TO BE CALLED an isolationist these days is a bit like being called a climate-change denier or a free-market fundamentalist. In the eyes of right-thinking people, you have more or less lost the argument before you start. However, now that the cold war is over, Americans would be entirely sensible to ask themselves whether taking on the job of being the biggest power in an ungrateful world is worth the effort. Why should they pay to protect shipping in the Strait of Malacca or punish the dictator of some far-off country when they have their own medical bills and the federal deficit to worry about?
To answer that, you need to look at the rules-based system the victors created after the second world war. It still benefits Americans today in lots of ways. It also benefits many other people, whether they like America or loathe it.
Start with power itself. Walter Russell Mead, a writer and academic, defines four sorts. The sharp power of military force serves as a foundation; the sticky power of economic vitality rewards others for joining the system and makes it expensive for them to pull out; and the sweet power of values attracts and inspires them. The fourth kind, drawing on the work of Joseph Nye, a political scientist, is hegemonic power, which is sometimes called primacy.
Primacy is to geopolitics what a full card is to a game of bingo. As a prize for scoring in all the other sorts of power, a country may get the chance to set the agenda. Primacy makes a state attractive. Other states want to win its favour and to benefit from its goodwill. Their support is a form of consent which gives the system legitimacy. On the global stage, the hegemonic country becomes what Colonel Edward House, President Woodrow Wilson’s friend and adviser, called “the gyroscope of world order”.
America has advantages in the primacy game. First is geography. Being self-contained makes America secure, whereas all other great powers have had to defend themselves against their neighbours. Even Britain at the height of empire in the 19th century was repeatedly distracted by the need to stop any one country dominating continental Europe. By contrast, America has friends to the north and south and fish to the east and west. Europeans warily eyeing nearby Russia, or Asians fearful of China, can ask Americans for help, safe in the knowledge that they have a home to go back to on the other side of the world.
Second is history. America built today’s system out of the rubble of the second world war. Because the other powers were exhausted and the United States was still strong, it could start with a clean sheet. The lesson from the disastrous armistice of 1918 for Roosevelt and, after him, Truman was that the defeated countries had to be turned into democracies and bound into the peace, not shut out. They accomplished this, outside the communist bloc, through a system of open trade, alliances and collective security in which everyone stood to thrive, with America as its guarantor.
America also benefits from its distinctive political ideology and institutions. Founded on Enlightenment ideals rather than a conqueror’s battle lines or a monarch’s bloodlines, they distributed power among the states and the branches of the federal government. Along with a dissident religious tradition, this has meant that in peacetime the United States is in an almost constant state of turmoil, which is evident even when it ventures abroad. “Americans, in foreign policy, are torn,” writes Robert Kagan, an American historian. “Reluctant, then aggressive; asleep at the switch, then quick on the trigger; indifferent, then obsessed, then indifferent again. They are a revolutionary power, but think they are a status-quo power.”
However disconcerting it is to be on the receiving end, this attitude means that America has neither the desire nor the ability to conquer and administer other people’s countries. The hegemon’s necessarily modest ambitions help the system command widespread consent abroad. Reflecting political traditions at home, America has created an embryonic separation of powers for the world at large as well. Instead of running everything from Washington, it set up institutions such as the UN, the WTO and the IMF to spread power.
This international machinery is a forum for its members, not a world government. It is highly imperfect—too steeped in Western ideals for some, too easily ignored for others (including Saudi Arabia, which in a snub to the United States has just turned down a seat on the UN Security Council), and an infringement of sovereignty for a third group (including many Americans, who resent the UN’s constraints, and many Israelis, who often see their country picked on). But it binds the system together, because it gives other states a voice and offers a ready-made mechanism for collaboration when agreement is possible.
The overwhelming fear in Europe after the second world war was of a third attempt at conquest by a belligerent Germany
Domestic division seems to imperil good order and common sense while you are living through it. That is one reason why American primacy so often appears to be in dangerous decline. None other than Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s national-security chief and secretary of state, reportedly told a colleague in the 1970s that the United States had “passed its historic high point, like so many earlier civilisations”.
In fact the system has worked remarkably well. The overwhelming fear in Europe after the second world war was of a third attempt at conquest by a belligerent Germany. Yet America was able to keep the peace by reassuring other Europeans about the German threat as well as protecting them from Soviet aggression. Germany and Japan eventually regained great-power status. But this time they rose peacefully within the system.
What’s in it for America
America, too, has enjoyed enduring benefits from primacy. It was spared yet another great-power war in either Europe or, after Korea in 1950-53, in Asia. Germany and Japan became markets for the United States and an important part of the defence against communism. Barring the odd scare about foreign ownership of sensitive assets, Germany’s and Japan’s growing wealth has only served to strengthen America’s position in the world.
Indeed, the economic and philosophical liberalism that underpins America’s beliefs has become so familiar that, to many in the West, it hardly seems like an ideology at all. After the Soviet collapse a sort of liberal determinism took hold. The idea was that capitalism raised living standards, which paid for education, leading to gains in productivity and, eventually, popular demand for democracy. The promise of this “democratic convergence” was that the international arena would tend to bring peace and prosperity of its own accord. As the world headed towards the perpetual peace of republics imagined by Immanuel Kant, an Enlightenment philosopher, the hegemon could look forward to retirement.
Yet if you examine the spread of democracy, as Mr Kagan has done, a different picture emerges. Democracy flourished under British hegemony and then retreated as fascism took root (see chart 1)—not because of invasion but because of imitation in places such as Latin America. In 1941 the world contained only a dozen democracies. As Samuel Huntington, a political scientist, has explained, the system then spread in waves, partly because America used its influence to help democracy take root in countries like Taiwan and Poland, and to protect young democracies in countries like Bolivia, South Korea and the Philippines. According to Mr Kagan, the fallacy is to think that the liberal order rests on the triumph of its ideals. “International order is not an evolution,” he writes, “it is an imposition.”
The corollary is that, without the continuing application of American power, the system would begin to fray. If America were to become weaker or to withdraw, its values would erode along with its power. In a recent book Mr Brzezinski set out some of the risks. Regional powers would vie for pre-eminence and assert their historic claims. States such as Georgia, Taiwan and Ukraine, which all live in the shadow of a much bigger neighbour, would be especially vulnerable. Nuclear-threshold powers like Japan and South Korea that today are content to rely on American nuclear protection may proliferate for fear that, in a crisis, its ally would not credibly threaten to push the button. As emerging powers start to feel that institutions such as the UN Security Council no longer reflect the balance of power, they could begin to reject them.
The implications are alarming. Autocratic states like China and Russia would not want to see strongmen pushed aside. Coups would be more likely to be defined as internal matters. Territorial disputes in places like the South China Sea, which today America insists must be dealt with diplomatically, may come to be resolved by force. If the Indian and Chinese navies thought that America could no longer guarantee to keep the sea lanes open, they would take the job on themselves, eventually leading to military competition between two nuclear states.
Americans have many reasons to feel that primacy benefits them. Being able to set the agenda and shape coalitions is an exorbitant privilege. So is being able to prosper in a system that broadly works according to your own world view. However, world leadership takes constant maintenance. “Democracy and open markets have spread so widely in part because they have been defended by US aircraft-carriers,” notes Charles Kupchan, an American academic. This is especially true when the balance of power is shifting, as it is today. A number of emerging powers are looking at a system made in Washington to see what is in it for them. Ahead of the pack is China.
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"If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)" is a single by Nas featuring Lauryn Hill, released on June 4, 1996. Produced by Trackmasters, with some uncredited input by Rashad Smith, it is based on the 1985 hit of the same name by rapper Kurtis Blow and samples the beat of "Friends" by Whodini. The single was Nas's first Top 20 R&B hit, and was also nominated for a 1997 Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance. Lauryn Hill's verse interpolates the song "Walk Right Up To The Sun" by The Delfonics. The song's lyrics feature Nas discussing the various things he would do if he "ruled the world and everything in it". It is considered one of the greatest rap songs of all time by many publications. Including being ranked 88 on XXL's Best Songs of the 90's.
"If I Ruled the World", bolstered by a high-budget music video directed by Hype Williams, became Nas's first single to gain mainstream notice. The single reached number 53 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, number 17 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart, and number 15 on the Billboard Hot Rap Tracks chart.
Single track listing
US 12" Vinyl
- "If I Ruled the World" (Main Mix) (4:42)
- "If I Ruled the World" (Instrumental) (4:34)
- "If I Ruled the World" (Clean Mix) (4:42)
- "If I Ruled the World" (A Cappella) (4:42)
Europe Maxi-CD (COL 663296 2)
- "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That) (Main Mix)" (4:45)
- "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That) (Instrumental)" (4:36)
- "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That) (Clean Mix)" (4:45)
- "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That) (A Cappella)" (4:42)
Europe CD (COL 663296 1)
- "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That) (Main Mix)"
- "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That) (Instrumental)"
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- ^"End of Year Charts 1996". Recorded Music NZ. Retrieved December 3, 2017.
- ^"French single certifications – Nas – If I Ruled The World" (in French). Syndicat National de l'Édition Phonographique. Retrieved August 30, 2013.
- ^"Gold-/Platin-Datenbank (Nas; 'If I Ruled The World')" (in German). Bundesverband Musikindustrie. Retrieved August 30, 2013.
- ^"New Zealand single certifications – Nas – If I Ruled the World". Recorded Music NZ.