The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Nations Rise

With the general election now in full gear, the year has seen an avalanche of policy books from an array of academics, former White House staffers, media pundits, and think tank strategists. Many of these books, each about what future direction our nation should take and aimed at impacting the current political debate, might best be viewed as extended job applications written by wonk-ish authors to whoever wins the White House in the upcoming election. The authors of The Next American Century, both of whom served on President Bill Clinton?s National Security Council, meticulously examine the foreign policy challenges that will face the next administration.

Closely examining five major world powers (China, Russia, India, Japan, and Europe), Nina Hachigian and Mona Sutphen make a strong case for U.S. collaboration with these “pivotal powers” on issues like anti-terrorism, economic expansion, climate change, and more. In their view, America?s international reputation presently sits in tatters, especially after the present Bush administration?s “go-it-alone” approach to the Iraq War: “e fault the Bush administration for the giant foreign policy hole America has dug for itself,” they write.

The next U.S. president can successfully dig us out of this “hole,” the authors explain, but it won?t be easy: “America is in the world?s doghouse…. American leaders will have to expect skepticism from a bitter world for some time to come.” The source of this global skepticism: the massive gap between what America says it represents and what it actually does around the world. According to one foreign policy expert cited in the book, America?s “emocracy promotion has come to be seen overseas not as the expression of a principled American aspiration, but as a ‘code word’ for ‘regime change.’ ”

From this perspective, our heavy-handed military actions in Iraq and our treatment of detainees in places like Abu Ghraib and Guat?namo Bay, as well as repressive measures against dissenters at home, increasingly make us look like hypocrites lacking any credibility on moral issues. The Bush administration?s mixed record on human rights, the authors assert, “casts doubt on U.S. credibility and moral stature, which in turn strengthens the hands of U.S. detractors and undermines our legitimacy.” In demanding that the Chinese or Russian governments recognize the human rights of its workers or journalists, for instance, the U.S. is hamstrung by its own less-than-stellar record on human rights.

Echoing many critics, Hachigian and Sutphen predict that we won?t regain our global reputation until we put our own house in order first. “America?s fiscal mess, underperforming education system, oil dependency, broken health care system, inadequate worker protection, and crumbling infrastructure are all things America needs to fix to ensure that the rise of other strong powers will be a benefit.”

The book goes on to make an excellent case for global cooperation over the current go-it-alone strategy on a number of critical issues, including security against jihadist terrorism (U.S. human intelligence in the Muslim world is infamously scant), nuclear non-proliferation (the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea have been a growing global concern), pandemic diseases like avian flu, the challenge of global warming, and more. On these issues, the U.S. shares an interest in stability and security with the other five pivotal powers, and cooperative efforts would have wide international support. Yet regarding present multinational efforts to stem climate change, for example, the U.S. is more of an obstacle than a leader.

In contrast to the current administration?s unilateralism, the authors believe the U.S. should pursue a new policy of “strategic collaboration” with the rest of the world. The term means exactly what it sounds like: “Developing common agendas with other pivotal powers and resolving differences” through diplomacy, international cooperation, and renewed respect for multinational organizations. “he pivotal powers are, in important respects, allies in the quest to maintain an orderly world. As large, market-driven powers, they want what Americans want: better standards of living, peace, and predictability.” The authors want the U.S. to behave less like schoolyard bullies and more like well-intentioned, savvy negotiators who work well with others.

If the political side of the book finds common ground with many left-of-center critics of the current administration, its economic arguments lean in a somewhat different direction. Hachigian and Sutphen begin from the premise that increasing prosperity among the pivotal world powers has produced a net economic benefit for the United States, though resulting in a pro-globalization stance that some readers may view as ultimately Pollyanna-ish. Nations like China and India are booming export markets for U.S. products, they say, and “ore exports mean more wealth and more American jobs, even though other jobs are lost.” And even when U.S. companies ship production capacity overseas, the authors deem it beneficial: “Though it is of little comfort to displaced workers, offshoring creates value for the U.S. economy and even jobs.”

Those Americans who lose jobs due to globalization, the authors assert, are likely to find that even reemployment comes with a downside: “When their jobs go overseas, most workers find new jobs within six months, but…their wages may be lower.” The upshot is that massive U.S. trade deficits with China could work out to increased opportunities for low-paying work. We may have more American jobs, but (unfortunately) each American may need to work three of them to make ends meet. If this is a benefit of globalization, many American workers may be justifiably skeptical of its wondrous “benefits.” One of the missed opportunities in this otherwise excellent analysis is the authors’ failure in this department — to grapple at length with the question of growing economic and income inequality, both in the U.S. and internationally.

The Next American Century is provocative reading for anyone wanting to delve deeply into possible international approaches for the next U.S. administration. Whether the next administration adopts the more interdependent foreign policy agenda recommended by the authors has yet to be determined (we?ll know after November, one supposes), but as foreign policy analysis goes, the authors have made a very formidable case for increased U.S. collaboration with the rest of the world.