Beware of Big Ideas

I wish I had a dollar – oops, better make that a euro – for every recent obituary marking The Death or The Fall or The Collapse or just the End of the American Empire or the American Era.

Hey, I would have been able to bail out almost all the world’s troubled financial institutions – not to mention my own diminishing 401(k) retirement plan.

I’ve always been a skeptic when it comes to grand theoretical designs or ambitious ideological visions – Big Ideas – that try to provide us with a pseudoscientific approach, jumbled with quasi-religious intonations, to understanding the way the world works and where we are heading and what it all means.

Members of the secular and educated classes tend to gravitate toward Big Ideas when the political, economic, and social foundations of their world seem to be shaking, and there is a feeling that a New World is being born, in the same way that the masses look toward religion for salvation.

If (to quote Karl Marx), religion is the opium of the people, the Big Idea is the pinot noir of the elites.

Reflecting my own agnostic attitude toward intellectual pies in the sky, such as Francis Fukuyama’s end-of-history jabber in the aftermath of the Cold War or Samuel Huntington’s clash-of-civilizations mantra, I published an op-ed, "U.S. Empire? Let’s Get Real," in the Los Angeles Times in July 2003. My piece, which came out just four months after the victorious U.S. invasion of Iraq – at a time when neoconservative ideologues were predicting a never-ending American unipolar moment – challenged the then popular Big Idea that envisaged the rise of a global American empire in which the United States, exploiting its unequaled military power, would make the world safe for its interests and ideals.

"The talk about American empire in the first decade of the 21st century is probably going to sound a lot like the chatter about globalization we were hearing in the last decade of the 20th century – an intellectual fad produced by pundits searching for catchy phrases and colorful metaphors to explain complex reality," I argued.

Recalling the experience of other great powers, I suggested that just as globalization hasn’t smashed the nation-state, "U.S. military supremacy probably won’t transform America into an empire. Economic costs, public opposition, and potential challenges from other global players will get in the way."

And indeed, the failure by the Bush administration to achieve its grandiose agenda in the Middle East demonstrated the limits on the use of American strategic power.

The current devastating calamity facing the American economy reflects the financial constraints on U.S. economic might.

These are the kind of realities, which, as I predicted, would "only invite regional and global players to challenge the American attempts to monopolize power in the Middle East and around the world."

Hence the reaction from America’s adversaries in places like Venezuela, Iran or Russia, or for that matter from some of its Western allies in Europe, projecting a certain Schadenfreude, proclaims "The End of the American (fill in the blank)." Some pundits assert that capitalism, at least in its Anglo-Saxon variant, is dead. Others think we are witnessing the End of the World as We Know It.

I urge all my colleagues in the chattering class to take a deep breath. Intellectual fads of the moment like the American Empire, or the triumph of globalization, or the end of the American Empire should never become a basis for long-term policy, for the simple reason that they were nothing more than figments of the mind and are not always grounded in reality. In fact, there was never an American Empire in either a political-military or an economic sense. Instead, what happened was that U.S. leaders and American investors, acting in a very opportunistic way, exploited the sources of power – military and financial advantages – the U.S. seemed to be enjoying since the end of the Cold War.

The intellectuals in the American media and think tanks, led by the neocons, ended up providing the members of the American political and economic elites with the Big Ideas – spreading democracy and free markets – to justify and legitimize their quest for power and fortune.

Now that reality is biting. Whether it’s in the Middle East or in finance, Washington and Wall Street recognize the constraints operating on their power. More important, the American people are concluding that the costs trying to fulfill the imperial or hegemonic fantasies are proving to be greater than the benefits. The next U.S. president will have no choice but to trim American policies to the new political and economic balance of power.

But if Americans need to dump the bankrupted Big Ideas and face reality, the rest of world shouldn’t embrace the false new Big Ideas. American interests and values will not remain predominant forever. But neither are there any indications that there is any other global power, whether it’s China or the European Union, that is ready to serve as new hegemon and replace democracy and capitalism with new models for managing power and creating wealth.

At best, these other powers as well as other states are embracing their own variants of democracy and capitalism based on their unique national conditions, while demanding more influence in the international system.

None of them has the power or the will to impose a new Pax on the international system. Instead, at a time when Americans recognize their limitations, we seem to be in a stage when a global consensus can be established for reforming the multilateral arrangements of the Bretton Woods system that was established after World War II.

Indeed, the instability in the Middle East and the financial markets – and the election of a new U.S. president – provide an opportunity to start a process in which the U.S. will not monopolize power through a Pax Americana but will play a crucial role as first among equals.

In the meantime, beware of new intellectual fads masquerading as Big Ideas.

Copyright © 2008 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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