President George W. Bush looks on from his seat in the vast Birds Nest stadium during the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Could it be that his all-too-ordinary grandstand seat was an open attempt to diminish the standing of the United States, and glorify that of China?
August 8, 2008 may one day be remembered as the first day of the
post-American era. Or it could be remembered as another "Sputnik
moment," when, as with the Soviet foray into outer space in 1957, the
American people realized that the country had lost its footing and decided it
was time for the United States to get its act together.
There was no mistaking the power and symbolism of the opening
ceremonies for the Beijing Olympic Games on August 8. That multimedia
spectacular did far more than trace China's 5,000-year history; it was a
statement that China is a major civilization that demands and deserves its
rightful place in the global hierarchy.
There was also no
mistaking the symbolism of seeing President George W. Bush, waving cheerfully
from his spot in the bleachers while Chinese President HuJintao sat behind what looked like a throne. It's
hard to imagine that China's government, which obsesses over every minute issue
of diplomatic protocol, had not orchestrated this stark image of America's
decline relative to the country to which it owes $1.4 trillion. It would be
hard to imagine Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan accepting a similar
At the very same
time that Bush was waving from the stands, Russia was invading Georgia, America's
closest ally in the Caucasus. Russia's message to other West-leaning countries
in the former Soviet world was clear: America cannot protect you.
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Russians were likely correct. While the Iraq quagmire has made it difficult for
America to project force around the world, America's growing debt, conflicts
with friends and enemies alike, absence of any perceivable strategy for changing
times, and its political system's seeming inability to take action to address
these challenges have combined to turn America into a struggling colossus.
Today, from Iran
to Darfur to Zimbabwe to Georgia, the world is witnessing the effects of a
budding post-American world, and the picture does not look pretty. As much as
we all value the rise of new powers like China and India, it remains to be seen
whether these countries will become as benevolent a power as America, however
flawed it has been over the past half-century.
As much as we
welcome the ascent of new powers like China and India, it remains to be seen if
they too develop into benevolent powers, in the same way America, despite its
shortcomings, has been for the last half-century. The world is not ready for
the post-American era, and countries like China and India must play a far
greater role in strengthening the existing institutions of world peace and, where
appropriate, building new ones that can promote a positive agenda of security, dignity,
rights, and prosperity across the globe.
Olympics could be remembered as a new "Sputnik moment" for the US, inspiring
the country to meaningfully face the music of a changing world. But America can
make it so only by recognizing the great challenges it faces and taking bold
steps towards addressing them, at home and with allies abroad.
*Jamie F. Metzl is the Executive Vice President of the Asia Society
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