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Losing the Cold Peace

Author: Michael Moran
July 20, 2008
Star-Ledger

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While it may surprise Americans brought up to assume everyone wants to be one of us, the idea of multiparty elections and a free enterprise system bound by a strictly enforced legal code isn’t selling so well.

James Glassman, the Bush administration’s public diplomacy czar, recently told me the United States is concerned that “the Russian and Chinese ideological models, which suppress individual freedom while allowing market economics a good deal of breathing space, are growing disturbingly popular in some circles.”

And why wouldn’t the head of, say, Kazakhstan, now look north and east to Russia and China where economic growth and relative social peace appear to coexist with job security for the party in power.

“China and Russia represent the return of economically successful authoritarian capitalist powers, which have been absent since the defeat of Japan and Germany in 1945,” writes Azar Gat, a national security specialist at Tel Aviv University, in Foreign Affairs magazine.

Ironically, at precisely the moment when America’s military power appears to be at its apex, the world created by America’s “victory” over the Soviet Union 20 years ago has empowered nations once described with paternalistic pity as the “Third World” to vote with their feet on who they would like to see lead the planet. Increasingly, analysts note, they are voting against the United States.

It would be easy to chalk this up to anger over the Iraq War, Guantanamo Bay, and the inherent hypocrisy involved in our government’s simultaneous talk of liberty and waterboarding. But people around the world don’t expect much more from our government than they do from their own. Certainly, by most measures, America’s government is more transparent and candid than most.

The larger issue, from the perspective of rising middleweight nations like Brazil, Ukraine and Thailand, appears to be competence, not only in dealing with the results of a toppled dictator, but with the world economy. Our successive internal economic crises create credibility problems -- the 1980s savings and loan debacle, the deeply unpopular "Washington Consensus" fiscal discipline our World Bank and IMF influence forced on many nations, Enron-like corporate malfeasance, an automobile industry deaf to global trends and problems, mortgage bait-and-switch operators, and all of it regulated with kid gloves.

It is surprising, then, that most people around the world tell pollsters from the venerable Pew Global Attitudes Project they particularly dislike America’s influence on the world’s economy.

“Most think the U.S. is having a considerable influence on their economy, and it is largely seen as a negative one,” says a Pew poll of 24,000 people in 27 nations released in June. A similarly comprehensive survey Pew released a year earlier found “U.S. policies also are widely viewed as increasing the gap between rich nations and poor nations.”

This is pocketbook economics on a global scale. China and Russia, of course, have their own image problems. Unlike the Cold War, when utopian fools could portray Stalinism or Maoism as paradise because few who ever saw the truth lived to tell the tale, today’s public is much more well informed about the internal realities of these states. For every tale of a Wall Street investment bank whose unregulated idiocy leads to tens of thousands of foreclosures, there’s a story of poisoned Kremlin opponents or Chinese dealings with Sudan. So Russia and China get no free pass.

Comparatively speaking, then, Europe’s model the consensual, soft-power approach looks particularly inviting to those shopping around. Just last weekend, 43 heads of state -- about half from the European Union and the rest from the developing nations that line the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean -- gathered in Paris to discuss a new bloc the Mediterranean Union that Europeans view as their next “eastern Europe.”

From the EU’s perspective, this was like the old Predator’s Ball of the 1980s: Fresh markets for European goods, cheap labor for its manufacturers, and if the EU gets really lucky, more stability to stem illegal immigration, Muslim radicalism and other problems on its southern fringe.

China, too, is moving to build trust and ties with its neighbors. Trade with Australia, Indonesia, South Korea and the nations of Southeast Asia, has soared. India and China, once bitter enemies, now consult on everything from climate change to maritime policy. Commercial flights began this month across the Taiwan Strait the great symbol of early Cold War fissures in Asia. In most of these countries, views of China, according to Pew, are more favorable than those of the United States (the major exception being Japan).

There was a time when Americans could afford to say, “Fine, let them choose the Chinese model. It won’t be us that suffers.” In the half century that followed World War II, the American dream really was the world's dream. That time, along with everything from a reliable interest rate on your mortgage to the reasonable prices at your neighborhood gas station, is passing. The market of ideas has healed from the extremes of the 20th century, and so the American brand no longer wins by default.

Serious analysts debate whether the world is entering a new era of multipower competition, or one in which, in the words of Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, “a world dominated not by one or two or even several states but rather by dozens of actors possessing and exercising various kinds of power.” Either way, their votes count, and by any measure you choose to consult right now, the campaign being run by Uncle Sam is in something of a rut.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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