Is America's preeminent world role over?
That's what a recent New Yorker essay, based on interviews with presidential advisers, claimed. It characterized the new Obama foreign-relations style as "leading from behind" -- given the supposed inevitable American decline and growing unpopularity. The president is said to agree with pundits such as Fareed Zakaria and Tom Friedman, who have often outlined the parameters of what the post-American world would look like.
But if American abrogates its preeminent leadership position of the last 65 years, wouldn't the world look a lot like it did in the pre-American days of the 1930s? Then, a Depression-era United States was just one of many powers and reluctant to assert leadership abroad.
Eighty years ago, a newly Westernized and anti-democratic Japanese powerhouse, in the fashion of today's rising China, was carving out uncontested Asian spheres of influence. An oil-, rubber- and iron-hungry imperial Japan claimed it needed more natural resources to fuel its industrial revolution, and so spread an authoritarian Asian co-prosperity sphere of influence as an alternative to alliance with an economically depressed and psychologically withdrawn America.
Most Americans then were tired anyway of overseas commitments. Our ancestors felt that their considerable sacrifices in World War I either had gone unappreciated or had solved little -- not unlike the way we are becoming exhausted by Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya.
A newly confident, united and ascendant Germany was growing angry at other European countries. It nursed a long list of financial grievances over feeling used and abused. Sound familiar? A weak Britain and France had almost no confidence in their own declining militaries -- sort of like the sad spectacle of their impotence in Libya that we have witnessed over the last two months.
Much-vaunted international institutions, like the bankrupt League of Nations, were about as effective in the role of world watchdogs as the corrupt United Nations is today. Europe and America were emerging from the nightmare of financial insolvency.
The so-called international community cared as much in the 1930s about rising, aggressive totalitarian states in Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia as it does today about ascendant China or Iran. Millions of Jews, then as now, heard crazy threats of their annihilation, and desperately -- and in vain -- looked to the protection of the United States.
In other words, the post-American world could look a lot like the rather terrifying pre-American version of seven decades past. Why in the world would we wish to return to it?