What Americans Can Do About the End of Their Ruling Days

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This book review was originally published in the Huffington Post.


In the wake of World War II, the United States was overwhelmingly the most dominant world power, establishing international institutions that favored its preferred world order characterized by a system of coherent states. And in this context, America proceeded to assume the role of policeman of the “Free World”. Even in the face of the gathering storm of the international Soviet and a defiant China, the United States effectively ruled the world, in the limited way that yesteryear’s technology and adolescent industrial capitalism enabled. But, that world has changed, with America enjoying less and less control of the international system that it helped establish. As a result, the American international affairs community has spent much of the past two decades exploring their collective existential ennui inspired by this seeming decline. As a result, they have been tilting at windmills, on a quest to determine how America can re-achieve its onetime uncontested glory.

Viewed through a mid-century American lens, the disarray into which the international system has fallen is inexplicable. It has come to pass that, as the Parag Khanna has observed, “No one is waiting for permission from Washington to make deals with whomever it wants.” The world has seemingly fallen into something most similar to the Middle Ages, “with Asian empires, Western militaries, Middle Eastern sheikhdoms, magnetic city-states, wealthy multinational corporations, elite clans, religious zealots, tribal hordes, and potent media seething in an ever more unpredictable and dangerous storm.” Clearly the time has come for the American international affairs community to cease their longing for a bygone Pax Americana. The time for hand wringing is now over. Not just Americans, but the entire global community, is yearning for a new framework for thinking about how to run the world, now that no one nation can possibly rule it.

Luckily, Khanna has not just written a book of keen observations, but has offered some strategies that we should all heed. And, while his book How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance, strays far from the Washington Consensus, his counsel offers a path forward to a far better moment in human history, which the American international affairs community should yearn to enable. His metaphor is compelling. The world has once evolved from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, and as is frequently observed, history has a way of repeating itself. If the right strategies are deployed by the right players, such a transformation should indeed by achievable.

But what are those strategies? And who are the players?

Firstly, as Khanna points out “Our maps of the world no longer reflect reality on the ground.” Perhaps he is being generous, in that many of these borders never had any real basis in reality, only reflecting the gross ignorance of the power elites around the table at the time. To build and revere an international order built around such a suspension of disbelief is hard to defend. Still, few in the American international affairs community ever speak about the fundamental need to recarve up the world map, providing states to a much broader array of currently stateless nations.

To do this, and most everything else in his recipe book, Khanna suggests that America and the other principal stake holders in the current system should shy away from defending the “grand toothless global architecture” that has evolved, and rather should encourage regional responsibility. The myth of a global system of coherent states must give way to an understanding of the diversity of institutional actors at play in this new Middle Ages, and the far flung, yet networked “islands of governance” that actually constitute the international system. America should deploy all of its experience, capability, know-how, and remaining goodwill to help these regional collections of islands to organize effective and resilient regional organizations for security, and ultimately much more. After all, as Khanna points out, today “”Where regional security organizations are strong, there is order; where they are weak, there is chaos”. And the chaos has been very bad for America and Americans.

Surely many in the American security establishment are loath to delegate primary responsibility for strategic matters (such as borders) to regional bodies, but our track record in regions where we lack such regional organizations (such as the Middle East and South Asia) are miserably bad. Too many Americans feel far more comfortable with a government that engages in the kind of “great power clientelism” that has a proven track record of institutionalizing instability around the world. But this American impulse is anachronistic, and is a major source of America’s diminished influence in the international system – not to mention the emasculation of the international institutions that America formed in the first place. Accepting and robustly supporting regional institutions must become the new American way.

Lastly, Khanna paints an exciting picture about how a global community of actors far afield of the “stiff walz” of bureaucratic, interstate diplomacy can each make important contributions to the new global order, and help run the world. Indeed, contributions that no state is capable of making. “Mega-diplomacy” is a term he coins (a rhetorical hyperbole which grows on you as you read) to describe the “jazzy dance among coalitions of ministries, companies, churches, foundations, universities, activists, and other willful, enterprising individuals who cooperate to achieve specific goals” across the globe.

In the end, Khanna’s message is one of empowerment. You don’t need to be a member of our anemic (though admirable and able) foreign service (only 5000 strong) to have an impact on the world stage. You can help run the world in this new age, and help steer it to a new Renaissance. Anyone with a vision, high-leverage idea, and an entrepreneurial spirit can reshape the world. Khanna marshals far too many examples of people and organizations that are doing it, despite the system, for one to dismiss his concept of mega-diplomacy. If the guardians of these “islands of governance” (yes, the United States is one of the larger islands of governance) refuse to open their doors and minds to leverage the energy and momentum being generated by these “new diplomats”, then they will simply become less and less relevant.

If you do not aspire to be an independent (though patriotically American) diplomat engaged in mega-diplomacy, that’s ok too. You can still demand of your government that it enable their success. Demand the establishment or regional security organizations, and no more unwieldy and condescending American-led global architectures which are untenable in today’s world. Demand the end to the cartographic fictions over which transnational flows of peoples, goods, weapons, diseases, conflicts and natural disasters flow freely. And require that they guide these regional security organizations to undertake a shock therapy of state re-carving that enables the currently abandoned nations of the world to become self-governing and prosperous.

America’s international authority and legitimacy over the long haul depends upon the alignment of the interests that we pursue with the principles that we hold dear. America’s national security politics and institutions has demonstrated a tendency toward the mis-alignment of interests and principles, diminishing our place in the world order, and undermining the world order that America established at the close of WWII. But, this imbalance can be corrected both within and beyond government.

As an American, you can demand that your leaders instigate the structural changes that enable all of us to ply our trade as the new breed of diplomats that Khanna so eloquently and passionately describes, and practice the principles of mega-diplomacy. As Khanna observes, the global responses to many recent crises and challenges have shown that “The greatness of America lies in the talent, depth, wealth, and generosity of its citizenry” – not just in America’s public institutions, and the sclerotic political cultural that too often diminish their contributions to the global order.

“How to Run the World” is the right question for tackling today’s transnational challenges. The days of ruling the world are over. Parag Khanna gets it right.

Parag Khanna’s “How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance” is released January 11th, and is available for pre-order from Amazon. The book launch will take place at the New America Foundation on January 12th, with a book talk at Politics and Prose that evening.