Commentary Magazine

The New Gloomsayers

The bearers of bad news are back. The headlines may tell of American military victories overseas, but everywhere warnings are proliferating of troubles ahead. Most of the forecasts concern the allegedly dire consequences of the victories themselves: chaos or worse in Iraq, permanent disaffection in Europe, mounting enmity elsewhere. But a spate of new books point to deeper structural dangers—dangers that are said to be lurking beneath the surface of our global preeminence and that are mostly of our own making. Taken together, these works constitute the largest chorus of foreboding since the appearance fifteen years ago of the prophets of American decline.

The declinists, to use the label given to them by the political scientist Samuel Huntington, aimed “to shake Reagan’s America from a decade of rose-colored . . . torpor,” in the approving phrase of the New York Times. Their thesis was that “imperial overstretch,” a term coined by the historian Paul Kennedy, was causing the U.S. to spend too much on defense, thus sending the nation into an economic downturn that would eviscerate the very basis of its strength. A similar theme could be heard among the heralds of a new era of Japanese supremacy, brought about by the readiness of Japan’s government to intervene in the marketplace. “Japan has, as I predicted it would, become the undisputed world economic champion,” boasted the economist Clyde Prestowitz in 1989. William Pfaff, a columnist for the International Herald Tribune, chimed in that America’s relationship with Japan had taken on a “colonial quality”—with America in the role of colony.

The forecasts of American decline or Japanese ascendance did not stand the test of even a very brief amount of time. Soon, the Soviet empire collapsed, followed by the Soviet Union itself, all owing, in no small measure, to Ronald Reagan’s military expenditures and his “overstretched” foreign policy—that is, to the very things that the declinists had decried. Japan, meanwhile, fell into an economic tailspin from which it still, after more than a decade, shows few signs of escaping, while the U.S. economy grew enough to boost per-capita income by more than 25 percent, widening the margin by which our prosperity outstrips that of the other industrialized countries. And just as America’s political-military success came from spurning the counsel of the declinists, so its economic success flowed from ignoring those who propounded the Japanese model. The lighter hand of government in America’s version of capitalism allowed our firms to adapt more readily than their Japanese or European counterparts to globalization and the revolution in information technology.

Unprecedented triumphs of U.S. policy and industry have unfolded during the fifteen years since America ignored the summons to emerge from its “rose-colored torpor” and face up to a supposedly grimmer national reality. To boot, these years have also witnessed the triumph of American ideas all around the world. According to the authoritative tally of Freedom House, some 63 percent of the world’s countries are now governed as electoral democracies, and a virtual global consensus has been reached on the validity of market economics as opposed to state planning.

Of course, new challenges have arisen, notably from terrorism and radical Islam, but these in turn have brought into view other facets of America’s strength. Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. has scored two decisive military victories, each exceeding all forecasts of success and making mockery of the plentiful warnings of fiasco. They have served to demonstrate the extraordinary prowess and agility of American arms while also dispelling the notion that the country has grown too soft to tolerate casualties in war.

Abroad, this astounding run of success has generated a discernible uptick in expressions of envy. At home, one reaction has been a revival of premonitory scenarios of gloom. Just as the declinists of the late 1980’s took aim at the spirit of national self-confidence that had been engendered by President Reagan’s upbeat rhetoric and the success of his economic and foreign policies, so today’s Cassandras seek to rouse the public from the complacency of America’s present vaunting status. They take aim at the very things—military mastery, the spread of democracy and markets—that others interpret as signs of American triumph. Will their warnings prove better founded than those of Kennedy, Prestowitz, and Pfaff?



Three of the most noteworthy entries in the new literature of foreboding are Andrew J. Bacevich’s American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy1 Amy Chua’s World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability,2 and Fareed Zakaria’s The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.3 Zakaria is a man of the Center-Right, Chua a woman of the Left, and Bacevich seems to have migrated to that odd corner where Right and Left meet. While their books are quite distinct in their lines of analysis, what they share is the conviction that current U.S. global policies are harmful to the world and dangerous to the United States itself.

Bacevich, a retired U.S. military officer who is now a professor of international relations at Boston University and a prolific writer on military issues, sets out to explain the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as a form of “resistance” to America’s imperial pretensions. At least since World War II, he writes, Washington has pursued “a well-defined grand strategy.” Except for rare lapses into candor, the true face of this strategy has been masked by leaders who “profess to believe” in “peace and development, democracy and human rights” but whose real purpose has been “to preserve and, where both feasible and conducive to U.S. interests, to expand an American imperium.” From one administration to the next, U.S. policies have reflected “a single-minded determination to extend and perpetuate American political, economic, and cultural hegemony . . . on a global scale.”

Of the various forms of American “hegemony,” it is the economic that for Bacevich takes pride of place. Acknowledging an intellectual debt to the leftist historians William Appleman Williams and James Beard, he argues that “economic expansion abroad, best achieved by opening the world to trade and foreign investment, [is] a precondition of America’s own well-being and therefore the centerpiece of U.S. strategy.” And here is the root of present-day conflict: “Although Americans take it as a given that the United States should benefit disproportionately from the spoils, . . . to others the logic of this arrangement is not self-evident.” Some, like Pope John Paul II, express their demurral in moral terms. Others, like Osama bin Laden, resort to less conscionable methods.

But the last laugh, according to Bacevich, is on bin Laden. In the end, he succeeded only in handing American leaders, and in particular George W. Bush, the excuse they had been seeking to justify their continued projection of power:

In calling for war not just against al Qaeda but against terror everywhere, Bush succeeded in articulating something that had eluded policymakers since the collapse of the Soviet Union deprived the United States of a readily identifiable enemy: a compelling rationale for a sustained and proactive use of American power on a global scale as a necessary protective measure.

And so, with bin Laden as unwitting catalyst, “America today is Rome, committed irreversibly to the maintenance and, where feasible, expansion of an empire.”

Chua, a professor of law at Yale, takes a somewhat less jaundiced view of our motives but a more dire one of our impact on the world. Unlike Bacevich, she does not seem to doubt that we are sincere and well-intentioned in wanting to spread democracy and market economics. Nor does she even deny that these are valid objectives for the long term. But she believes Washington is pushing them too hard too soon, with the result that “the global spread of markets and democracy is a principal, aggravating cause of group hatred and ethnic violence throughout the non-Western world.”

For example, according to Chua, “markets and democracy were among the causes of both the Rwandan and Yugoslavian genocides.” She also blames them for the gruesome civil war in Sierra Leone, anti-Chinese violence in Indonesia, potential disaster in Burma, upheaval in Zimbabwe, the revival of anti-Semitism in the former USSR, and, looking back, Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. The same dynamic can be observed on a supranational basis. Underlying the Israel-Arab conflict is the Jewish state’s position as a market-dominant minority in the Middle East region, while, on a global scale, America plays the role of market-dominant minority to a majority that is “hungry, poor, exploited, and powerless.”

Although Chua hastens to concede that the condition of this majority “is not all America’s fault” (emphasis added), it is nevertheless imperative in her view that we “devise measures and create institutions restraining the worst excesses of markets and democracy.” She suggests, for example, both affirmative action and slowing the pace of democratization. And she urges the market-dominant minorities to be conspicuously charitable.

Which brings us to Zakaria, a well-known commentator who was formerly the managing editor of Foreign Affairs and is now the editor of Newsweek International. Although Zakaria shares few of Chua’s reservations about promoting capitalism, his indictment of democracy is more far-reaching. In addition to opposing efforts to spread democracy abroad, he voices deep misgivings about its effects at home. “Democracy has its dark side,” he warns. The liberal democracy of the advanced Western countries combines popular rule with personal freedoms, but liberty is not synonymous with democracy, and in fact there is a tension between the two. Although many countries are turning to elections to choose their governments, “democracy is flourishing; liberty is not.”

Democracy may even lead to or heighten illiberalism. Yugoslavia and Indonesia “were far more tolerant and secular when they were ruled by strongmen” than after they democratized, Zakaria argues. “The Beijing regime is less populist, nationalist, aggressive, and intolerant than its people.” And free votes in Muslim countries might bring radical Islamists to power.

In the West, observes Zakaria, “capitalism and rule of law [came] first, and then democracy.” This is the ideal pattern, and one that was followed successfully in recent times by the likes of Taiwan and South Korea. But elsewhere, the rush to elected government has had a harmful effect. As examples, Zakaria offers both his native India and Africa. “Although democracy has in many ways opened up African politics and brought people liberty, it has also produced a degree of chaos and instability that has actually made corruption and lawlessness worse in many countries.” “What Africa needs more than democracy,” Zakaria asserts, “is good governance.”

But the problem is not just with countries unripe for democracy; it is with democracy itself. Thus, according to Zakaria, the United States, the oldest democracy and most developed of nations, is also at risk. There is, he writes, “a deep imbalance in the American system.” The professional elites that once “guided democracy”—lawyers, doctors, accountants, bankers—are no longer respected. They have been replaced by “the poll,” to which our supposed leaders pay craven obeisance.

Hand in glove with this trend is a general cheapening of cultural standards. Although Zakaria approves of capitalism, he laments the fact that “marketization has become the shadow partner of democratization.” Fundamentalist Christianity produces its own rock music; the Book-of-the-Month club, which once offered quality literature, now serves as an outlet for lowbrow potboilers; and TV fare is a race to the bottom. Zakaria does point to one happy exception in this avalanche of mediocrity: “Newsweek, where I work.” But unless more of our elite can rise to Newsweek‘s standard, rampant democracy will continue to pose a peril to our country and the world. Inverting Woodrow Wilson’s call to make the world safe for democracy, Zakaria concludes that today “our task is to make democracy safe for the world.”



All three of these authors write clear, readable prose, although only Zakaria’s is leavened with a touch of wry humor. Chua’s book is the most seamless, remaining as relentlessly “on message” as a disciplined electoral candidate. She also has the virtue of acknowledging arguments contrary to her own, even if, rather than effectively rebutting them, she tends just to dismiss them by restating her thesis. The two halves of Zakaria’s book, one about international politics, the other about the U.S., fit together less easily, while Bacevich allows himself a number of detours to his main thesis, including a telling critique of General Wesley Clark’s conduct of the Kosovo war.

Despite the diversity of theme and approach, all three echo the warnings of “imperial overstretch” sounded by the declinists of yore; indeed, Chua’s publisher explicitly likens her book to Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. To be sure, the danger they proclaim is not one of actual decline, at least not in the near term—a hard case to make in this moment of American preeminence. Rather, it is that the exertion of American power and influence will backfire, causing harm rather than good in the world, ultimately warping our own moral fiber and corroding our way of life.

Is this argument, in any of its variations, persuasive?

Bacevich’s central conceit, the key that he believes unlocks the mysteries of all U.S. policy, is “openness”—“the removal of barriers to the movement of goods, capital, people, and ideas.” It is maddeningly inexact. Yes, the U.S. favors free trade (except in steel), free travel (except to Cuba), free expression (except for bin Laden on TV). But is this the essence of American objectives? Is it more important than security? And is it, as Bacevich proposes, synonymous with a relentless pursuit of national aggrandizement driven by material greed?

Like any argument about motives, this one can ultimately be neither proved nor refuted. But Bacevich’s interpretation is highly implausible. In attempting to rehabilitate Williams, who blamed the cold war on American imperialism, and Beard, who said much the same about our part in World War II, Bacevich concedes that these men underestimated the real dangers posed by Stalin and Hitler. Nonetheless, he believes that they correctly understood America’s motives. But if our goals were self-aggrandizing, why did we wait until after Pearl Harbor in the one case and after the fall of Eastern Europe in the other to get into the fray?

An analogous question presents itself with regard to Bacevich’s own claims that the U.S. “exaggerat[ed] the plight of Kosovar Albanians to create a pretext for launching a war against Yugoslavia.” How does this square with events from 1991 through 1995 when “Yugoslavia” wreaked havoc on Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia, and, despite many cries for intervention, Washington refused to become involved? And when we did bomb the Serbs on behalf of Kosovo, is it true that “the essence of that strategy was business and American political clout”? What “business” have Americans done in Kosovo or anywhere in the former Yugoslavia that would offset the dollar costs of our intervention?

Similarly with the war against terrorism, another supposed pretext for imperial ambition. Middle Eastern terrorists have been killing Americans for some 30 years. If it was pretext we wanted, why did we not seize on the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 or of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie in 1988 or of the World Trade Center in 1993? And why, if they were on a quest for empire, did the present President Bush and Bill Clinton before him each seem so uninterested in foreign policy until driven by events to confront it?

Bacevich would have us believe that what Americans saw in the events of September 11, 2001 was more an opportunity to augment their profits and consumption than a threat to their lives and country. This is of a piece with his claim that Washington demonized Saddam Hussein in order to have “a rationale for stationing U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf.” Referring to the transfer of the presidency from Bill Clinton to George Bush, Bacevich scoffs: “If a new, tougher U.S. policy was in the offing, the Iraqi dictator . . . provid[ed] a convenient pretext. . . . But,” he then adds, “it soon became clear that there would be no new policy.” Four months after the appearance of this book, President Bush launched the Iraq campaign with a bombardment aimed at “decapitating” Saddam Hussein’s regime. Whether or not the strike killed Saddam, it blew a big hole in Bacevich’s interpretation of reality.



Like Bacevich, Chua attaches too much importance to economic motives. That wealthy ethnic groups have sometimes become targets of attack is true, and she illustrates and explores the phenomenon thoroughly. But she freights this dynamic with more explanatory burden than it can carry. The abuse of Croats by Serbs in 1991 had far more to do with the memories of Croat abuse of Serbs during World War II than with any economic grievance, and similar points can be made about the other vectors of conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

Chua’s other cases are shakier still. Germany’s Jews may have been relatively prosperous, but the principal targets of Nazi genocide were the impoverished Jews of the Soviet Union and Poland—not to mention the fact that the complexity and grandiosity of the Nazi war against the Jews (to use the late Lucy Dawidowicz’s apt term) make nonsense of any effort to reduce it to a single, economic motive. Describing Israel as a market-dominant minority in the Middle East is no less weird: since the Arabs mostly refuse to engage in commerce with the Jewish state, one wonders what market Chua has in mind; and if all she means is that Arabs are jealous of Israel’s prosperity, then wealthy Saudi Arabia should be less hostile to Israel than impoverished Jordan—but the reverse is the case.

Chua concedes that some groups do not appear to behave in accord with the economic determinism she propounds. Thus, “many market-dominant minorities—the Chinese in Malaysia, for example, or Jews in Russia, and Americans everywhere—often seem to be among the most vocal advocates of democracy.” But, she says, it is not democracy these groups want but something quite different. If that is so, and if Americans do not mean to promote democracy abroad, why did she write this book warning them to stop doing it?

Finally, if ethnic violence really does flow essentially from economic disadvantage, Chua’s solution—slowing growth—makes little sense. Perhaps, as she claims, rapid growth contains risks, but prolonging impoverishment also contains risks. Who is to say which are the greater? This cul de sac may explain her lame closing sentence: “It is difficult to see . . . how a little generosity and humility [on the part of market-dominant minorities] could possibly hurt.” As a conclusion to a purportedly serious analysis of genocide, this is mere homiletics.



Of the three books, Zakaria’s has received the most attention, thanks no doubt to the fact that his anti-democracy thesis is so daring and that his own reputation is the most substantial. (The jacket of The Future of Freedom is graced with endorsements from Henry Kissinger, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Samuel Huntington, among others.) Nonetheless, he is guilty of errors, both small and large, that cast large doubt on his overall thesis.

Sometimes these errors are matters of logic, and sometimes of fact. Zakaria’s claim that Indonesia under Suharto was a tolerant place is true only if one omits the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese in the racial bloodbath that accompanied Suharto’s seizure of power. If we are to celebrate the reign of “secularism” in Tito’s Yugoslavia, should we not welcome the suppression of religion by other Communist dictators? In America, we read in The Future of Freedom, “Jim Crow was destroyed . . . not by democracy but despite it,” as if the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 were promulgated by decree. Elsewhere, Zakaria asserts without evidence that observance of human rights in Latin America has declined over the last ten years, but Freedom House’s annual assessments show just the opposite. To document how democratic elections can lead to perverted ends, he writes that “in the famous election of 1933 the Nazis received 44 percent of the vote . . . and [were] asked to form the government”—but the election he refers to was held two months after Hitler had become Chancellor and ruthlessly employed the police powers of the government in concert with the depredations of his storm troopers to cripple the campaigns of his rivals.

The largest error in the book, however, is Zakaria’s central premise: namely, that liberty is not flourishing around the world. In its annual survey, Freedom House counts the number of “electoral democracies,” meaning countries where the government is chosen in a genuine, contested vote; it also measures each country separately on a scale of “freedom” that takes into account not only elections but also the gamut of civil liberties, the rule of law, and other tokens of what Zakaria means when he says “liberty.” According to this research, democracy has grown—and freedom has, too.

Thus, in 1973, what Freedom House calls “not-free” countries outnumbered “free” countries 69 to 43, or by a ratio of roughly 3 to 2. (There were also 38 in-between countries, labeled “partly free.”) Today, the balance has nearly reversed: free countries outnumber the not-free by 89 to 48, or nearly 2 to 1. If one tallies by combined population rather than by countries, one reaches the same result, although less dramatically since China weighs heavily on the “not-free” side of the scale and because poorer countries tend to have both less freedom and faster-growing populations. Nonetheless, whether you count countries or people, freedom reached an all-time high in 2002.

There is this kernel of truth in Zakaria’s observation: democracy has spread so far and so fast that the number of newly hatched democracies is far greater than ever before. As one would expect, the political institutions associated with a mature democracy—a fully free press, an independent judiciary, a professionally ethical civil service—are as yet imperfectly formed. This is what provides grist for Zakaria’s mill. But for such states, as Leon Aron has well noted, it would be more accurate to use the label “preliberal democracy” than Zakaria’s “illiberal democracy.” In short, the underlying trend that he badly misconstrues is not a blight of liberty but rather its unprecedentedly rapid expansion, which inevitably has entailed uneven progress and even some disasters.

If Zakaria’s diagnosis is off-base, his remedy is incomprehensible. Take his Olympian declaration that Africa does not need democracy so much as “good governance.” Arguably so; but how does Zakaria propose to provide it? In reality, Africa has experienced lots of nondemocracy and rarely if ever has this nondemocracy afforded good governance. Stacking up the records of the continent’s too few democratic regimes against those of its often brutal dictators leaves little doubt that democracy is the more likely path to the many things that Africa needs.

As for the U.S., Zakaria has a more specific remedy for its problem of excessive democracy. He proposes placing more governmental authority in bodies that are not beholden to the electorate. The models he points to are the European Commission, the World Trade Organization, the Federal Reserve Board, and the Supreme Court. Specifically, he urges our country to take the power of taxation from Congress and vest it instead in an unelected “independent federal tax authority.” This at least rings a bell, but have not Americans already once tried taxation without representation and found it wanting?

In the end, Zakaria’s entire treatment of the United States tends to contradict the rest of his book. Looking beyond our shores, he does not declare himself deeply skeptical of democracy. Rather, he focuses on the sequencing: we should, he writes, seek capitalism and constitutional liberalism first and only then democracy, just as happened in the West. But if America’s own system is as dysfunctional as Zakaria suggests, why follow our particular trajectory? Why aim for democracy at all?



When the Soviet Union collapsed, Charles Krauthammer remarked that we had arrived at the “unipolar moment.” That moment is not without its perils, some of which, although perhaps not so ultimate as those we faced from the USSR, are quite terrifying enough. But the same moment has offered opportunities to make the world safer and better, not least for ourselves—including the opportunity to influence how long the moment itself will last.

In the world of today, there is no more important question than how America will use its unprecedented power. That it can be a great force for good is already well proved. Under the influence of U.S. policies, the world economy has grown robustly since World War II, including in more recent decades in most of the poorer countries. This has also been a time of relative peace and, over the last three decades, of an unprecedented expansion of human freedom. These are the fruits of democracy, market economics, and American power—all the things that our current gloomsayers decry. That each of these benefits has some lamentable side-effects goes without saying: that is the way human progress works. But to magnify the negatives so that they appear larger than the main trend is to peer through a very distorting lens.

Today, with no superpower enemy, American engagement with the world remains hard to predict. Americans are always prey to the temptations of isolationism. And the anti-Americanism being voiced in so many foreign quarters—an understandable reaction, no doubt, to our preeminence—may drive more Americans to wipe their hands of the burdens of what Bacevich mischievously calls “empire.” (We have nary a territorial possession.) This would imperil the world’s prosperity, freedom, and above all its peace. Had we heeded the declinists of the 1980’s, we might not have won the cold war. If today we heed the advice of those offering tendentious and pejorative interpretations of our effect on the world, the results could be no less calamitous.



1 Harvard, 320 pp., $29.95.

2 Doubleday, 256 pp., $26.00.

3 Norton, 256 pp., $24.95.


About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.

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