‘That Used To Be Us’

In April 2009, at a Nato summit in Strasbourg, Barack Obama was asked by the Financial Times whether he saw America as an exceptional nation, uniquely qualified to lead the world. The US president replied: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” He went on to mention some of the respects in which America is in fact exceptional, but that did not stop Obama’s Republican critics from attacking him for seeming to express doubt about America’s uniqueness. Actually, Obama did no more than point to an undeniable truth. There is nothing in any way exceptional in American exceptionalism. It is entirely normal for great powers to believe that they will escape the vicissitudes of history. In their imperial heyday Britain, France, Spain and Portugal imagined that they were exempt from the cycle of rise and decline. In each case the illusion faded along with empire, but in the US that process has only just begun.

In many ways Obama is the pivotal figure in Thomas Friedman’s new book, co-authored with the foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum. The authors cite the president’s remarks at the press conference, and the title and epigraph is taken from another statement by Obama in which the president observed: “It makes no sense for China to have better rail systems than us, and Singapore having better airports than us. And we just learned that China now has the fastest supercomputer on Earth – that used to be us.” This doesn’t mean the authors approve of Obama’s performance in office. Expressing the disillusionment that is now so fashionable, they write: “‘Change We Can Believe In’ proved to be an effective campaign slogan but not a useful guideline for governing. Obama did not seek a mandate for the radical centrist agenda that would enable Americans to thrive in the world in which they were living.”

Aiming to fill the gap they think Obama has left, Friedman and Mandelbaum present an ambitious programme for retooling America. They pick out four areas of policy in need of urgent attention: America’s response to globalisation, the ongoing revolution in information technology, the country’s chronic indebtedness and its excessive reliance on environmentally toxic oil, much of it imported. As a list of the challenges facing the US, this is eminently sane and sensible. But for Friedman and Mandelbaum it is far more than that. What they are presenting is a prescription designed to enable America “to remain the global leader that we have been and that the world needs us to be. We, the authors of this book, don’t want simply to restore American solvency. We want to maintain American greatness.”

It is tempting to read such proclamations (which recur throughout the book) as merely rhetorical, but that would be a mistake. The authors mean what they say. The trouble is that the world has already moved on. Discussing the challenge of globalisation, the authors write: “In sum, the world to which the United States must adapt is, to a very great extent, ‘Made in America’.” But the idea that globalisation is simply America writ large is almost the reverse of the truth. The ongoing diffusion of industry and new technologies tends, by its very nature, to disperse wealth and power throughout the world. Far from spawning endless replicas of the US model – as Friedman maintained in The World is Flat (2005) and continues to argue here – globalisation is producing new varieties of capitalism, some more successful than the American version. The world is returning to something like its condition towards the end of the 19th century, when no single country or economy was predominant.

If America’s loss of economic primacy is simply the logic of globalisation in action, the speed of America’s decline is a result of political failure – not least the failure to deal with debt. The last-minute cosmetic agreement on the deficit ceiling may well go down as the moment when the world began to suspect that America’s political class is incapable of addressing the country’s problems. Friedman and Mandelbaum are fully aware of the deficiencies of the American political system. “The two parties are so sharply polarised that they are incapable of arriving at the deep, ideologically painful compromises that major initiatives, of the kind required to meet the major challenges America faces, will require.” Unhappily their solution – the foundation of a new, third-party movement that will galvanise the political class into action – only shows how far they are from grasping the scale of the problems.

Part of the difficulty comes from the constitution. It is far from clear that a system devised in the vastly different circumstances that prevailed over two centuries ago can deal with the world we live in today, and when the political class is as polarised as it is presently the system comes close to being unworkable. The authors accept that American constitutional arrangements need modernising. However, as they tacitly acknowledge when they describe a conservative Republican congressman being hissed when he responded to a protester waving a copy of the constitution by questioning whether returning to its terms as originally framed is a sensible idea, anything that smacks of tinkering with the sacred founding document will evoke powerful resistance. There is a catch-22 here. Constitutional reform is urgently needed to cope with the paralysing divisions of American politics, but those very divisions make serious reform impossible.

That Used To Be Us is intended as a wake-up call to America. What it actually does, most of the time, is reinforce the illusions of exceptionalism. The authors caution that Americans must learn from history – but it is “our history” they mean, not that of the world. For Friedman and Mandelbaum, history in the sense of the rise and fall of nations is something that happens to other people. They scorn Obama for failing to implement a radical agenda. But the notion that Obama could ever have prevailed over America’s archaic and divided political system is as remote from reality as the idea that a third-party movement could somehow enable America to avoid the decline that eventually overtakes every great power.

John Gray is author of ‘The Immortalization Commission: The Strange Quest to Cheat Death’ (Allen Lane)

‘That Used To Be Us’: What Went Wrong with America – and How It Can Come Back, by Thomas L Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, Little, Brown, RRP£25, 400 pages

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