Coming Soon: The 21st Century

Today’s must-read is E.J. Dionne’s Washington Post op-ed, Coming Soon: The 21st Century.  Just as the 70s didn’t really begin until the winding down of the Vietnam War in 1972, this century is going to begin a little later than scheduled.

Some thought the new century may have begun with 9/11, but as Dionne points out, the way we made sense of that calamity was with old 20th century ideas like totalitarianism, fascism, and quasi-nation-states.

It was a dangerous and self-defeating set of illusions. Our battle with the terrorists is difficult precisely because it doesn’t fit into the familiar categories. It grows out of struggles within Islam over which we have little control — between Shiites and Sunnis, between modernizing and reactionary forces, between old regimes and new contenders for power.

The shortcomings of applying 20th century ideas to contemporary problems highlights “the urgency of disenthralling ourselves from dated ideas.”

So, too, does the rise of a new architecture of power in the world with the emergence especially of India and China. Fareed Zakaria says his book “The Post-American World” is not “about the decline of America,” even if its catchy title suggests otherwise, but he’s right to think anew about American influence.

What should fall is another illusion, the idea that the United States is the world’s “sole remaining superpower.” This notion weakened us because it suggested an omnipotence that no nation can possess.

By shedding this misapprehension, the United States could restore its influence. We could rediscover the imperative of acting in concert with others to build global institutions that strengthen our security and foster our values.

Dionne argues the world’s economic problems also merit concerted action.

What Dionne is pointing to is the need to imagine a new political topography, a new position for the United States in an interconnected world. This is a philosophical project, not just an empirical one of drawing up new treaties and alliances.  Relationships follow up on our mental images and self-conceptions. We in the United States need to start imagining ourselves as partners and co-creators of a more just, peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable world.  If we are going to be world leaders, we are going to have to lead with moral authority and not brute might.

If Al Qaeda has shown us anything it is that the American “bully on the block” (Colin Powell’s term for the U.S. at the end of the Cold War) is powerless before more insidious and diffuse physical power.  If we stay on the page of power as might, we are going to remain in peril.  That power might have worked in the 20th century, but it is increasingly impotent in the 21st.  America’s new power, power that can be shared with all others, will have to be the moral kind where we move away from realist notions of self-interest and self-preservation and towards normative ones of justice and right.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.

1 comment

  1. Thanks for flagging E.J.’s piece (and happy new year!). The key question seems to be how to extricate ourselves from being (and thinking of ourselves as) a “superpower,” which is really a legacy of the Cold War and the need to project ideological hegemony. That image has real consequences (e.g. in terms of military organization), but–as you say–the imaginative challenge is figuring out how to act both responsibly and collaboratively.

    I can see the institutional dimension here, but I’m curious how you see the properly philosophical stakes.

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