Today's date:
Fall 2008

Is America Ready for a Post-American World?

Francis Fukuyama is author of the seminal post-Cold War book The End of History and the Last Man. The following is an edited transcript of a commencement address by Fukuyama, delivered at the Pardee RAND Graduate School, in June. The full transcript can be found at

Los Angeles—Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria has labeled the world ahead a “post-American world.” I do get a very strong sense that conditions in the global economy are changing in very dramatic ways. The assumptions that undergirded either the Cold War world, or this extended period of American hegemony since, are not going to be sufficient to guide America in the world that is emerging.

The first obvious change the United States faces has to do with the emergence of a multi-polar world. This is not a story about American decline. The US remains the dominant power in the world, but the rest of the world is catching up. The power shift in terms of economic earnings is very dramatic. Russia, China, India and the states of the Persian Gulf are all growing while America is sinking into a recession. This underlines how the rest of the world has become decoupled from the American economy.

In the Clinton years and in the Bush years, the US was used to lecturing the rest of the world about how to get its economic house in order, but those kinds of lectures tend to ring a bit more hollow given our financial crisis of the past year. The most dramatic evidence of this shift in power is the simple fact of the indebtedness of the US, and the accumulating reserves on the part of a lot of countries in the rest of the world. The People’s Republic of China has $1.5 trillion in reserves; Russia, $550 billion; South Korea, $260 billion; Thailand, $110 billion; Algeria, $120 billion. The little states of the Gulf Cooperation Council collectively have about $300 billion in reserves. Saudi Arabia just by itself is saving money at the rate of approximately $15 billion every single month as a result of energy exports.

This kind of accumulation of reserves is a phenomenon that in the short run doesn’t signal a shift in power because money of this sort doesn’t obviously translate into military or other kinds of power. On the other hand, a few hundred billion dollars here, a few trillion dollars there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money. As time goes on, this kind of earning power is going to be translated into important shifts in the way that countries interact. It is inevitable that we are going to be facing a world in which American options are much more constrained.

This may be due to shifts in the military balance of power down the road, but it’s also in terms of soft power. Today, the Chinese and Indians export movies, there are Korean pop stars who are popular all over Asia and the Japanese produce anime and manga. There are, in short, other sources of cultural creativity besides the sort that comes out of Hollywood. One particularly worrying trend is the growing reluctance of foreign students to study in American universities due to the obstacles we have put up to their coming here. Over the past few years, students from around the world have been finding alternatives other than going to American universities.

The emergence of this economic multi-polar world has been much commented on. But there’s a second important respect in which the world has changed that has to do with the very character of international relations today. If you look at the part of the world that extends from North Africa through the Middle East into the Persian Gulf, Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, all the way to the borders of the Indian subcontinent, you are dealing with a world that is quite different from the international relations that characterized the world of the 20th century.

That world was dominated by strong, centralized states. International politics was the story of the interaction of these strong, centralized states—Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, the former Soviet Union and the like. What is different about today’s international world is that it is dominated not by strong states, but by weak and sometimes failing states where the usual instruments of power—in particular, hard military power—don’t work that well.

The characteristics of the weak-state world were noted after the Lebanon war in 2006 by Henry Kissinger, who said that Hezbollah “is in fact a metastasization of the al-Qaida pattern. It acts openly as a state within a state....A non-state entity on the soil of a state, with all the attributes of a state and backed by the major regional power, is a new phenomenon in international relations.”

Unfortunately, it’s not simply new, and it’s not simply characteristic of Lebanon. It is true of many countries throughout that part of the world. Why does this weak-state world exist? It has to do with the fact that around the world, as development occurs, new social actors and groups are mobilized that were formally excluded from power, like the Shiites in Lebanon. It extends to our continent as well. We’ve had tremendous turmoil in the Andean region of Latin America because indigenous peoples in places like Bolivia and Ecuador who were largely cut out of power are now demanding their share of it.

This weak-state world has a lot of implications for American power. We need to consider this very perplexing fact: The US spends as much on its military as virtually the entire rest of the world combined. And yet it is now five years and counting since the US invaded and occupied Iraq, and to this day we have not succeeded in pacifying it fully. That is because of the changing nature of power itself. We are trying to use an instrument—hard military power—that we used in the 20th century world of Great Powers and centralized states in a weak-state world. You cannot use hard power to create legitimate institutions, to build nations, to consolidate politics and all of the other things that are necessary for political stability in this part of the world.

There are other things afoot in international politics in reaction to American dominance over the last two decades: Other countries are mobilizing against the US. You have alliances like the Shanghai Cooperation Council, which had organized itself to push the US out of Asia after our post-9/11 entry into that region. We cannot call on our democratic allies to the extent that we used to be able to. This was obviously true in Iraq, but even in a country like Afghanistan, where our allies in principle agree with the legitimacy of the intervention, we have had tremendous difficulties in getting them to pony up the necessary resources, troops and support.

Even a country like South Korea that has been a traditional American ally has been convulsed with anti-American demonstrations over the past couple of months because of the controversy over imports of American beef.

In short, we face a world in which we need a very different set of skills. We need to be able to deploy and use hard power, but there are a lot of other aspects of projecting American values and institutions that need to underlie a continuing leadership role for the US in the world. The Clinton administration’s efforts in the Balkans, Somalia and Haiti to do nation building were criticized as “social work.” The critique was that real men and real foreign policy professionals don’t do this kind of nation building or deploy soft power, but rather deal with hard power with military force.

But, in fact, American foreign policy has to be preoccupied with a certain kind of social work today. Opponents of American power around the world—the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, as well as populist leaders in Latin America like Hugo Chavez, Rafael Correa or Evo Morales—have succeeded in coming to power because they can offer social services directly to poor people in their countries.

The US, by contrast, has really had relatively little to offer in this regard over the past generation. We can offer free trade, and we can offer democracy; these are very good and important things, the basis for growth and political order. But they tend not to appeal to poor populations that are the real constituents of this struggle for power and influence in the world.

The requirements of an American leadership role are thus quite different today. This raises the question: “Is America really ready to deal with a world in which it cannot assume its own hegemony?”

I do not believe in inevitable American decline. The US has enormous assets in technology, in competitiveness, in entrepreneurship; it has flexible labor markets and financial institutions that are in principle strong, but, admittedly, are having a little bit of difficulty at the present moment.

One of America’s greatest advantages is its ability to absorb people from other countries and cultures. Virtually all developed countries are experiencing a severe demographic decline. They are getting smaller with every passing year, because of falling birthrates of native-born people. Any successful developed country in the future is going to have to accommodate immigrants and people from different cultures, and I believe the US is unique in its ability to do so.

The problems that the US face are really ones that are we ourselves have created. None of the problems and challenges that the US faces are insoluble. The problems are really political and institutional ones.

There are three particular areas of weakness that the US must remedy if it is to get through the set of challenges I’ve outlined. These three are, first, the diminishing capacity of our public sector; second, a certain complacency on the part of Americans about understanding the world from a perspective other than that of the US; and third, our polarized political system that is incapable of even discussing solutions to these problems.

We have seen in the past few years a depressing number of policy failures due to the inability of our public officials to actually carry out, plan and implement policies that we agree on. The most obvious case of this was the failure to adequately plan for the occupation and subsequent counter-insurgency war that broke out in Iraq. Part of that was the result of a political miscalculation as to how the US would be received. Even after it was clear that the US would be in Iraq for the long haul, it took an extraordinary amount of time to adjust to those conditions and move to a counter-insurgency strategy. Indeed, it took President Bush longer to find a good general, Gen. David Petraeus, than it took Lincoln to find Grant in the American Civil War.

We’ve engaged in two major reorganizations of the federal government in Washington over the last few years: the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the reorganization of the intelligence community. Stunningly, we are less capable in both of those areas than we were prior to the reorganizations. The Department of Homeland Security was supposed to enable the US to respond to major urban disasters, and yet the response to Hurricane Katrina was a total fiasco.

The second issue has to do with complacency about the outside world.

After Sputnik in the late 1950s, the US responded to the Soviet challenge by making massive investments in basic science and technology. This proved to be a very successful set of investments that reaffirmed American technological leadership. After 9/11, we could have reacted in a similar way, by making large investments in our ability to understand complex parts of the world that we did not understand very well, like the Middle East. It is a scandal that in this monstrous new embassy we’ve created in Baghdad, we only have a handful of fluent Arabic speakers.

The final issue has to do with the deadlock that we face in our political system. Polarization has put off the table serious discussion of how to solve some of these long-term and very clear challenges that every public policy expert understands. It is not possible for the Right to talk about raising taxes to pay for badly needed public goods. It is not possible for the Left to talk about issues like privatizing Social Security or raising the retirement age.

Neither the Left nor the Right has had the political courage to suggest raising energy taxes, which has been the obvious way of dealing with foreign energy dependency and encouraging alternative sources of energy. And so the political culture that we have created as a result of this kind of politics is incapable of making the decisions that we need.

I’ve focused here on how the US must face the future. But no one around the world will benefit from an America that is inward looking, incapable of executing policies and too divided to make important decisions. That hurts not just Americans, but the rest of the world as well.