Before the election of 2008, a spate of books tried to make sense of America’s place in a world in which new global powers were rising fast. These volumes–among them Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World and Parag Khanna’s The Second World, not to mention the one I wrote with Mona Sutphen, The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive As Other Powers Rise–took different routes to arrive at a shared conclusion: In a multipolar and interdependent world, America will no longer be able to call all the shots. While not anti-Bush diatribes, the books argued that the Bush Administration’s script of primacy and domination was unrealistic and counterproductive.
One massive economic meltdown and a transformational American election later, three new books have come to warn us that even a more visionary president with a healthy respect for the rest of the world won’t be enough to put America back in the driver’s seat. The economic collapse has heightened our sense of anxiety at home. And challenging times lie ahead–not only are other powers still rising, as these volumes document, but America now has fewer resources and even less legitimacy to deal with an ever more complex global order.
These books accurately limn a multipolar world in which America can no longer dominate at will. But they underplay some crucial truths about the United States and the world that suggest a safe and successful future for Americans. America retains great strengths, and nations now depend on one another for their prosperity and security. And yet there’s little indication that most of our leaders recognize this new global reality–or that our politics is up to the task of steering the ship of state in the right direction.This article was originally published in Democracy.