Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Imbalances of Power

NY Times
May 21, 2008

Op-Ed Columnist

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

There has been much debate in this campaign about which of our enemies the next U.S. president should deign to talk to. The real story, the next president may discover, though, is how few countries are waiting around for us to call. It is hard to remember a time when more shifts in the global balance of power are happening at once — with so few in America’s favor.

Let’s start with the most profound one: More and more, I am convinced that the big foreign policy failure that will be pinned on this administration is not the failure to make Iraq work, as devastating as that has been. It will be one with much broader balance-of-power implications — the failure after 9/11 to put in place an effective energy policy.

It baffles me that President Bush would rather go to Saudi Arabia twice in four months and beg the Saudi king for an oil price break than ask the American people to drive 55 miles an hour, buy more fuel-efficient cars or accept a carbon tax or gasoline tax that might actually help free us from what he called our “addiction to oil.”

The failure of Mr. Bush to fully mobilize the most powerful innovation engine in the world — the U.S. economy — to produce a scalable alternative to oil has helped to fuel the rise of a collection of petro-authoritarian states — from Russia to Venezuela to Iran — that are reshaping global politics in their own image.

If this huge transfer of wealth to the petro-authoritarians continues, power will follow. According to Congressional testimony Wednesday by the energy expert Gal Luft, with oil at $200 a barrel, OPEC could “potentially buy Bank of America in one month worth of production, Apple computers in a week and General Motors in just three days.”

But that’s not all. Two compelling new books have just been published that describe two other big power shifts: “The Post-American World,” by Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, and “Superclass” by David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment.

Mr. Zakaria’s central thesis is that while the U.S. still has many unique assets, “the rise of the rest” — the Chinas, the Indias, the Brazils and even smaller nonstate actors — is creating a world where many other countries are slowly moving up to America’s level of economic clout and self-assertion, in every realm. “Today, India has 18 all-news channels of its own,” notes Zakaria. “And the perspectives they provide are very different from those you will get in the Western media. The rest now has the confidence to present its own narrative, where it is at the center.”

For too long, argues Zakaria, America has taken its many natural assets — its research universities, free markets and diversity of human talent — and assumed that they will always compensate for our low savings rate or absence of a health care system or any strategic plan to improve our competitiveness.

“That was fine in a world when a lot of other countries were not performing,” argues Zakaria, but now the best of the rest are running fast, working hard, saving well and thinking long term. “They have adopted our lessons and are playing our game,” he said. If we don’t fix our political system and start thinking strategically about how to improve our competitiveness, he added, “the U.S. risks having its unique and advantageous position in the world erode as other countries rise.”

Mr. Rothkopf’s book argues that on many of the most critical issues of our time, the influence of all nation-states is waning, the system for addressing global issues among nation-states is more ineffective than ever, and therefore a power void is being created. This void is often being filled by a small group of players — “the superclass” — a new global elite, who are much better suited to operating on the global stage and influencing global outcomes than the vast majority of national political leaders.

Some of this new elite “are from business and finance,” says Rothkopf. “Some are members of a kind of shadow elite — criminals and terrorists. Some are masters of new or traditional media; some are religious leaders, and a few are top officials of those governments that do have the ability to project their influence globally.”

The next president will have to manage these new rising states and these new rising individuals and networks, while wearing the straightjacket left in the Oval Office by Mr. Bush.

“Call it the triple deficit,” said Mr. Rothkopf. “A fiscal deficit that will soon have us choosing between rationed health care, sufficient education, adequate infrastructure and traditional levels of defense spending, a trade deficit that has us borrowing from our rivals to the point of real vulnerability, and a geopolitical deficit that is a legacy of Iraq, which may result in hesitancy to take strong stands where we must.”

The first rule of holes is when you’re in one, stop digging. When you’re in three, bring a lot of shovels.

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