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A friend recently gifted me a subscription to The Economist. That was a very nice thing to do. I think. The upside is that I can learn from that publication’s always-excellent, in-depth analysis of the way the economic engines that turn the world run — or don’t. The downside is that, right now, such analysis is a good way to get what journalist and commentator Matt Taibbi calls “DEFCON‑1 depressed” about the state of civilization.
The Economist’s analysis of an international food crisis that was already looming as fertilizer costs soared and supply bottlenecks grew increasingly tangled — and has now been profoundly exacerbated by the war in Ukraine — is downright chilling. Most of us here won’t miss meals (though we’ll pay more for food) but Africa, Asia, and the Middle East are going to be hard hit. And that means more instability in a world already afflicted with serious speed-wobbles.
“The war in Ukraine is already a tragedy. As it ravages the world’s breadbasket, a calamity looms.”
America is not leading the world through and out of this crisis, especially not with an administration that looked at the “malaise” of the Jimmy Carter years and said, “Hold my beer.” Thing is, though, we can’t just blame Joe Biden. This is on us. For decades now, we’ve tolerated — encouraged — a level of political discourse in America that is on a par with professional wrestling. Which color trunks are we rooting for, red or blue? It’s all about personalities — ”good guys” and “villains” of our own manufacture — and policy and the actual serious business of governing be damned.
So, here we land, in the post-American world. That’s what Fareed Zakaria calls it, and he’s not wrong. He published a book titled The Post-American World, and an essay positing that the Ukraine war is a defining moment in the turn to that world on March 12.
One of the defining features of the new era is that it is post-American. By that I mean that the Pax Americana of the past three decades is over. You can see signs of this everywhere. Consider the fact that the leaders of the UAE and Saudi Arabia — two countries that have depended on Washington for their security for decades — refused to even take phone calls from the U.S. president, according to the Wall Street Journal. Consider as well that Israel (initially) and India have refused to describe Putin’s actions as an invasion, and that all four countries have made it clear they will continue to do business with Russia.
At first glance, it might seem that this is a new global order that is stacked against America. But that’s not necessarily so. The United States remains the world’s leading power, still stronger than all the rest by far. It also benefits from some of the features of this new age. The United States is the world’s leading producer of hydrocarbons. High energy prices, while terrible for countries such as China and Germany, actually stimulate growth in large parts of the United States. Geopolitically, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has put Washington’s chief competitor, China, in an awkward position, forcing Beijing to defend Russia’s actions and putting it at odds with the European Union, with which it has tried hard to have close ties.
The greatest strategic opportunity lies with Europe, which could use this challenge to stop being the passive international actor it has been for decades. We now see signs that the Europeans are ready to end the era of free security by raising defense spending and securing NATO’s eastern border. Germany’s remarkable turnaround is a start. If Europe becomes a strategic player on the world stage, that could be the biggest geopolitical shift to emerge from this war. A United States joined by a focused and unified Europe would be a super-alliance in support of liberal values.
But for the West to become newly united and powerful, there is one essential condition: It must succeed in Ukraine. That is why the urgent necessity of the moment is to do what it takes — bearing costs and risks — to ensure that Putin does not prevail.
I have been a skeptic of American Empire, mostly because imperial values and republican values are not compatible — a truth that James Madison understood, even as his mentor, Thomas Jefferson, succumbed to fever dreams of an Empire of Liberty. I have been a critic of imperial hubris and overreach, at some cost when such doings were popular. But for all that, I recognize that the relative decline of America poses grave dangers. For all our manifest faults and failings, America has, at our best, truly been a beacon of hope and opportunity in the world, mighty in both war and peace. Losing that status and stature isn’t going to be pleasant for us, and it will be dangerous for the rest of the world.
It might turn out like Zakaria believes (hopes?), where America can be a partner with a resurgent Europe as a promoter of liberal values. Given the current state of play, I see a more likely scenario in which anti-western, illiberal values find fertile ground in destabilized societies where grievances are nurtured and America is seen to be a blind, blundering giant lurching about with no vision and diminished capacity.
I struggle to see the potential silver lining that Zakaria offers, but maybe I’m just in a fog of that DEFCON‑1 depression.
Cort Horner says
Good read. I’m not as gung ho on Germany however given their green initiatives and intent to phase out nuclear by the end of this year (and coal by 2030) in light of recent developments. As for the professional wrestling analogy, I have long thought Congress would be well-served by the addition of some Luchadores.
The approaching famine is not unprecedented, few Americans are familiar with the history of Ukraine. This Russian invasion is directly from their playbook used nearly a century ago. I suggest that the readers of this letter look up Holodomor, I included a link to a brief summary.
America seems to have lost contact with its moral compass, and our connection to it has been corroding away for decades.
Ugly Hombre says
Americans have no grasp of history in general. Communists/Socialists have used famine as a weapon for a century. Going back to the 1920’s The Chicom’s are buying up and have bought vast areas of American farm lands. Mao starved millions of his own people to death and did not bat a eye. Xi is a heir and admirer of Mao- and is using Putin as his cats paw. Xi asked Putin to hold off invading until after the Olympics. The invasion was discussed. Request granted. Biden stupidly provided the Chicom’s intell on the border build up prior to the invasion, Xi provided it to Putin.
The reason- one reason that the Ukrainians are fighting to the death tooth and nail is that there Grand parents and parents suffered and may have been starved to death by Communists.
“In 1929 Stalin launched his policy of agricultural collectivization–in effect a second Russian revolution–which forced millions of peasants off their land and onto collective farms. The result was a catastrophic famine, the most lethal in European history. At least five million people died between 1931 and 1933 in the USSR. But instead of sending relief the Soviet state made use of the catastrophe to rid itself of a political problem. In Red Famine, Anne Applebaum argues that more than three million of those dead were Ukrainians who perished not because they were accidental victims of a bad policy but because the state deliberately set out to kill them.
Applebaum proves what has long been suspected: after a series of rebellions unsettled the province, Stalin set out to destroy the Ukrainian peasantry. The state sealed the republic’s borders and seized all available food. Starvation set in rapidly, and people ate anything: grass, tree bark, dogs, corpses. In some cases, they killed one another for food. Devastating and definitive, Red Famine captures the horror of ordinary people struggling to survive extraordinary evil.”
Don’t think such horror can not happen here. We are not immune.
God help the Ukraine.
David Wrolson says
I subscribed to The Economist for several years (until fairly recently in fact) and I loved the maps. I didn’t and don’t generally with its editorial outlook, but I subscribed for as long as I could take it.
I think the one thing that probably drove me away more than anything was a story on a new dam proposed for Tanzania’s Selous. The sole negative they mentioned was that it might increase access for poachers. Really!!!! Nothing about lost habitats or anything similar.
That was the breaking point.
Jim Cornelius says
The Economist definitely has blind spots, but I’m happy to have it in my quiver again in these times.