When world famous, Pulitzer Prize winner, globe trotting New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman teamed up with one of America’s leading foreign policy experts, Professor Michael Mandelbaum, to author a book entitled “That used to be US: What went wrong with America – and how it can come back”, one approached the book with huge anticipation. After putting the book down, the disappointment was equally huge.
The book is a rambling stream of consciousness narrative punctuated with anecdotes and scores of interviews, with recall of various Hollywood movies, to describe the present context in America. The description does not stray from well known and generally accepted truths. The thought haunting through the narrative is of course the decline of America and the rise of China. One early passage in the book states:
“Our problem is not China, and our solution is not China. Our problem is us –what we are doing and not doing, how our political system is functioning and not functioning, which values we are and are not living by. And our solution is us - the people, the society, and the government that we used to be, and can be again.”
The book identifies the current weaknesses of America and offers conventional prescriptions to set things right. According to the authors the four main challenges facing America emanate from globalization, Information Technology, America’s continuing budget deficits amidst huge foreign debt, and unrestricted energy consumption.
Two defining moments in recent history are identified as the end of the Cold War when America failed to anticipate the emerging challenge of globalization, and the year 1979 when the Iranian Revolution and a shift in Saudi policies created a new energy context in the world. America failed to appreciate how the synergy between globalization and IT would alter the world’s economy and culture. This failure accompanied by the spectacular rise of China so demoralized Americans that things started to fall apart. Performance and maintenance rapidly deteriorated to create the current situation in which America is struggling to revive its economy and reduce its foreign debt.
The book acts largely as a cheerleader to revive American confidence and suggests investment in education, modernizing infrastructure, a sensible migration policy that might induct new talent in the country, enhance research, and improve regulation to protect environment and capital inflow into the country.
All this is very well. It is an apt though somewhat incoherent description of the present economic context. In today’s world the economy undeniably plays a major part in international relations.
But what about politics?
The authors are experts in foreign policy. Did not politics play an equal part in international relations that affected America? The book describes the current context in America. It does not explain what political decisions were taken to create that context. If America has a huge foreign debt, if it is ceding ground to China, and if there is demoralization within America’s working class, how and why did this come about? The authors are silent on these questions.
China’s growth would not have been possible without America tolerating a five to one adverse balance of trade with Beijing by importing mainly low tech products 80 percent of which were owned by the People’s Liberation Army that could use its profits to build its strength. No wonder former New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal in the late 1990s passionately criticized both the Democrats and the Republicans for being corrupted by Beijing to allow this. American trade policy with China for over three decades hugely boosted China’s economy, emasculated America’s manufacturing industries, increased unemployment by diverting domestic investment to cheap-labour China, and made the fat cats of American big business rich while their nation languished. Consider the current situation facing America.
America is writhing because Pakistan continues to patronize terrorists thwarting NATO in Afghanistan. America needs Pakistan for providing access to Afghanistan on the way to energy rich Central Asia. But America is helpless to act. It could attack Iraq without justification. It cannot attack Pakistan despite justification. Why?
Because Pakistan is a nuclear power! How did it become a nuclear power?
China offered nuclear know-how and missiles to Pakistan to make it one. How could America allow China to brazenly proliferate nuclear know-how and Pakistan to become a terrorist supporting nuclear nation? America was on the verge of eliminating Al Qaeda after 9/11. Instead of clinching that America diverted to a war against Iraq which had nothing to do with 9/11.
This book does not dwell on why and how these ruinous decisions were taken. The authors briefly admit that they mistakenly supported the Iraq war. They still consider that it could be a factor that will help promote democracy in the Middle East. This book blames unchecked energy consumption by Americans as one reason for the decline of the economy. What about the two crippling wars that have depleted American resources by trillions of dollars? The wars continue because of political decisions. How and why were such decisions taken? The book is silent. It ends with a ‘shock therapy’ solution. It wants a new independent leader to emerge who could reduce friction between the Republicans and the Democrats to revive a bipartisan approach. This approach is described as the ‘radical centre’, whatever that might mean.
This solution sounds pathetic. This reviewer has no doubt that America will revive in a big way and reclaim, even improve, its former position. But after viewing the level of discourse displayed in this book by two leading foreign policy experts of America, the challenge appears to be more daunting.