Two Glimpses of a Grim Post-American Future

New books point to gathering trouble in both Asia and Europe.

Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters

As the United States under President Trump recedes from world leadership, things are not looking so good elsewhere on earth. Two new books—with similarly morbid titles—have arrived to warn of big trouble ahead for both the European Union and the emerging economies of Asia.

The End of the Asian Century by Michael Auslin offers a point-by-point debunking of the “Asiaphoria” that gripped so many imaginations a decade ago. James Kirchick’s The End of Europe tours a continent in which democratic and liberal forces are losing ground to Russia-infatuated extremists of right and left. The conclusion left behind by a reading of the two together: The post-American world predicted by Fareed Zakaria a decade ago is shaping up as an exceedingly unstable and uncomfortable place.

Michael Auslin taught history at Yale and now holds a resident scholar slot at the American Enterprise Institute. (He and I overlapped there in the later 2000s, and we have remained in friendly contact ever since.) A Japan specialist, he has done deep research into the economics and demographics of what he calls the “Indo-Pacific region.” His account is unremittingly pessimistic. China is succumbing to economic stagnation while flinching from political reform. A profoundly corrupt communist leadership suppresses dissent ever more brutally while provoking confrontations with neighbors. Pollution poisons China’s air and water; pessimism pervades the Chinese elite.

Numerous media outlets have reported … that the overwhelming majority of China’s rich, including members of the elite National People’s Congress, hold foreign passports for themselves and their families. … In just one calendar year, from March 2013 to March 2014, Chinese buyers spent $22 billion on U.S. real estate. Polls indicate that nearly half of China’s millionaires living on the mainland planned to move overseas by 2020, while more than a quarter of those worth at least $16 million (100 million RMB) had already done so.

Japan, in Auslin’s telling, is contentedly senescing. Its population is aging and shrinking. Its technology edge has dulled. Its young people stay home in both the broad and the narrow sense of the phrase: The number of Japanese studying abroad has halved since the 1990s; 3 million Japanese between 35 and 44 are unmarried and living with parents.

South Korea faces a hostile North with a corrupt and unstable democratic regime. India is gripped by poverty, corruption, and increasingly sectarian politics. In southeast Asia from Burma to the Philippines, population is growing faster than wealth. Overhanging the whole region: a rising risk of outright war.

China’s rise is upsetting the political and military equilibrium and causing other nations to build their own military power. … North Korea has moved from bizarre annoyance to deadly threat, while numerous territorial disputes between countries both large and small are helping fuel the arms race. The rules that have long governed international relations in Asia appear to be breaking down.

The worst of Asia’s post-1945 violence has been internal: the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the violence of Indian partition, the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, the 1971 Pakistani rampage within the former East Pakistan, and many other such bloodlettings—all occurred within what had been recognized borders. Episodes of cross-border violence like the 1962 Sino-Indian war, 1979 Chinese-Vietnamese war, and the repeated clashes between India and Pakistan since independence look mild in comparison. Auslin argues that the conditions are building for major-power conflict in Asia and the Pacific—in great part because Asia has failed to build the institutions of conflict resolution. There is no Asian EU, no Asian NATO. Asia has no equivalent to the determination of European voting publics never again to subject themselves to war amongst themselves, in great part because Asian voting publics count for so much less—when they count for anything at all.

Half the world away, James Kirchick’s assessment of Europe’s future is even grimmer than Auslin’s assessment of Asia’s. Ten thousand people have lost their lives, and hundreds of thousands more have lost their homes, because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The new democracies of Central Europe are backsliding; the established democracies of western Europe are backsliding. Kirchick covered the continent for Radio Free Europe. As Auslin marshalls the startling statistic, Kirchick deploys the pungent quote. Thus, about Ukraine, he writes:

From Poland to Hungary, many see the EU flag as a symbol of bureaucratic oppression. … To Ukrainians, this simple standard of twelve gold stars arranged in a circle, set against a blue background, signifies something else. It is an aspiration, an icon of grand ideals such as individual rights, the rule of law, economic prosperity, and political freedom, as well as quotidian goals like not having to pay a bribe whenever one interacts with government official. Whether Europeans appreciate it or not, their flag is the adopted emblem of Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity. Maidan was the first place anyone died under that flag, a point stressed by the young Ukrainian civic activist and parliamentarian Hanna Hopko. “Ukraine,” she says, “might be the only nation that has give life for values which Europeans are not even ready to continue sanctions for.”

Kirchick and I are friends of long standing. We traveled together in Ukraine in 2014. His pessimism is well-informed—and dismayingly infectious.

[Europe has experienced] almost ten years of zero economic growth, a resurgent Russia, rising Islamic extremism, and the greatest mass movement of humanity since the late 1940s. … What once appeared irreversible—ever-greater political and economic integration on a continent where armed conflict had been banished to the dustbin of history along with totalitarian ideologies like communism and fascism—today seems a transient historical phase. … Discouraged by their governments’ inability to handle a slew of problems, Europeans are questioning the very legitimacy of liberal democracy.

Kirchick gives the reader a dismal guided tour of a continent in which extremism is gaining the upper hand, in large part due to the fecklessness of the continent’s moderates.

Europe’s manifold crises collectively represent a crisis of liberalism. As the memory of World War II, the Holocaust, and the gulag fades, so too does antipathy to the illiberal ideologies that spawned Europe’s past horrors. This is evident in the rising success of populist authoritarian parties of the extreme left and right, none of which have anything new to say yet claim the mantle of ideological innovation and moral virtue. During the Cold War, Western leaders offered a robust defense of their values in the face of an existential totalitarian challenge. Today, while the threats to freedom may be more diffuse, they are no less potent, and yet moral relativism and self-doubt sap Western will at every turn.

The most important failure in his story is German. Like the Japanese, the German public seems content to enjoy an affluent life, shrugging off the onerous duties of regional military leadership. German leadership is too weak and too timid to inspire the public to shoulder more responsibility.

A 2015 Pew poll showed that only 25 percent of Germans believe their country “should play a more active military role in helping to maintain peace and stability in the world.” Russia exploits these pacifist sentiments through appeals to Germans’ historic war guilt, predisposition for simplistic notions of “peace,” and distrust of the United States.

The United States is the great common factor of both the Auslin and Kirchick books. The two writers speak little about the United States, but both are speaking to the United States. They write to warn American decisionmakers and concerned citizens of sources of trouble in the world system—and they do so because they take for granted America’s role as the ultimate guarantor of global peace and security. In other words, both men write from within the mental atmosphere of the pre-Trump era. Auslin and Kirchick speak from and for the American center-right as it used to be, not as it is today: a center-right that critiqued the Obama administration for exercising too little leadership, not too much.

Both books went to press before the outcome of the 2016 election was known. Both presupposed a future for U.S. foreign policy more or less continuous with the long tradition of benign hegemony established after 1945. That presupposition has of course now been upended. The U.S. suddenly looks a less predictable and less reliable partner, under capricious and untrustworthy leadership, decreasingly concerned for peace and stability, more intent on its own immediate advantage. As we absorb the challenging message of these two important books, we are left to contemplate how the problems they describe can be addressed in a world in which it is not only Asian prosperity and European stability that have come into question, but also the future of the great republic that enabled them both.