The Paradox of a Global USA

Bruce Mazlish, Nayan Chanda and Kenneth Weisbrode
Stanford University Press
A Review by Susan Froetschel

Imagine walking into a room, encountering a group of people vigorously debating the pros and cons of “conversation.” One group insists that conversation delivers wealth, prosperity and good times for all. The others shake their heads and bemoan the unpleasant content that conversations can hold or undue influence they might wield.

The debate would be silly and pointless, and so too is any discourse over globalization that aims to determine whether the phenomenon is good or bad. Equally odd are debates about whether globalization is Americanization. Globalization, as old as the history of the world, was not invented or controlled by the US.

In recent history, when it comes to conversation or globalization, the voice of the US may be loud, but it’s also divided and insecure. Depending on the issues at hand, some countries passively follow the US, while others interrupt, argue or walk away from the discussion.

“The Paradox of a Global US,” takes an alternate approach, squarely engaging the issue with detailed arguments. Edited by Bruce Mazlish, Nayan Chanda and Kenneth Weisbrode, this book is a collection of readings that explore key features of US interactions with the world - in terms of political structures, religion, media, foreign affairs, global security and combating terrorism. The book emerged from a conference held in partnership between the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and the New Global History Initiative and examines the globe’s power imbalances. In short, the collection hints at the possibility of a new world order, depending on how the US and others respond to and shape the process of globalization.

Use of power, specifically by the US, has its paradoxes. Applied in measured, thoughtful ways, it attracts allies and strength. Brutal or impulsive, power can provoke resistance and resentment. Without question, at the start of the 21st century, the US stands alone as a global superpower. But leaders make excuses for the fact that the concentration of power has failed to produce outstanding results - say, democracy or stability in the Middle East, respect for science in a way that adds value to trade or security, or a better world for children by way of both environment and values.

As with a conversation, domestic and global reactions to any application of power should prompt the lead actors on globalization, in business or government, to reflect on their methods and tone. The US has ample power and capability to lead the globe. But there’s a mismatch in its ability to overthrow governments and its ability to produce desired political ends, suggests Ian Roxborough, professor of history and sociology.

In another essay, political science professor James Kurth suggests that ideas can conquer the world. People and countries alike are on a constant hunt for the best ideas about how to rule, work, play or live. Even as all people and countries long to set the rules in their favor, as noted by editor Mazlish, most search for new examples to follow and adapt. Unfortunately, the rise of anti-Americanism around the globe has left a vacuum in terms of a model for global citizens. People distrust the empire model of the US, the competitive onslaught of China that lacks purpose or the primitive chaos of Islamic extremism.

All is not lost for the US, if its leaders can offer a model that promotes economic stability, technological innovation, global cooperation, a democratic system that promotes fair opportunity for all. The US can no longer simply cling to the national system of governance with all its limitations, as suggested by history professor Akira Iriye, or motivate people by pointing to enemies, real or imagined, as suggested by Roxborough.

Instead, the US must strive to work with other nations, both those that agree with policies and those that do not, as “partners” to add civility and power to any endeavor.

The book, particularly the chapter by history professor Ian Tyrell, examines the history and consequences of US attitudes and policies of exceptionalism. Some examples include US trouncing international efforts to fund family planning in developing nations, resisting the International Criminal Court, shrugging off environmental concerns and the Kyoto Protocol to slow climate change, hoping that religious beliefs alone can protect from evil, and always seeking to maximize US exports while protecting against imports in trade relations.

Policies of exceptionalism are no longer in the best interest of the US or any other nation. Not only do competing nations likewise quickly adopt the mantra of exceptionalism and shrug about rules intended for the global good, the policies also weaken the US domestically. Attitudes of exclusivity trickle down in dangerous ways, as industries demand subsidies and protection, political leaders seek exceptions or set-asides for their districts and individuals test the margins of any law. Exceptionalism eventually leads to diminished respect for the rule of law as well as inequality, inefficient competition and greed.

The book, both in form and content, offers analysis that contributes to understanding current US attitudes and place in the global order along with recommendations for controlling globalization in a way that delivers outcomes that suit the needs of modern society. In keeping with the book’s theme, the analysis is written in a way that invites exploration rather than imposing dominating opinions.

In his concluding essay, Mazlish urges honest reflection, interdisciplinary debate and interdisciplinary education to avoid repeating oversights and mistakes of the past.

Globalization is about revolution, Kurth suggests. Every global connection, like every conversation, has the potential to spur drastic change. “[T]he potential for detailing some sort of global civil society, which attempts to address global problems, lies very much in the hands of the United States,” writes Mazlish, in citing Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Development of a global civil society is already underway, partly through multinational corporations and nongovernmental organizations, both key actors of globalization. Skepticism emerges about any player who promotes selective globalization for the benefit of a few, Mazlish cautions, while ignoring the obvious rules of global citizenship. Such is the paradox for the US, as well as other countries, companies or institutions that achieve global reputations for success.

Based on history and current events, the authors suggest that the US can lead the world down one of two paths: global isolationism and protectionism of the sort that led to the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler during the 20th century, according to Tyrell, or a global cooperation that anticipates and tackles crises.

Citizens of the world are gradually coming to understand that they encounter as many global problems as local ones. One can hope that recognition of the urgent need for conversation within the US about a global system of governance will not be too far behind.

The book analyzes the simultaneous US pursuit and hesitation about global connections in politics, religion, media, foreign affairs and security.
© 2007 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization