AN INTERVIEW WITH PAUL STAROBIN, author of After America
It’s the first book from an American author speaking of an After America future. The American Century, the Uncle Sam hegemony, the lonely superpower golden times, and more broadly the American Civilization has come to the end of its long climb to global preeminence. Period. Americans and Europeans and other allies have to understand this new reality and act accordingly.
For the moment, there’s no superpower substitute. And an After America transitional period can develop a variable geometry of outcomes, even if an obvious “candidate” is always referred in popular conversations: China. “The world is pregnant, not with one possibility for what might come next, but with multiple possibilities. These embryos exist in parallel with one another – although at some point, a victor will presumably emerge, we are still probably a long way from reaching that point”, wrote Paul Starobin in After America (Viking, May 2009). History is always in the making – the future is always a matter of probabilities (and opportunities) rather than certainties.
Starobin, 52, a globalist, a former Moscow bureau chief for Business Week magazine and a writer for National Journal and Atlantic Monthly magazine, living in the Boston area, a member of the Red Sox Nation (the baseball team of the city), married with a woman from Tashkent (nowadays, capital of Uzbekistan), believes in “organic history” (no, no slow food), in History from the bottom-up. “History as a contingent, messy process, emerging from the soil of global politics, culture and economics”, he told me, in a long conversation about his book published in the US.
Paul has a Masters of Science degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics. In October 1st – 60th anniversary of Popular Republic of China – he will be at Houston, Texas, at the Rice University, for a talk and book signing. You can follow the book online.
The geopolitical conclusion:
«I believe that America has entered a transitional period whose end point at this present time is simply unknowable because the final destination depends on so many contingent factors.»
The future to be:
«There is no particular reason to think that traditional forms, like the nation-state, will be the main drivers of a new age of history.»
«As I started my research, I was not really focused on the possibility of a new global order based on city-states-but in my travels, I became impressed by just such a possibility and added a chapter to the book suggesting how this path might develop. It is really quite intriguing-a new division of the world, not into a multipolar order of nation-states but into a grouping of urban mega-regions.»
The Atlantic heritage:
«With the Cold War over, Europe simply does not matter as much in America’s calculations.»
The black swan:
«The big question in terms of whether chaos spreads is what sort of vacuum is left as an overstretched U.S. military pulls back from Iraq and, sooner or later, from Afghanistan.»
Interview by Jorge Nascimento Rodrigues
QUESTION: From the conversations, the events, the personalities you saw and interviewed for this book, which impressed you more and had a major influence in writing After America?
ANSWER: ‘After America’ considers a number of different paths to the future. As I started my research, I was not really focused on the possibility of a new global order based on city-states-but in my travels, I became impressed by just such a possibility and added a chapter to the book suggesting how this path might develop. It is really quite intriguing-a new division of the world, not into a multipolar order of nation-states but into a grouping of urban mega-regions. This could be quite a wide assortment of actors-everyone from Hong Kong and Singapore in the East, to Dubai and Tel Aviv in the Middle East, to Barcelona and Berlin (among many others) in Europe, to Johannesburg in Africa, to Toronto, Las Vegas and Los Angeles in North America, to São Paulo and Santiago in South America. I like the example of city-states because I believe that we have to be imaginative in considering the possibilities of an After America world. There is no particular reason to think that traditional forms, like the nation-state, will be the main drivers of a new age of history.
QUESTION: Kenichi Ohmae in the 1990s wrote a shocking book at that time: The Rise of Region States. But it seems that since the emergence of the BRIC, these strategies lost sexy appeal…
ANSWER: I think “region-states” has more going for it than the BRIC formulation. The BRICs also strikes me as a somewhat artificial conception.
The Russian “will”
QUESTION: You have been in Moscow from 1999 until 2003, a critical period when Vladimir Putin apparently stopped the continuous crash of the former superpower. Studies of relative global power showed that Russia, despite its nuclear military status, has today less than a half of former Soviet Union power in the 1970s, 40% of Chinese actual relative power and a little bit more than 25% of US power. Do you think the Russians understood this “after Soviet Union”?
ANSWER: There is a powerful current of imperial nostalgia in Russia, especially evident amongst the political elite, which tends to blind Russians to present realities. But deep within their bones, I do think they understand that the world has changed-and that neither the Red nor the White versions of their empire is likely to return in anything like the size and the scope of their dimensions. That said, “will” counts for a lot in global affairs, and Russia still possesses national will-at a level, certainly, greater than the Europeans.
QUESTION: After America is, so far I know (excluding a few anti-imperialist radicals), the first book from an American perspective and writer, referring the end of the American Century, showing the clear signs of a decline of the US hegemony. Americans had a difficult time understand the crash in soft power with the last George W. Bush Administration and after Obama victory they hope that the new Administration will reconstruct the soft power lost, endure hard power where needed, and change the decline curve. Do you think the US has conditions to regain hegemony with Obama charisma and realistic pragmatism, or, definitely, America entered a transitional period?
ANSWER: I believe that America has entered a transitional period whose end point at this present time is simply unknowable because the final destination depends on so many contingent factors. President Obama is a charismatic figure, yes, and he seems to be generally well liked around the world, but this is nowhere enough to restore an American hegemony-because the hegemony itself was never the product of a charismatic American president. The hegemony arose from a conjunction of certain economic, political and cultural circumstances, not the least of which was the self-destruction of Europe in its ‘civil wars’ of the first half of the 20th century. In a sense, America was an ‘Accidental Empire.’
Nails in a coffin
QUESTION: Do you think the great financial crisis of last two years (showing the great fragility of American financialization and economic power) and the emergence of the G20 were the last two nails in the coffin of Fukuyama’s lonely superpower promise?
ANSWER: There may be more nails to come but these are certainly two important ones. I see the financial crisis as the manifestation of ailments very long in the making in America-not least the failure to develop a modern, rational system of financial regulation. Although the precise timing of the crisis was very hard to predict, I think that historians will be able to show that it was not some freak event but the culmination of longstanding, worrisome trends.
QUESTION: Can we consider the George W. Bush Administration the bridge to the End of the American Century? If Al Gore had won the elections back in 2000 was it possible that the After America was postponed?
ANSWER: No, I don’t think the tipping point really rested on one presidential administration. If George W. Bush proved a neo-con imperialist, Al Gore might have proved a liberal imperialist. Probably the peak of the American Century was in 1991 with the Cold War triumph and collapse of Soviet Union.
QUESTION: The victory of Obama soft power strategy against the hard power line discourse of the Republican candidate, John McCain, precipitate, irreversibly, America in the After America period? McCain was more suitable to avoid the After America?
ANSWER: I see John McCain, both by generation and by backround (fighter pilot), as a very much an American Century type. Barack Obama is harder to define—he has a certain global mindset but also of course an American one. It is possible that President Obama will develop a graceful means of American adaptation to an After America world—but possible, too, that he will be trapped by American Century thinking that remains pervasive in Washington, D.C. Perhaps how he deals with the difficult matter of Afghanistan will stamp his political personality in this regard.
QUESTION: As in all the transitional periods, what comes next depends on the fast and adaptive moves from the different “species” candidates to occupy the niches available. From the great powers we see today, which “candidate” impressed you more and why?
ANSWER: No one at this point has emerged as a clear successor to America as a hegemonic power-and it possible that there will never again be a power as dominant as America has been. After the Roman Empire collapsed, centuries rolled by without a new “Rome” materializing on the global scene. But if one has to make this forecast, China is the obvious candidate, given its sheer economic heft, its strategic patience and its apparent global ambitions. I don’t see India, Russia or Brazil, to consider other possibilities, becoming a new hegemon.
QUESTION: Some European analysts talk of a new alliance between America and Europe based on Western Atlantic democracy vs. totalitarian soft power rising from China, Russia and other small and medium powers around the world leveraging natural resources through state power. The Cold War heritage of a transatlantic alliance has space as a dominant vector in After America? Or the US will shift clearly its geopolitical priorities?
ANSWER: The U.S. is already shifting its priorities towards other regions of the world, namely Asia, with China and India as rising powers demanding strategic attention from Washington. A neat division of the world into a democratic Euro-American West and all others does not quite work-India, after all, is the world’s largest democracy, and some Washington strategists hope to enlist India as a kind of counter-balance against China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean region. Brazil is another large democratic power of increasing importance to the U.S. With the Cold War over, Europe simply does not matter as much in America’s calculations.
QUESTION: Other analysts, some from America and Asia, refer the emergence of a G2, an informal hegemonic alliance between the US and China for the transitional period. Do you think we can evolve for this type of bi-hegemony? Or the most probable scenario is a concert of great powers like in the 19th century, as the Russians have in mind?
ANSWER: I do not believe that the U.S. and China are fated to be enemies but nor do I believe that they are likely to exercise a ‘bi-hegemony’ as dual rulers of the world. The countries are too different-in their cultural and political values, for instance-for that kind of core compatibility. I expect a mixture of competition and cooperation to shape the Sino-American relationship in coming years-with perhaps the balance tipping towards competition given China’s clear ambitions, as a rising power, to exercise more influence in its regional neighborhood.
The fragile borders
QUESTION: Some scenarios refer the risk of a black swan in this transitional period of After America. Great power politics has horror to no-polarity worlds if past History is of help. In what kind of “scenario” context this inter-act can evolve for an arch of chaos and for global wars? Can the “borders” of great power politics impact this hoped calm and peaceful rising After America transition?
ANSWER: While Samuel Huntington simplified matters too much in his diagnosis of a post-Cold War “clash of civilizations,” he was right to pay attention to the problem of bloody borders as a formula for broader conflict in the world. The U.S. Empire has such fragile borders-in some cases, already bloody, as in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, and in Iraq. Closer to the American homeland, chaos in Mexico, a consequence of the drug wars in which the U.S. is complicit as a huge consumer of narcotics, is spilling over to the U.S. Southwest. Transnational gang warfare is another source of chaos that affects America. The big question in terms of whether chaos spreads is what sort of vacuum is left as an overstretched U.S. military pulls back from Iraq and, sooner or later, from Afghanistan.
QUESTION: One of the smart power strategies China has been developing in its present world power projection (for instance in Africa, Latin America, Australia, Canada, Eastern Russia) is a different approach from the classical imperialism of the 1870s-1900s or even from the Accidental Empire strategy of the US. Also the soft power “imperialism of attraction” based in culture, values, fashions and trends, is diffuse and grey in the case of present China. What kind of “go global” expansion are the Chinese doing? Have they sustainable conditions to continue a so-called peaceful rising?
ANSWER: As an example, I was generally impressed with what the Chinese are doing in copper-rich Chile in terms of a long-term strategy of diplomatic, cultural and economic engagement. The Chinese approach in Chile appears to be sensitive to Chilean concerns of not wanting to be dominated by a new ‘imperialist’ in the world, as Chile was once dominated by the United States. At the same time, the Chinese are new to this game of soft-power attraction-and no doubt will make mistakes. My sense is that at this point, the Chinese engagement is going over better in South America than in Africa, where the Chinese tend to be viewed as heavy handed.
QUESTION: So far, what was the most unexpected feedback you received from readers of your book?
ANSWER: I wrote this book mainly for ordinary Americans, who need to think about how to adapt to the After America worlds in the making. I wasn’t sure how that message would be received but as it has turned out, happily, I have found most people willing to listen, even in such ‘heartland’ places as Texas. If the After America message can find a home in Texas, it can find a home just about anywhere. Unfortunately, the political class, in Washington DC, remains largely in denial about these trends. This, however, was not unexpected.