National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 4, 2003
America’s emerging competitor
As U.S. power fades, Europeans will take center stage, author predicts.


The End of the American Era:
U.S. Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-First Century

By Charles A. Kupchan
Alfred A. Knopf, 391 pages, $27.95

Reviewed by DAN LINDLEY

Great powers come and go. The United States, the current sole superpower, has nowhere to go but down as others inevitably balance against or grow faster than the United States. In essence, this is the argument of Charles Kupchan in The End of the American Era. And at first glance, this sounds like the arguments of almost any realist, and especially the 1980s “declinists” such as Paul Kennedy and Sam Huntington.

However, Kupchan’s punch line is distinguishing: The power that will rise to confront U.S. predominance is not China, nor Japan, nor India, nor Russia, but the assembled democratic states known as the European Union. In identifying the European Union instead of these others as a potential peer competitor, Kupchan bucks the conventional wisdom. This is novel and thought-provoking in itself. Perhaps even more startling and worrisome is that Kupchan argues that the democratic peace -- the widely held theory that democracies do not fight each other and generally enjoy peaceful relations -- will be torn asunder by nationalism. Why? Democratic states respect each other. Nationalist states compete. For Kupchan, nationalism will trump common values and old-fashioned power-balancing will again be the norm, even between democracies.

The final reason that other states will turn against the United States is Kupchan’s diagnosis that the emergent foreign policy of the United States combines isolationism with arrogant and angering unilateralism. The United States will withdraw and provide less stability than in the past. Yet when the United States does engage in world affairs, it will eschew multilateralism and trample others in pursuit of narrow self-interest: “A stingy internationalism combined with a prickly unilateralism is a lethal mix, the worst of both worlds.”

Kupchan argues that there is no way to completely escape this gloomy prognosis. However, a United States that recognizes its problems can mitigate them. One key step is for the United States to allow the Europeans more influence, if they obtain more capabilities. We have to be explicit about accommodating their rise. The second step is that the United States should adopt a policy of strategic restraint, with the central instrument being international institutions. With its present primacy, the United States has an opportunity to build institutions that in the long run will help preserve and protect its interests. Standing aloof and missing this opportunity would be, and is currently, a huge mistake.

Kupchan also offers a long list of fairly standard recommendations including engaging China, reducing oil dependence, increasing foreign aid and promoting Israeli/Palestinian peace. Somewhat nebulously, he writes that the United States should help build a common social character among states.

A book on grand strategy that speculates about the future should not be judged on its predictions, but on whether it spurs reflection and debate. Here, Kupchan’s book is a clear success. Kupchan puts Europe on the map in the debate about who the next peer competitors will be for the United States. He does a good job summarizing and refuting several competitors in grand strategy debates, including that globalization leads to peace, and the offensive realist arguments. He adds depth and context to his arguments with solid historical analysis. One of his strongest points is that the United States took more than 100 years from the Articles of the Confederation through the Civil War and to the Spanish-American War to first become an economic power and then a world political/military power. This puts any setbacks in European integration into perspective. If the United States can be strengthened by a civil war, surely Europe will survive despite Jacques Chirac telling Eastern Europe to shut up.

A book this ambitious surely invites critiques. For example, Kupchan overreaches in his arguments against those who hold that democracies are more likely to maintain peaceful relations. How can someone who believes that institutions and common social characters can ameliorate international politics downplay the possibility that shared democratic values may also be part of this benevolent mix? Is there a paradox in his argument that nationalism will trump shared democratic values when the founding principle of the European Union is to submerge nationalism?

Kupchan does not fully confront the combination of his demographic and military capabilities arguments: An aging populace depending on costly social contracts will keep pressure on European defense spending for the foreseeable future. It will also be increasingly difficult to tell if the United States is isolationist or not as it shifts from overseas bases to mobile projection forces. These forces may make our behavior and our commitments less predictable, for better and worse.

Finally, Kupchan ends the book with an expansive thought-provoking chapter that diverges a bit from most of book. Taking an economic-determinist standpoint, he argues that changing modes of production lead to upheaval and then new political and social institutions. As the world moves into the digital age, Kupchan speculates that this may “compromise the core political and social institutions that have served America so well during its rise to global dominance.” This creates a triple whammy: America is in relative decline anyway due to the rise of Europe and others; America (unless it follows Kupchan’s advice) will not build new institutions; and the digital era will then further destabilize a world bereft of American primacy or compensating institutions.

Kupchan sprinkles this chapter with a host of other woes from global environmental problems to declining civic engagement and poor governance. Where is he going with this chapter? Other than painting a fascinating and pessimistic picture, he does not say. The combination of declining governance at the state and international level, growing global common goods problems, and the rise of a new mode of production that will require new modes of governance suggests that Kupchan pulled his punches in making final recommendations. The logic of his argument suggests but one thing: We need much stronger global institutions. Stronger than mainstream analysts may care to admit.

Dan Lindley is assistant professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame.

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 2003

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