Adam Ash

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

World leaders at Davos say US is bonking itself in the bum - and worried we're doing the same to the rest of the world, too

Whisperings in Davos
Sentiment at World Economic Forum is that US is Stumbling Along in Wrong Direction
By H.D. Greenway/ Boston Globe

ONLY IN hindsight can one tell when a great power has reached its peak. Some say that Britain's war to extend its empire over the intransigent Boer farmers in South Africa a century ago marked the beginning of decline. But even earlier, the ardent colonialist Joseph Chamberlain had spoken of his country as weary and staggering "under the too-vast orb of its fate."

The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, with its unique convening powers, is as good a place as any to detect mood swings among those who do so much of the world's work, and the theme of this year's meeting was "the shifting power equation." There was a hint in the alpine air of resignation and sadness among those who admire America that the United States was stumbling along, lost in Iraq and headed in the wrong direction toward Iran. There was lament about good will lost, of power and prestige dissipated, and the dangers inherent in the rising tide of self-inflicted anti-Americanism.

Some of the delegates who met in the Swiss mountain town of Davos late last month detected a disconnect between business chiefs, who see these times as the best of boom market times, and those involved with national security who fear the worst of times, with the demons let loose in the Middle East and the misuse of American power.

Unlike most previous years, Washington sent few high-level delegates to represent the executive branch, and there was a sense that the Bush administration was hunkered down and losing relevancy -- something that simply had to be waited out like a bad cold.

Delegates from China and India exuded confidence, and there was talk of Asia's "renaissance," reflecting that Asian lands had come into their own for the first time since the 15th century when one-half of the world's industrial production came from the East, as Oxford's Timothy Garton Ash put it.

Every day of the conference there seemed to be another article in the world's press predicting American decline. "New York Could Lose Lead in Finance," said one. "Sun May Be Setting On Silicon Valley Supremacy," said another. "Indian Economy Is Seen Passing US By 2050," and "Middle East Adjusts To America's Diminishing Power," two more headlines announced. And, perhaps the cruelest blow of all: "Macao Casinos Catch Up To Las Vegas Strip."

The Financial Times wrote of "the rapid hemorrhaging" of President Bush's authority, and Jacob Weisberg of Slate wrote from Davos about the "quandary of how to deal with the problem of a ruined president."

Britain's new Tory leader, David Cameron, making his debut on the world stage, told reporters that the special relationship with the United States should mean telling America what it should hear, not just what it wanted to hear.

Iraqi politicians fresh from the Green Zone shuffled through the snow from panel to panel to discuss the fate of their benighted country, over which they exercise less and less control. There was talk about how the United States may now have lost two colonial wars, Vietnam and Iraq. Iranians were noticeable, too, although none from the government, seeking shelter from American war rhetoric -- so reminiscent of pre-war Iraq. There was speculation in the corridors whether the United States and or Israel would attack Iran sometime before year's end.

One measure of shifting power is that the ability of the United States to achieve what it wants is diminishing, which might not be altogether a bad thing, I heard delegates say. Power was flowing away from traditional governments and nation states toward non-state actors, both good and bad, they said.

But for all of that, Pei Minxin of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace predicted the United States will still be dominant in the next 15 or 20 years. China had only one-fifth the gross domestic product of the United States, India less, he said. And "these new powers will be more interested in balancing against each other than against the United States." The United States had "tremendous recuperating powers" and "self-correcting mechanisms." Iraq would be only a temporary reversal, he said, and it would be unwise to bet against the United States.

One hopes he's right. But if America continues with the new colonialism of regime change in Muslim lands, or goes to war with Iran with two wars yet unfinished, then the United States will be staggering under its too-vast orb of fate for generations to come.

(H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.)


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