Chinese President Hu Jintao's state visit this week has rekindled the familiar debate over American "decline." Our sole-superpower moment is over, we're told, and the 21st century will prove so much tougher than the 20th.
I'm just not sure what all the fuss is about.
Perhaps one source of confusion is this whole sole-superpower business. It's true that from the early 1990s until around now, America has been essentially alone at the top of the world heap. But that hasn't meant as much as a lot of folks claim. During this Pax Americana, a nasty war broke out in Europe, genocide materialized in Africa, and the United States was harassed and wounded by stateless Islamic terrorism.
We also fought a war in Iraq that ended in a bloody armistice, requiring constant policing for more than a decade. Now we're in another expensive war. Meanwhile, our trade deficit only gets worse, and our industrial base has been outsourced to Mexico, Vietnam and, of course, China.
Next, we're told, one of the consequences of the new multipolar world will be that we won't be able to do things unilaterally anymore. Anymore? What movie were they watching?
When we were supposedly cock of the walk, under Democratic and Republican presidents alike, anti-Americanism flourished. The United Nations refused to authorize the use of force to stop ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. Sure, we didn't take no for an answer, but we didn't go it alone. We joined with our NATO allies to put an end to the bloodshed.
During the Persian Gulf War, America had that "grand coalition" that Sen. John Kerry talked about. During the second Iraq war, the "coalition of the willing" was smaller, but we were hardly flying solo. U.S. leaders decried unilateralism, an odd sentiment for the undisputed global hegemon.
Another reigning cliche is that the sun is setting on us as it did on the British Empire. But what does that mean? China isn't remotely powerful, influential or rich enough to play the leading role of America, and we aren't nearly so weak, ignorable or poor to deserve the supporting gig as 1950s Britain.
Besides, although China clearly wants its moment in the sun, it doesn't seem particularly eager or able to lead. "When was the last time Beijing offered its own peace plan for the Arab-Israeli conflict, for instance?" asks Jonathan Eyal, Europe correspondent for the Straits Times in Singapore.
"Other emerging powers are no better," he adds. "What is India's contribution to, say, solving the crisis in Sudan? Or Russia's plan for dealing with the North Korean nuclear problem?"
In other words, American leadership is still the global norm.
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