies are creating an underclass. But if we think about this as a problem of economic policy, not immigration policy, Samuelson’s suggestion is bizarre. He argues that we want higher wages. To get those higher wages his first step is to spend billions of dollars building a wall on the Mexican border to slow down the flow of excessive immigration, shrink the labor force, and thereby, indirectly, put upward pressure on wages.
         But why not just raise wages?
         After all, immigration policy is only one influence on wages. Tax policy, minimum-, prevailing- and living-wage rules, labor relations law, and health care policy are just a few of the other governmental decisions that also shape wage levels. Why build a wall when we could make it easier for workers to unionize? Why not establish living wage laws for all workers, and enforce them on all employers?
         If employers knew that we would allow as much legal immigration as our labor markets needed to fill good jobs, but that they had to pay, and treat, all workers well regardless of immigration status, they would have no particular incentive to hire undocumented workers.
         If workers knew that the flow of immigration would be the result of wage policy, not a driver of it, then they would be reassured that they would benefit from an adequate, but not excessive, rate of immigration. And if migrants knew that there was no pool of jobs waiting in the US if they snuck across the border, we wouldn’t need a fence.

    In conclusion
    So my quick survey suggests that in none of the four areas that shape our engagement with the world is the national debate heading us towards the restoration of a sense of common destiny.
         During the peak of the Japanese boom, Jim Fallow wrote an article in the Atlantic in which he hinted at our dilemma. Japan, he said, was trying to win the global race by ensuring that the bottom half of its society was the best prepared. America was competing with the best top half. Since he wrote, it seems to me that we are increasingly focusing on a smaller and smaller segment of our society. This is the truly big story of the past thirty years of globalization — our leaders, not impersonal global forces, made choices that drove a wedge between America’s investors and most fortunate knowledge workers and everyone else.
         At the beginning of this talk I was tempted to assert that the last generation of Americans leaders took advantage of globalization to make American society less inclusive and to undermine “e pluribus unum” – that notion that we are all in this together. But I am already making a large claim. And I have to confess that while for some actors on the American political stage a winner takes all, every man for himself society was a desirable and intended goal, for many others the corrosion of social solidarity was the result of unexamined assumptions and muddied thinking.
         Which is hopeful. If America’s leaders — as a group — simply don’t care much about whether globalization hurts most Americans while profiting themselves, nothing anyone points out is likely to change our national strategy. We are then truly Rome in decline, and will suffer a similar, if more spectacular, fate. But if we are suffering from unintended consequences, we have a better shot at pulling ourselves together.
         Which brings me back to Bali, and global warming: I said that America negotiates its internal relationship with the world in four major arenas — but it may be time as Friedman suggests, to add climate and environmental policy as a fifth. Certainly UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has taken the issue as one of his signatures. And rarely has there been an issue on which the US isolated itself in the world so early and consistently.
         But here again the pattern holds. There is no doubt that an American commitment — a decade ago or today — to a less carbon intensive, more innovative energy economy would be good for most Americans. Leave global warming and the environment aside. Every tanker that comes from the Persian Gulf raises the risk of military engagement. We are importing oil, and exporting jobs. Clean energy technologies will be one of the job growth engines of the 21st century. America has pioneered most of the basic technologies for wind and solar, the real manufacturing pay off has almost all been accrued in Europe and Asia.
         We didn’t change energy course, even though most of us would have benefited, and most of us have said for a decade that we wanted a new energy future — because a powerful segment of the governing elite, Big Carbon, ensured that we negotiated not for America, but for America’s insiders.
         The other big factor in America’s reluctance to join the world in Kyoto or any other solution to global warming is, symbolically, critical. For many conservatives, admitting that global warming is a problem worthy of solving runs onto the rock that any likely approaches will be governmental, global, and communitarian — values that modern American conservatism despises.
         But we are obviously moving beyond the era of Kyoto denial. The Republican candidates this year who tried to cling to the Bush-Cheney approach to climate — US exceptionalism and voluntarism — did not do well. The two finalists — John McCain and Mike Huckabee — both accepted that America had to rejoin the world and act on global warming. And McCain iced his victory with support from the Republican party’s two most prominent global warming hawks — Florida Governor Crist and California’s Schwarzenegger.
         Their Democratic opponents, to a man and woman, took extremely strong stands, and as the campaign went on they talked more and more about the issue, even though political reporters continued to ignore it.
         So the next Administration will have a mandate to act on global warming, and a chance to do so in a way that begins to engage America with the world in a way which unites, rather than dividing us.
         Certainly the public mood, as expressed in both the Obama phenomenon and the rebirth of John McCain, suggests that people want to be brought back together, domestically and globally.
          Environmentalism is, in my view, a key strand in any long-term tapestry to restore America’s sense of common vision. It captures an essential truth: there is only one ozone layer, only one global carbon cycle, only one biosphere. These commons — that great collective inheritance of humanity — are the strongest argument I know of for restoring America’s sense of solidarity and common destiny, not only with itself, but with the world.