Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Is America Over?

Bruce Jones, Still Ours to Lead: America, Rising Powers, and the Tension between Rivalry and Restraint

Unfortunately, this book provides an excellent example of how to be completely right, and absolutely wrong, at the same time. It also demonstrates how an excellently researched, thoroughly documented, and useful thesis can vanish beneath the weight of leaden prose. It feels like the rudiments of a good book, waiting for somebody to complete the process, perhaps a translator skilled in rendering dense academese into vernacular English.

Professor Jones of Stanford University and the Brookings Institution has no patience for people lamenting America’s supposed decline from global leadership. He concedes that America’s “only superpower” standing, which existed unchallenged from the Soviet collapse in 1991 to the financial crisis of 2008, will probably never return. But America stands uniquely poised, by its economic might, diplomatic seniority, and military security, to lead humanity through coalition-based influence and guidance.

Jones makes this point concisely in his introduction, then spends the remainder of his book mustering evidence for why we should believe him. There’s where he makes his first mistake. As much as I enjoyed his breviloquent thesis, Jones’ best writing comes in the first eight pages. After that, he opens a firehose of information. Unsurprisingly, from that point, I began flailing around Jones’ undifferentiated prose like a drowning man.

Please don’t mistake me. I’ve grown disgusted with Americans’ propensity to make momentous decisions based on TV-friendly sound bites and context-free factoids. Fox News and MSNBC have reduced our generation’s most important national and international controversies to simplistic bromides. Political candidates build platforms around clich├ęs so anodyne and sparse, they could literally mean anything. I cannot be alone in wanting to base my decisions, as a citizen, on actual information.

But humans think in narrative. The most effective political writers, those who attract large audiences and sell books in today’s book-averse society, have discernable through-lines. From humorists like PJ O’Rourke and Jim Hightower to scholars like Niall Ferguson and Noam Chomsky, successful commentators find the story unifying their message. Jones’ explication reads like a data dump. Without a narrative anchor, I found my mind constantly drifting.

Worse, whenever I successfully processed some informational nugget, I felt something important had been excluded. Jones repeatedly discusses people in the aggregate, particularly when lumping entire nations together for rhetorical impact. In discussing international relations, he overlooks internal circumstances, in America no less than the developing world. His tendency to average nations toward the mean overlooks important impending controversies that could have game-changing consequences in the near future.

To give just one example: mainland China has overtaken Germany and Japan to become Earth’s second largest economy. It could overtake America as early as 2030, an overtaking that travels hand-in-glove with China already supplanting America as Earth’s largest carbon emitter. But don’t worry, Jones assures us; while China and its BRICS allies may overtake us numerically, their per capita economies will never challenge us during our lifetimes.

I say: maybe so. But United Nations statistics indicate that China and the United States compete furiously for which country has Earth’s widest gap between rich and poor. America’s average wealth continues escalating; but wage-earning workers’ real pay has stagnated, in constant dollar terms, since Richard Nixon. Further, the Genuine Progress Indicator, an alternate economic model tallying significant liabilities, shows America’s economy essentially frozen since roughly 1978.

Admittedly, Jones acknowledges significant doubts reasonable readers could apply to his thesis. While America enjoyed unipolar global dominance after the Cold War, our position today is more nuanced, and possibly vulnerable. Jones writes early: “The narrative of decline is in part an inevitable corrective to the overwrought and often hyperbolic punditry about American imperial might that followed the 9/11 attacks and the start of the U.S.-Afghanistan war.”

Jones writes, however, apparently for highly informed audiences already familiar with his domain; amateur but thinking voters evidently don’t interest him. He feels no need to differentiate sweeping quantities of information or contextualize them for non-specialist readers. He simply divulges masses upon masses of data, a technique that probably works for scholars and policy professionals who already understand his context, but leaves curious generalists, like me, confused and overwhelmed.

In his introduction, Jones pitches an energetic, persuasive thesis that America is uniquely positioned, by its wealth, diplomacy, and firepower, to lead international affairs. Not dominate or monopolize, but lead. Reading this, I wanted to believe Jones’ message. But his approach to evidence leaves me overwhelmed. Hey, I’m a knowledgeable guy with an advanced degree. If I can’t find Professor Jones’ through-line, who exactly is he writing for?

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