Can United States Continue To Lead The 21st Century? – Analysis


For the first time in February 1941, Veteran American journalist and the founder of Time, Life and Fortune magazine – Henry R. Luce wrote in ‘Life’ magazine that for bringing so many big promises for human progress and happiness, 20th Century was an American Century. He also did not miss to mention that no other century had so many men, women and children suffered such pain, anguish and bitter deals.

71 years later on October 8, amid the buzz word of Asian Century and American decline, the Republican nominee for the U.S. presidential election, Mitt Romney in his brilliant speech delivered at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, claimed that “The 21st century can and must be an American century”. Reminding to the inexplicably challenging time that began with 20th Century, Romney stated that the present century began with “terror and war and economic calamity”. To steer it into the path of freedom, peace and prosperity it becomes an American responsibility that America has to carry with hope and decency.

Challenges for another American Century

Some people made a film in America last month and uploaded in YouTube. The film was considered by some more offensive of Islam and the price United States had to pay was terrible: U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and other three American service men were murdered in Benghazi, Libya when its Consulate was attacked, looted, torched, trampled and was turned into rubble. Ironically the day chosen for the attack was again September 11, eleven years after 9/11 terrorist attacks.

It was followed by numerous anti-American riots in nearly two dozen other countries, mostly in the Middle East, and even in Africa and Asia.

On October 7, South Korea reached on a new missile deal with U.S. that would allow it ( South Korea) develop long range ballistic missiles with better striking capability. Two days later of this breakthrough deal, North Korea- a nuclear dark horse, warned and claimed that it has missiles that can even hit U.S. mainland.

Amid some violent protests in China on the sovereignty over three barren islet chain with total area of 7 square kilometers in size – that are called Sehkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, reputed U.K based Weekly – The Economist reported that a Chinese news paper even suggested Chinese government abandon the pointless diplomacy and move straight to the “main course by serving up Japan with an atom bomb”. The situation has become quite explosive after six Chinese maritime patrol ships entered Japanese waters to lodge its claim over the islets last month. Tension between the two countries has been simmering since then and is raising fears about potential armed conflict between two largest Asian economies.

Similarly, two vibrant East Asian democracies and developed economies – Japan and South Korea are conflicting over two tiny volcanic rocks that is less than one square kilometer in size and known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea. The islets controlled by South Korea since the end of Second World War, have become the tower of national pride for both countries and so have turned East Asian region as a dangerous conflict zone. The same is the case with South China Sea where China, Vietnam and the Philippines with their conflicting claims over some islands, have turned the region into a dangerous flash points that any time may turn into a war zone.

And what has only failed in East Asian and South East Asian waters is an idea of reason, patience and reconciliation. The conflicts over these islands have become a test case for the diplomatic skill and strategic alliance of the United States with countries in confrontation – Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. At one side there are America’s closest strategic allies as Japan and South Korea – apparently without any sign of compromises against each other over the rights over these islets, on the other hand are Japan and the Philippines engaged in conflicts with China – characterized as the next superpower – closely interconnected with American, European, East and South Asian economy. Obviously, if the relations between them continue to sour for some other few months it will have far reaching implications for already a sickened global economy. And paradoxically the United States has a complex legal obligation to support both Japan and South Korea in East Asia the Philippines in South East Asia if a war like situation erupts in their regions.

Western Europe Russia and India

The financial crisis that has engulfed mainly the United States and Western European democracies is considered as the worst one since the Great Depression of 1930s. Ironically the crisis has affected mostly free market democracies and as a result of such financial difficulties social unrest and public resentment against government in power has erupted and Nicholas Sarkogy, the staunchest admirers of America has become a prominent victim.

Including France – the second largest economy of Europe, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy are plagued by the deep financial crisis. They have fallen under severe grip of a huge and dangerous public debt and government spending. The crisis demands some tough austerity measures, but people in these countries are in no mood to reconcile with supposed encouraging growth policy. Under such pressures the governments in these countries are forced to follow ‘growth on credit policy’

This way the countries in Western Europe, that in block shares common values with USA is in deep economic trouble and United States itself under similar crisis, is in no position to help them come out of it as it successfully did after World War II . This ultimately is bringing profound impacts upon European security and American strategic interest. United Kingdom, the most important American ally in Europe has been some more isolated. National politics of the euro zone countries are not prepared for compensating the price of their economic integration, and at the same time are not willing to pay the economic and political cost that falls to them as a natural course of their hesitation.

On the other hand Vladimir Putin, a man disliked by many people in Obama administration, has returned to the Presidency as the strongest man of Russia for another six years. Dismaying Barrack Obama when Putin refused to attend the G8 countries summit in Camp David hosted by Obama in May, it has unfolded the future course of U.S.- Russia relations and nuclear disarmament treaties between them.

Since the presidency of George W Bush’s and especially after the landmark civil nuclear accord signed between U.S. and India at the end of Bush’s term, India was marked as a major strategic partner of United States. It also represented a long term strategic shift in U.S. policy based on the shared values of democratic ideals. But despite President Barrack Obama’s and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s repeated promises on U.S.- India relations and its significance for global peace and stability, the enthusiasm exhibited during the initial years has waned in India. India’s decision not to buy U.S. fifth generation fighter jet – a $ 12 billion amount bill for its armed forces as a part of its military modernization package, has clearly disappointed America.

In last May, coincidently or deliberately, India was hosting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Iranian trade delegation at the same time. As interpreted by the New York Times it could be “a deliberate provocation at a moment when the once-shiny partnership between India and the United States seems to have dulled”. What on the earth may be the official explanation, it looked quite an odd situation when Clinton was in India to discuss economic sanctions against Iran and request India to reduce its oil import from Iran, India on the other hand, was opening new vistas of trade with Iran- managing its huge trade deficits with Iran. According to the new agreement Iran would buy more from India especially grains and machinery and secure lucrative concessions from Iran to pay about half of its oil bill in Indian currency.

In the following month (June 2012) when U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was in New Delhi to define and reaffirm the long term defense partnership as visualized by a new strategic guidance announced by President Obama in early January, Indian Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna chose to visit Beijing with an aim to extend strategic cooperation with China.

How Can Global American Leadership be ascertained amid unparallel global Challenges

America has been considered as a tower of freedom, justice and its contributions to promote and protect human dignity for all and has outperformed all the other countries of the world. Mystifying the declinist theories, a main article that was published in the Daily Beast on April, claims with evidences that “U.S. is better, stronger and faster than anywhere else in the world.” Besides “losing some primacy in geopolitics” it has remained the “largest, richest, most secure market in the world” making it the “indispensable economic nation”.

It also has been a single global leader since the World War II that has helped people live up to new hopes for better living conditions. America has lifted more than 4 billion people out of poverty, and for the first time in human history the global GDP growth reaches annual 4 percent- that in whole human history had not grown more than one percent. With direct American support and its research and development programs from agriculture to malaria and AIDS, millions in world have escaped from poverty, hunger and diseases.

Most importantly, America in its whole history has stood as a dream destination for all people around the world – specially among the youths, because only this country is more equal than others, people with merit could achieve any success in life in USA.

Likewise, America has contributed more than any other country in recorded history of the world, but undoubtedly it is not a perfect society and no nation can claim to achieve perfection. Not to other people but even to its national heroes America at times seems behaving in a cruelest way.

Take one example, the 40th president of U.S. Ronald Reagan, while conferring the “Medal of Honor” to Master Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez in Pentagon on February 24, 1981 told a bitter truth of American history among the Pentagon crowd that “Several years ago, we brought home a group of American fighting men who had obeyed their country’s call and who had fought as bravely and as well as any Americans in our history. They came home without a victory not because they’d been defeated, but because they’d been denied permission to win”.

Master Sergent Roy P. Benavidez, a junior officer of a special U.S. force named ‘Green Beret’ while suffering from multiple injuries on head, shoulder and legs by more than three dozen enemy bullets, was able to save the life of eight men. But when he returned home, was greeted by garbage by the antiwar campaigners, humiliated everywhere, could get no job and was ultimately imprisoned and was left in wilderness. There were other hundreds and thousands, who had been sent to the treacherous jungle of Indo China to fight for the cause of their country, exhibited unparallel gallantry, risked their life for the country but as Henry Kissinger says they were ” Vilified by media, assailed in Congress and ridiculed by protest movement”. The valiant people who had expended their youth “on a struggle that American leadership groups had initiated” but when the time had come to honor them- their plights, their cause and concerns were cruelly crushed, “abandoned and finally disdained”.

It is not a singular incident in American history but a trend and even character that America exhibits at times. Actors in Washington may carry different name, victims can be different – sometimes they may be people like Roy P. Benavidez and sometimes countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, India, Brazil or Columbia.

And how American democracy and its democratic institutions – a source of inspiration and courage for billions of people around the world, at times have become a mere showpiece is best illustrated with an example by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore. Gore in his book The Assault on Reason gives reference to Robert Byrd – the longest serving law maker of the country who in his term as a Congress member for 57 years was shocked to see and said that when the United States Senate was discussing over launching the most expensive war in U.S. history the chamber was “. . . ominously, dreadfully silent. There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war. There is nothing. We stand passively mute in the United States Senate”. Shockingly surprising reason for the empty chairs according to Gore was that during that time “many of them were at fund raising events . . . to buy thirty second TV commercials for their next reelection campaign”.

As Kishore Mahabubani says “Virtually all American decisions both domestic and international have an impact on the rest of the world”, and therefore it becomes the primary responsibility of American society to make a pre-impact study of all its decision for America and the World.

Naturally, America at times may feel burdened with the responsibility of the world. But the unprecedented sense of pride they belong among the community of nations that emanates from carrying that responsibility must have a price and American people and its leadership must be well prepared to pay that price. Similarly, no other country in world has developed capacity and even intention to share that responsibility. And it is what that makes America special.

When asked by American peoples “why doesn’t someone else lead for a change? Why do we always have to be taking care of the problems of the world? Is not a time for someone else to step up? U.S. Senator Marco Rubio has an instant answer in question form “If we start doing less, who is going to do more”?

Again according to Mahabubani the world expects America exceed its narrow national interest and rise to a level from where it can provide the moral leadership to tackle the great crisis that are bringing grief to millions. The world wants American policy makers liberate themselves from their belief that they should only be judged by their intentions but not the consequences of their actions.

America also needs to build strategic alliance with its trusted allays and bring them into confidence on what are its global policies and programs. Moreover, its partnership with all major countries like China, Russia, Canada, India, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and Australia on areas from energy to rear earth minerals and manufacturing could create millions of jobs for Americans and people around the world- giving it more primacy over global affairs.

Regarding Iraq War George F. Kennan – one of the most reputed diplomat and historian of the United states said in 2002 that “Anyone who has ever studied the history of American diplomacy, especially military diplomacy, knows that you might start in a war with certain things on your mind as a purpose of what you are doing, but in the end, you found yourself fighting for entirely different things that you had never thought of before.” “In other words”, Kennan said “war has a momentum of its own and it carries you away from all thoughtful intentions when you get into it. Today, if we went into Iraq, like the president would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end.” What Kennan said was true in Iraq, also was true in Vietnam and is likely to be true in other parts of the world. And it is both a great and costly lesson and a challenge to America.

2012 Election and Improving American Image in the World

Next month when Americans will be electing their president for the next four years, I cannot imagine the idea that governs their mind and what resonates with their decisions. But whatever decision they will make, will decisively shape the future of the world.
Al Gore has put a right question and every American must find an answer for this: “Why do reason, logic truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way America makes important decisions?” As the citizen of one of the oldest and most powerful democracy of the world, it becomes the primary responsibility of American people participate in lively public discourses affecting their country and my country too. Make it more focused, clear and more reasoned and according Al Gore again it is the primary responsibility of American people to prove their faith in the power of reason and assure the world that free citizens can govern themselves wisely and fairly.”

Above are presented some of the tricky and most complicated global problems. To solve them and rest of the problems America needs a strong, confident and bold leadership – a leadership that can assure its allies that America has ability to stand by them, build and demonstrate confidence to work with other powers that may not share American values and belief system but without them America cannot manage the emerging new world order.

Perhaps America’s friends around the world want from its new leadership redeposit the trust of its allies and allies around the world and defend those values that they have learned from America. And indubitably a weak American economy cannot withstand a strong strategic capability that America needs to defend the values it stands for.

Above all, America becomes stronger when its quest for greater human dignity is affirmed in every part of the world. It becomes stronger with greater freedom for the people and greater American partnership with them in their struggle against global poverty; against unfair discriminations and against unfair state and social structures. Perhaps both candidates have yet to develop their focus on it – that will indubitably ascertain the 21st Century again as an American Century.

And a greater challenge that America has to meet is to improve its image. Agreeing with the expectations of Nicholas Sarkozy, I would like quote from an article by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker ( August 27,2007)

“When Sarkozy met Condoleezza Rice, she said, ‘What can I do for you?’ And he said, bluntly, ‘Improve your image in the world. It’s difficult when the country that is the most powerful, the most successful—that is, of necessity, the leader of our side—is one of the most unpopular countries in the world. It presents overwhelming problems for you and overwhelming problems for your allies. So do everything you can to improve the way you’re perceived—that’s what you can do for me.’ I think it’s entirely possible; the reservoir of good will has been drained somewhat, but it is far from dry. Look how much the image of France has changed in the United States in eight weeks.”

What Sarkozy told to Rice applies to both presidential candidates. And the last important thing for any American president can be that the world realizes American power in its rich reserve of diplomacy, its great educational institutions, the greatest stock of its scientific and technical expertise in each and every aspect of human lives and above all the values of freedom and human dignity it stands for.

Keshav Prasad Bhattarai

Keshav Prasad Bhattarai is the former President of Nepal Teachers' Association, Teachers' Union of Nepal and General Secretary of SAARC Teachers' Federation. Currently, he is the Advisor of Nepal Institute for Strategic Affairs (NISS). Mr. Bhattarai has also authored four books -- two of them are about Nepal's Relations with India and one each on educational Issues and Nepal in global Geopolitics.

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