The Rules of Global Engagement, Rewritten

June 1, 2011
Book Cover: End of Arrogance

Even before the dramatic events in the Middle East, the world was undergoing profound change—a theme conveyed in this excerpt from public policy professor Bruce Jentleson’s recent book, coauthored with Steven Weber (University of California at Berkeley), The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas, published by Harvard University Press.

The ancient philosopher Ptolemy believed the Earth was at the center of the universe, with all the other planets, indeed the whole solar system, revolving around it. So, too, in the dominant twentieth-century view was the U.S. at the center of the international political world. The U.S. was the wielder of power in the Cold War, the economic engine driving the international economy, and the bastion of free-world ideology.

Indeed, with the demise and defeat of the Soviet Union, American centrality seemed even more assured. The U.S. was the sole surviving superpower. The American economy was branding globalization. Democracy was spreading all over. The world seemed even more Ptolemaic.

Not anymore. The twenty-first century is a “Copernican world” in which the Earth, a.k.a. the U.S., is not at the center. While our “gravitational pull” is still strong, it is not so strong that others orbit around us. We see this geopolitically as other powers have been rising (China), recovering (Russia), maturing (European Union), and emerging (India, Brazil, and others either emerging from a long colonial past or shaking off the lingering effects of superpower domination). We see it economically every day now. It was the government’s own National Intelligence Council that indicated how globalization is losing its “Made in the U.S.A.” character. It is IBM, the iconic technology company, whose executives choke if you mistakenly call IBM an “American” company; they will remind you continuously that theirs is and always will be a global firm.

We see it scientifically as cutting-edge research in green technology, biotechnology, and other frontiers is globally sourced.We see it in so many other walks of life. A New York art dealer, after a recent auction dominated by newly moneyed non-Western collectors, reflected that “for the first time in nearly 200 years the Western world doesn’t make the decisions about our [cultural] future.” Or setting the prices. Or controlling the outcomes. That’s the hallmark reality of a Copernican world order.

The “there is no alternative” (TINA) argument—that whatever the flaws of a global system led by the U.S., there was in practice no substitute—was quite useful for many years. At times it was used cynically. It did, though, have some truth to it. Much less so in a Copernican world.

People no longer so widely believe that the alternative to a Washington-led world order is chaos. The rules and norms of that order are subject to much more extensive and intensive debate than ever before. There also is visible a relatively new phenomenon of routing around it, marking a world without the West with its own distinctive set of rules, institutions, and relationships. It is not taken as a given that the optimal model for a just society is the American one. No single alternative model is on the verge of replacing the old one, but TINA is giving way to THEMBA: “There must be an alternative.”

The metaphor embedded in the idea that “It’s a marketplace, not a war of ideas” is crisp, actionable, and morally compelling: What American doesn’t want to win a war against fanaticism, hate, and intolerance? But it dangerously distorts the policy challenge. The global competition of ideas is not the domain of armies and generals. There are no shock-and-awe tactics, no decisive victories, no unconditional surrenders. You cannot achieve decisive victory in a war of ideas, because it is not a war at all but a competition within a marketplace. The rules of engagement are much closer to those set out by social and economic thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Milton Friedman than those of the Prussian military strategist Carl Von Clausewitz.

This marketplace is built around an evolving digital infrastructure that increasingly connects everyone to everyone. To win is to gain market share among global publics who pick and choose what most attracts them. And not counterpoised against just one “enemy,” Islamist fundamentalism or some other, but in a fully global competition of ideas.