America in Decline?

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    Q&A: Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security advisor to U.S. President Jimmy Carter, talks about the implications of the rise of China and what it means for the United States.

    There have been other periods in recent American history where the United States was seen to be in decline – for example, after the launch of Sputnik in 1957, and after the Vietnam War and Watergate.  Is the decline of the United States in 2012 more real than it has been in the past?

    I think it’s more real, because in the past there were periods of uncertainty, and perhaps some degree of pessimism, but there wasn’t really a convincing rival whose dynamism and appeal threatened to shadow America’s. Today, in a way, there is, although I do not necessarily view China as such a rival yet. Nonetheless, the fact is that it is developing rapidly, its infrastructure is changing dramatically, its appeal to many places in the world is very much on the rise at a time [when] America, on a number of fronts (as I discuss in more detail in my book), is either stalled, or stagnating – or on the political level, very divisive.

    The rise of China doesn’t necessarily mean the decline of America. So how would you characterize the decline of the United States?

    The decline is not in the sense that one is going downhill and the other is going uphill. It’s a little more like two different people of different ages are walking forward. Let’s say someone who is 22 years old and someone who is two years old. Obviously, the 22-year-old will be walking much faster than the two-year-old. But 25 years later, when the 22-year-old is close to 50 and the other one is in [his or her] twenties, the latter one is moving forward much more rapidly and can pass by the older one. In that sense, America is declining, [and] the rates of growth and prospective levels of accomplishment –particularly in the realm of economic power – that China seems to be attaining suggests that the position of America is at least challenged.

    You write in Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power that China isn’t necessarily looking to play the same role that American power has traditionally played. Is there any realistic chance that China would ever assume America’s traditional role in the world?

    Well, that depends [laughs] on how you define that traditional role, because I think in some respects it’s changed for the worse in the last decade or so, especially with the misadventure in Iraq and the overambitious internal goals in Afghanistan. The Chinese have strongly embedded traditions of imperial domination, largely by indirection and acquiescence, and not by direct conquest. Moreover, today, even though they call themselves communist, they are not propagating the notion that someday their system will be emulated worldwide the way the Soviets once were. I think the Chinese are more indirect and more pragmatic.

    For a long time, we all thought that the rise of capitalism would coincide with a rise in democracy around the world. China seems to have embraced a type of capitalism that’s not tethered to democratic reform at all. How do you explain that?

    First of all, I think it’s too early to conclude that there is no impact on China. I think there is some evidence [that democratic movements have had an influence on the country]. The 300-million-strong Chinese middle class is beginning, in some parts, to claim its own civic rights and its own notion of what a civic society ought to involve in the political realm – namely, respect for law, social participation in decision making, decentralization of power, and so forth. So in that respect, there could be some drift toward democracy in China, albeit slow. The second point to make in general is, however, that the political awakening worldwide and its populist manifestations are not always necessarily pointed towards democracy. That’s the other side of the coin: namely, that in fact that mass political activism can also at some points become very nationalistic or ideological, or fanatical even.

    So what does America need to do to preserve and protect its role in the world?

    Well, [laughs] that requires an answer nearly half the length of my book. Namely, a great deal of very deliberate domestic reforms addressing the weaknesses that are becoming increasingly self-evident in the political system, in the social system, [and] in the economic system, together with a foreign policy that tries to build wider frameworks of co-operation between those parts of humanity that are likely to be effectively politically organized, and the co-operation of which is necessary for dealing with the increasingly menacing global problems that we all confront. And that means, in brief, as I try to argue in my book, a policy that expands the West by deliberately but patiently embracing both Turkey and Russia in the West. And by an intelligent American policy in the Far East, which does not get involved in mainland problems, treats China – to the extent that’s possible – as a partner, but also seeks to mediate and conciliate between China and Japan, and to mitigate the rising tensions between India and China.

    As you say in the book, these need to be top-down policies. Are you confident that course will be pursued by whoever is going to be in the White House in 2013?

    The answer is no. You allow me a margin of wishful thinking, but I’m not confident, no.


    [Laughs] Are you?

    Everyone knows what the American dream is. Is there a Chinese dream? If so, how would you define it?

    That’s a good question, but I won’t answer it because I really wouldn’t know how to define it yet. But it’s something that combines the future with China’s prolonged and very proud past. We ought to be aware of the fact that their past is as important to their future as the future is purely for us.

    Zbigniew Brzezinski is the former U.S. national security advisor to president Jimmy Carter. He is Robert E. Osgood Professor of American Foreign Policy at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

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