[This review was published in The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Spring 2004, pp. 122-128.]


Book Review


The End of the American Era: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-first Century

Charles A. Kupchan

Alfred A. Knopf, 2003 


            This book provides insight into the thinking of one of today’s more prominent American academicians in the field of international relations.  Charles Kupchan is a professor of international relations at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.  The fact that he served on the National Security Council during the first Clinton administration is relevant to understanding where he is positioned along the spectrum of international relations theorists.  He favors a “liberal internationalism” that will strike what he considers a reasonable middle ground between what he describes as extremes of isolationism and internationalism.

            The main thrust of the book is his point that America’s “unipolar moment” won’t last long.  Competing power centers will arise, the first of which will be Europe by virtue of its unification.  He urges that U.S. policy makers seek to manage the transition in the most constructive way possible, using a multi-layered tier of international institutions to address the many issues that will arise.  The intention will be to make the transition peaceful, minimizing the consequences of newly emerging geopolitical fault lines and retaining the best features of the international order the United States has constructed.  Perhaps his most striking suggestion is that, in effect, Franklin Roosevelt’s 1940’s vision of a benign direction of world affairs by a consortium of the major powers should be resurrected.  A “directorate of major states,” having as its founding members the “United States, the European Union, Russia, China and Japan” and supplemented by “major states from other regions,” would function “along the lines of the Concert of Europe” that followed the Napoleonic Wars.  “Like the Concert, this directorate would serve as an informal forum for discussion and coordination.  Decisions would be reached through consensus….”   In FDR’s case, this vision fell apart almost instantly as his (and later Truman’s) premise that Stalin was a good fellow proved false.  Kupchan’s implied premise is that the major powers will at least fundamentally have common interests that will allow such coordination.

            Kupchan would avoid a form of internationalism that he sees as extreme.  In its place, he speaks of “strategic restraint – selectively and prudently applied – [as] the core logic that should inform an American grand strategy.”  He refers to “a new and more discriminating brand of liberal internationalism.”  When he mentions democracy, he speaks of “advancing” it rather than crusading to impose it.   He would also steer clear of the other pole: he would have the United States avoid its impulse toward unilateralism; and he describes (and opposes) a “populist” foreign policy that would be geared toward protecting traditional American values domestically and would, to keep from inviting hatreds, use American power sparingly.

            It would add considerably to the book’s intellectual contribution if Kupchan showed an awareness of and gave reasons to reject the specific forms that each of his “extremes” are taking.  While he mentions “neoconservatives” and their role in the George W. Bush administration, there is no mention of “The Project for a New American Century,” perhaps the chief manifesto of the neoconservatives.  He makes no detailed discussion of their proposals for a Pax Americana and for resisting the rise of competing power-centers.  Nor, at the other end, so far as the “populist” view he cites is concerned, does he show awareness of Patrick Buchanan’s A Republic, Not an Empire.  (Buchanan’s name doesn’t even appear in the index.) Buchanan advocates an “enlightened nationalism,” and argues that it is both dangerous and presumptuous for the United States to be the world’s policeman and social worker.  Because Kupchan is unaware of the leading expositions of the views he opposes, a reader receives the impression that his discussion is poorly informed and less than intellectually compelling. 

            Perhaps this is not so much avoidance as it is the ignorance that is induced by encapsulation within a given academic hive or intellectual orthodoxy.  It suggests the unfortunate possibility that some important scholars in international relations are intellectually insular.  One way this appears is in Kupchan’s description of himself as a member of the “realist” school, which sees “centers of power” as of chief importance in international affairs.  “Geopolitical rivalry… Great powers” are central.  It is the “distribution of power, not democracy, culture, globalization, or anything else,” Kupchan says, that is “the defining element of the global system.”  (We should note that he does broaden this considerably when he adds that the concern about power should be tempered by “idealism,” which brings in “reason, law, values, and institutions.”)

            This reviewer has not made a systematic study of the “realist” school, but the many times he has come upon it has left him with a strong impression that it often suffers from severe reductionism.  It is commonplace to point out that in the study of history and of society, thinkers used to preoccupy themselves with what was happening at the top of society among kings and aristocracies.  One of the effects of an empirical age has been to shift the emphasis to a study of the less flashy but immensely important underlying forces, such as demographic, cultural and technological factors, that provide the historic wave upon which kings are mere bubbles.  This was the central point Leo Tolstoy made in War and Peace.  It seems oddly atavistic, then, for the “realist” school to focus so exclusively on “great powers,” as though political power does not rest on the ever-changing sands of culture, technology, ethnicity, affluence, ideology, etc.

            This reductionism is brought home most graphically by the fact that Kupchan’s analysis ignores so much.  He hopes his book to be a meaningful review of the world situation now and in the foreseeable future.  But he takes no account of many forces that loom large in affecting that future.  Here are some he would do well to explore:

            .  The rapidly advancing demographic conquest of Euro-American civilization by the migrating peoples entering it from Asia, Africa and Latin America.  Kupchan’s insularity toward Buchanan has a second aspect:  that he seems unaware of the phenomenon described so vividly in Buchanan’s book The Death of the West.  There is a brief mention of a possible American balkanization toward the end of Kupchan’s book, but with almost no sense of what that balkanization implies or of the massive demographic shifts that are bringing it about.  One of Kupchan’s main points is that a unified Europe is about to emerge as a contending power in what will then be a multipolar – no longer a unipolar - world.  Then both Europe and the United States will be superpowers. This is necessarily premised on the supposition that “Europe” and “the United States” are solid things, having a certain reality.  But that supposition seems becomes questionable when the population of both is in rapid transition, with a Third World population growing within each that will replace the existing civilization with another. 

Such developments not only undermine the “realist” theory of “centers of power” by putting its core concept into doubt, but are important for their own sake in any analysis of world events.

A similar point can be made about Kupchan’s speculation, in a futuristic final chapter that doesn’t seem fully congruent with the rest of his book, that industrial capitalism, liberal democracy and the nation-state may be replaced by “digital capitalism” and institutions yet unknown.   Again, we see entities referred to as existing when their essence will have changed.

            .  The hollowing-out of the American economy as the United States loses its manufacturing base and productive assets.  It is hard to imagine a discussion of the near- and long-term power structure of the world without coming to grips with the spectacular dissipation of American assets that is occurring through the United States’ decades-long, and still growing, trade imbalance.  What sort of a “power center” will the United States be after that proceeds much longer? 

            .  The dominant role within the United States and the “international community” of what Samuel Huntington has called “the Davos elite.”  The hegemonic control over “respectable” opinion by an elite that determines what is “politically correct” within European and American society and among the movers and shakers on the world scene is, again, a fact of profound significance.  One can argue that the “centers of power” are themselves at the beck and call of that elite and its all-pervasive atmosphere of opinion. 

            .  The fact that the world is hardly “unipolar” at a time when the United States is severely tested by asymmetrical forces that pose dangers comparable to or that even exceed what any established “center of power” would threaten.  After September 11, it seems quixotic to think of the United States as “the one remaining superpower.”   It is much like speaking of Gulliver as “the one remaining giant” at the very time the Lilliputians are busily tying him down.  

            Speaking broadly, it can be noted that asymmetrical warfare has been around for many generations and has long challenged existing power-centers.  Nechayev and his fellow nihilists, say, made it ludicrous for “realists” of the nineteenth century to speak of the omnipotence of the Tsars’ power.  More specifically in today’s world, Islamicist passion is a force of major proportions, even though it exists within vast populations and has no one geographic or political center.

            .  The fact that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not just another item “to be fixed,” but is a cancer fundamental to the existing hatreds.  Kupchan does prescribe, though cursorily, that the United States should seek a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum, but he hardly sees that conflict as central to the terrorist challenge to the United States.  He posits that Islamism results from problems within Islam itself, most particularly from the mortification Muslims feel over Islam’s loss of centrality and over their feeling that they are falling even further behind.

            What he says is assuredly part of the truth.  It comports with the view taken by the scholar Bernard Lewis, who has studied Islamic societies at length.  The rest of the truth, however, was voiced as long ago as 1947 (and even well before that) when it was pointed out by astute observers that the establishment of the state of Israel without first obtaining the good graces of its Arab neighbors would invite perpetual war.  No prediction has ever proved more accurate. The solution cannot be to go back and undo the formation of Israel – but the need for a settlement acceptable to both sides is far more imperative than Kupchan makes it seem.

            . The fact that significant dangers do indeed stem from the United States’ presuming to be the policeman and social worker of the world.  Kupchan cites this concern, but dismisses it without much discussion.  It is part of what he sees as a long-superseded view stemming from the United States’ earlier isolationism.  Kupchan acknowledges that the United States has been “unabashedly using globalization to remake the world in its image.”  He also acknowledges Third World anger over the impacts of globalization.  What he misses is a full comprehension of just how passionately many peoples are bound to feel toward preserving their own ways of life.  It is strange that he gives this minor significance, since in another context he interprets the United States’ intervention against Germany in World War I as an opposition to “German domination over Europe.”  Presumably, German “domination” was an evil worthy of being resisted at great cost.  But he doesn’t extend this insight to see the same thing about American domination over cultures that don’t want to be dominated.   Because of this selective perception, he denies that an American hegemony is a potent stimulus for danger to the United States.

            There is much else that Kupchan does not take into account.  The list could be supplemented, too, by examples of  shallowness as he accepts many dubious points in the prevailing conventional wisdom.  But before we conclude, it is important to shift to one additional subject.  The vastness of the commitments he would have the United States undertake – even as he calls for “strategic restraint” – deserves attention.  Those commitments are so open-ended that one wonders what exactly is “restrained” about them.  They are, of course, in line with the premise of world-meliorism that guides the Davos culture.  Here are some of the things he would have the United States do:

            .  That the United States should play a role in virtually every global “trouble spot,” although not necessarily sending in troops.  Kupchan speaks of “the country’s role as the globe’s strategic guardian.”  An example of the second Bush administration’s “isolationist instincts,” he says, is the fact that Secretary of State Colin Powell dropped “more than one-third of the fifty-five special envoys that the Clinton administration had appointed to deal with trouble spots around the world.”  The United States should “develop alternative sources for prevention and intervention” into such “ethnic and civil wars” as have occurred in “Bosnia, Serbia, Azerbaijan, Rwanda, and East Timor.”  “If the United States loses interest in being the sheriff, there would be no one to form the posse.”

            .  That the United States has “strong reasons” to “ensure the security of Israel.” He mitigates this by wanting the United States to push for a peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians.  (The mitigation, however, is weakened when he doesn’t say how this is to be accomplished .)

            .  That the United States should continue to provide the “protective umbrella” that will help preserve a “stable balance” in East Asia.  This is, of course, much broader than just continuing to serve as a shield for Taiwan, which he includes within it.

            .  That the Unites States should develop a long-term plan gradually to remold the “developing world,” including aiming “at political liberalization, the growth of a middle class, the improvement of educational opportunities, and the modernization of social institutions.”  Particularly, it should promote “development among the impoverished nations of Africa and South Asia.”

            .  That “the United States and other wealthy countries should eliminate remaining commercial barriers with the developing nations” (without regard to the fact that the U.S. is already allowing entry to massive quantities of imports and running an unprecedented trade deficit).

.  That the United States “should increase the use of enterprise funds – publicly supported investment funds –…” to “support the growth of small business” in the developing countries.

.  That the United States should make itself a party to the Kyoto Treaty on global warming (despite questions about its scientific rationale and the vastly unequal burdens it imposes as between, say, the United States and China), the treaty to outlaw landmines (without considering the importance of landmines to the United States in defending South Korea), and the international criminal court (without regard to the threat this would pose to American leaders precisely as they pursue the role Kupchan favors of being policemen to the world).

All of this is not trumpeted as vigorously as the neoconservatives do.  But it is based on two premises which every serious student of international affairs must seriously question rather than implicitly embrace: that the resources of the United States (and of the American taxpayer) for public expenditure are virtually without limit; and that the needs of the world’s billions of other people do not constitute in effect a “bottomless pit” that can consume philanthropy infinitely with little discernible effect.  Only if these premises are examined will the discussion move from fantasy to reality.  It would be fitting if a school of thought that calls itself “realist” would undertake that.


                                                                                  Dwight D. Murphey