What Can We Reasonably Hope For?

A Millennium Symposium

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 99 (January 2000): 13-14.

[Symposium Contents]

Elliott Abrams

Europe is the cradle of American civilization and the source of our language and politics. Many of our greatest statesmen have played out their foreign policies there—from our war for independence to the world wars in this century. Even in the last year of the millennium, American troops were landing in Europe again.

But in the coming century, this will change. Engagements like Kosovo are sideshows, and the future of American world power will not be determined by wars in Europe. Russia’s population is shrinking and its economy shows no signs of recovery, so its return to great power status is unlikely. Nor will world politics and our future depend on any likely events in Latin America or Africa, where no country is powerful enough to threaten our interests or become a world power. Wrenching though it will be for our traditional Eurocentrism, the great game is moving to Asia.

Consider the numbers first: China has 1.5 billion people and India 1 billion, and we should not overlook Indonesia at over 200 million, Pakistan at 150 million, and Bangladesh at 125 million. By 2050, India’s population will probably rise to 1.5 billion, Bangladesh’s will nearly double to 245 million, and Pakistan’s will more than double—to roughly the same level as our own. Put another way, Asia will become the world’s population center. It will be an increasingly powerful economic center as well, whatever the occasional setback, and it is clear from the amounts currently being spent on weaponry that India and China will increase their military influence, in the region and beyond.

The rise of Asia will present us with an ideological challenge as great as the economic and military challenges. The American notion that our own political system constitutes man’s highest political achievement will come under assault. This challenge will come most strongly not from dictatorships such as China, but from variants of the Singaporean—or perhaps a future Chinese—system that put far greater emphasis on community, order, and duty than on individual rights and personal autonomy.

Once the Asian systems become reasonably democratic, the debate will not be over elementary human rights but over which model of social and political organization is "best." Since societies differ so much, that argument is not very useful in the abstract. It will, however, be a very good one for Americans to have in the twenty-first century, for it will force us to reconsider what the American system is and why we want to keep it. Too often in recent decades we have described it as a mixture of free markets and electoral institutions, a dry and lifeless formulation that would have surprised the Founders. They, like those in the Confucian tradition, understood that some conception of virtue—of what constitutes a life well led and a society well organized—must underlie our political institutions if they are to be sustained. The external debate over Asian vs. American "values" and political systems will enrich the discussion within this country. It will remind Americans of their own communal values, their own understanding of personal and civic virtue, and the Founders’ now nearly forgotten conclusion that religion was the irreplaceable source of both. Meanwhile, the large numbers of Latin and Asian immigrants to the United States, and the related debates over issues such as bilingual education and affirmative action, will force us to consider once again what it means to be an American and what "American values" really are.

In the early decades of the century the time will be ripe for us to begin this discussion. It is now widely understood that our current approach to these matters has failed. Just as the call for greater personal responsibility within the welfare system became bipartisan, many similar moves—to reform the value-free atmosphere of the public schools, to permit more religion in the public square, to end the years of sexual license—will achieve wide acceptance. The social mores of the last third of the twentieth century will be understood as an aberration, a largely failed experiment.

The alternatives presented by the very different societies coming to power in Asia will be helpful correctives, but not acceptable models. The genius of the traditional American system will, I predict, be revealed when we see it in the context of those alternatives—for Americans if not for the world. The unique American balance between community and individual, between rights and responsibilities, between private life and patriotic duty, between wealth and charity, and between local and national government, will be clarified, and Americans’ commitment to maintaining that balance strengthened. The view that the American way constitutes the only sound model for all mankind’s future may lose ground, but Americans’ understanding of and commitment to that way, and their pride in it, will grow. By the end of the twenty-first century it may even be as high as it was at the beginning of the twentieth.

Elliott Abrams is President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, located in Washington, D.C.