Dear Bob and Gideon,
It's an honor to be moderating this discussion between the two of you. You have both managed to author interesting and cogently argued books that are nevertheless at odds with each other on the future of world order. Gideon, you are of the belief that the Age of Anxiety is upon us, due in no small part to the waning of American power and the Western model of political economy more generally. Bob, you rebut arguments about American decline by pointing out the ways in which current commentators have wildly exaggerated American power in the past and the ways in which current U.S. power resources are still quite robust.
Where you both seem to agree is on the necessity of American power to ensure global order and prosperity. Gideon, you asserted in Zero-Sum Future that "a strong, successful, and confident America remains the best hope for a stable and prosperous world." Bob, in the excerpt of The World America Made that appeared in the New Republic, you conclude, "If American power declines, this world order will decline with it. It will be replaced by some other kind of order, reflecting the desires and the qualities of other world powers." On this dimension, you two are kindred spirits and at odds with people like John Ikenberry, who argues in Liberal Leviathan that rising powers will embrace the liberal order created by the United States and its allies more than 60 years ago.
To get the ball rolling, let me start with a few queries for Gideon. Your book came out before the Arab Spring, the U.S. "pivot" to the Pacific Rim, the new and exciting phase of the euro crisis, and hints that China's growth is slowing down. Do any of these events prompt a rethink on your part? If not, do Bob's assertions of continued American primacy ease your anxiety at all? Finally, according to FP, The World America Made has found a very influential audience: Barack Obama is apparently a fan. To go Barbara Walters on you, if there were one world leader you'd want to have read Zero-Sum World, who would it be and why?
You are right that Bob and I agree on the importance of American power for the stability and prosperity of the world. Where we differ is that I believe that we are witnessing a serious erosion of U.S. power. This is part of a broader phenomenon: A world dominated by the West is giving way to a new order in which economic and political power is much more contested.
You pose some excellent questions about how events since I completed the book, at the beginning of 2010, have affected my argument. Before I address them directly, I should briefly explain what I mean by an "Age of Anxiety."
My book argues that globalization was not just an economic phenomenon. It was also the central geopolitical development of the 30 years before the financial crisis. It created a web of common interests between the world's major powers, replacing the divided world of the Cold War with a single world order in which all the big powers were bound into a common capitalist system. If you had gone to Davos during this period, you would have found the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, the European Union, and the United States saying very similar things about the need to encourage world trade, foreign investment, and so on. They shared important assumptions about how the world should be run.
I describe the period from 1991 to 2008 as an "Age of Optimism" because all the world's major powers had reason to be satisfied with the way the globalized world system was working for them. India's reforms began in 1991 and led to an economic boom and a palpable surge in national confidence. The European Union more than doubled in size by incorporating the old Soviet bloc. Latin America had its debt crises, but by the end of the period, Brazil was being taken seriously as a global power for the first time in its history. For all their post-Soviet nostalgia, even the leaders of the new Russia were enthusiastic participants in a globalized world.
Most importantly, 1991-2008 was an Age of Optimism for both China and the United States. During this period, China's economy grew so rapidly that it was doubling in size every eight years or so. Chinese people could see their country and their families becoming visibly more prosperous. Still, the United States was the sole superpower. The growth of Silicon Valley and the rise of Google, Apple, et al. reaffirmed American confidence in the unique creative powers of U.S. capitalism. American political and economic ideas set the terms of the global debate. Indeed, the terms "globalization" and "Americanization" almost seemed synonymous.
This American confidence was very important to the world system. It allowed the United States to embrace a development that, in other circumstances, might have seemed threatening: the rise of China. In the Age of Optimism, successive U.S. presidents welcomed China's economic development. The argument they made was that capitalism would act as a Trojan horse, transforming the Chinese system from within. If China embraced economic freedom, political freedom would surely follow. But if China failed to embrace capitalism, it would fail economically.
In 2008, there was indeed a massive economic and financial crisis, but it came in the West, not in China. This unexpected development has accelerated a trend that was already in place: a shift in economic power from West to East and, within that, from the United States to China. Since then, it has become much harder to argue that globalization has created a win-win world. Instead, Americans are beginning to wonder, with good reason, whether a richer and more powerful China might mean a relatively poorer, relatively weaker United States. That is why I called my book Zero-Sum Future.