Beijing 2008: America's Sputnik Moment

10/10/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

August 8, 2008 may someday be remembered as the first day of the post-American era. Or it could be remembered as the sputnik moment when the American people realized just how far America has fallen due to the monumental mismanagement by America's leaders over the past eight years and decided it was time for America to get its act together. Whether or not the American people recognize the magnitude of the challenges America faces as a country and begin to face them over the next few years will determine which fate will ultimately be realized.

There was no mistaking the power and symbolism of phenomenal opening ceremonies to the Beijing Olympic Games on August 8. Brilliantly executed, the multimedia spectacular was far more than the tracing 5,000 years of Chinese history, it was Beijing's statement to the world that China is a major civilization that demands and deserves its rightful place in the global hierarchy of nations.

And there was also no mistaking the symbolism of the world seeing President Bush, the first US president in history to attend an Olympic opening ceremony abroad, waving cheerfully from his spot in the bleachers as self-proclaimed sports fan-in-chief while Chinese President Hu Jintao sat behind what looked more like the throne of the emperor of the Middle Kingdom. It is hard to imagine that the Chinese government, which obsesses endlessly about every minute issue of protocol in its international affairs, had not carefully orchestrated this stark visual image of America's decline relative to the host country to which America owes $1.4 trillion. It would be hard to imagine Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan accepting a similar position.

At the very same time that the sports fan-in-chief was waving from the stands, Russia was invading Georgia, America's closest partner in the Caucuses and a budding democracy with the third largest contingent of troops in Iraq. Russia's message to the other West-leaning countries in the region was abundantly clear -- with American forces overextended in Iraq and its political capital at a seventy-year low, America cannot protect you. Frighteningly, the Russians were likely correct. While the Iraq quagmire has made it extremely difficult for America to project force around the world, America's growing debt, conflicts with friends and enemies alike over issues ranging from international law to the environment, the absence of any perceivable US strategy for the changing times, and the seeming inability of the American political system to take sufficient action to address these challenges and get its own house in order have also combined to turn America into a struggling giant at a time when the world needs a just leviathan more than ever.

Despite the many mistakes, many of them tragic, made by the United States over the past seventy years, it is hard to imagine a country doing more overall for the global good than the US has done over that period. America worked closely with its allies to defeat fascism and win the Second World War. At a time of unrivalled dominance after the war, the U.S. led the charge to build the international institutions -- the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, etc. -- that laid the foundations for a generation of peace and security, and ultimately, for globalization. America educated the best students from around the world and opened its markets to the businesses they created; it helped rebuild and empower countries around the world under a system of international law when it would have been far easier to behave as most dominant countries had in history and simply use its power to consolidate its dominance. It is a testament to both the intelligence and hard work of populations in countries like Japan, Germany, Korea, Japan, and India and to American magnanimity that those counties have reached the levels of growth that they have today. It also harmed millions in places like Vietnam. But with America's global influence in decline, the world must ask the basic question of whether this multi-polar world that succeeds the pax Americana will be safer or less safe than the system which preceded it.

Today -- from Iran to Darfur to Zimbabwe to Georgia -- the world is witnessing the effects of a budding post-American world, and it does not look pretty. As much as we all value the rise of new powers like China and India to the world stage, it remains to be seen whether these countries will become as benevolent a power as America, however flawed, has been over the past half a century. Neo-colonialism is returning to Africa, the global project of human rights is in retreat, and the world trade system is becoming far less open. Brutal dictators go largely unpunished because their interests are protected by large powers with stakes in their natural resources. America's global position is receding under what some have described as the benign mismanagement of and at worst criminal negligence by American leaders. Reversing this trend is not only in America's interest, but also the world's.

At home, the American people must come together to identify and address the great challenges the country faces starting from the ground up. Fixing America's campaign finance structure, which leads to massive misallocations of government funds, resuscitating America's wildly uneven and often moribund education system, building an immigration system that actively recruits the most talented people from around the world to come to the United States with a fast track to citizenship, and developing a meaningful national energy policy that moves the U.S. far more quickly in the direction of energy independence would all be important steps in this direction. Working to rebuild the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy would also make the US once again a far more predictable partner to our friends and allies around the world. America must be a respectful partner to encourage rising powers like India and China to play more constructive roles in international affairs.

The world outside America is also not ready for the post-American era, and countries like China and India must come to play a far greater role in strengthening the existing institutions of world peace, and building new ones where appropriate, that can promote a positive agenda of peace, security, dignity, rights, and prosperity across the globe.

The world community is not there yet, and until it is, the world needs a new kind of American leader -- a sports fan-in-chief when appropriate, but more importantly a leader able to inspire the American people to both fix their problems at home and work with partners across the globe in promoting a common agenda as bold and progressive as the order built from the Ashes of war sixty years ago.

August 8, 2008 could be remembered as a sputnik moment for the USA. But America can only make it so by recognizing this important day for the great challenges it highlights and taking bold steps towards addressing them, at home and with allies abroad, in the best tradition of positive American values.

Jamie Metzl is the Executive Vice President of the Asia Society and a former member of the National Security Council staff. The views expressed are his own. A shorter version of this post was distributed by Project Syndicate.