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Trilateral Melt
Japanese High Speed Train (Wikimedia)

With Vice President visiting Japan and the NATO assisted Libyan rebels consolidating (one hopes) their control of Tripoli, this is an odd and impolitic moment to say so, but the decline of the trilateral alliance is picking up speed.

Trilateralism was the response of the US and its closest allies to the perceived decline in American power during the 1970s.  (For younger readers, predictions of American decline have been one of the pundit industry’s major offerings since the Great Depression, with a new spike in prophecies of American decline every ten to fifteen years.)  The idea was that the rise of West Germany and Japan would eclipse American power and so the unilateral American leadership of the post World War Two years would yield to a three legged stool: Europe, Japan and the US would run the Free World together.  The Trilateral Commission was the dreaded hate object of the tin hat brigades of that era and organizations like the G-7 (expanded to the G-8 as a sop to Russia’s wounded pride) were established to embody the trilateral approach.

Japan and western Europe in those faraway days were the places that the fashionable pundits used as sticks to beat America with; we had to get over the illusion of American exceptionalism and realize that in the brave new world the state guided approaches of the Europeans and Japanese would beat the pants off our more individualistic and laissez-faire capitalist model.  Japan and Europe were building high speed rail; stuck in the mud American was falling behind in this critical technology that would generate the jobs of the future. (In those days the “population bomb” was the Malthusian menace that would destroy us all without massive government action and expensive international programs; these days we have climate change.)

One reason intellectual scams like this can be repeated is that each new generation of young people comes on the scene without memories of the last time these vapid arguments dominated the world of policy chat.  These days the same arguments are trotted out about China, the same methods of projecting statistical trends out to infinity are used to make confident but utterly wrongheaded statements about where the world is headed, and, as always, used to argue for more power and more resources to the planning and administrative elites for the sake of the common good.  America’s inevitable decline and high speed rail: to proclaim the first and advocate the second is a great way to tell young people that you can be safely ignored.

It was George Orwell who said that the dark night of fascism is always falling on America but landing on Europe; substitute the word ‘decline’ for ‘fascism’ and add Japan to Europe, and you get a pretty good picture of world affairs.  Europe’s financial crisis is leading to further cutbacks in military spending; NATO is becoming a hollow alliance as even Britain and France accelerate their military decline.  Moody’s has just downgraded Japan’s debt — a far more consequential and meaningful exercise than the S&P downgrade of the US.

One of the most important secrets of American power over the decades is the way our interests complement those of so many other countries.  The world of geopolitical balance and shared prosperity through trade that the US seeks to build is close enough to the world that others want so that we have always been able to count on the cooperation of allies.  Our key allies in Europe and Japan are no longer enough — not because of US decline but because of European and Japanese problems.  We need now to reach out and find new allies interested in helping us propel this system forward into the 21st century; India, Turkey and Brazil are three of the countries who spring to the minds of American policy planners.  They are not alone.

Our trilateral friends are not going to vanish; Europe and Japan still have roles to play, and it is quite possible that one or both will recover the dynamism to play a growing not a shrinking role in world affairs.  From the US point of view that would be a plus, but for now the basic American calculation must look at our traditional trilateral partners as allies committed to decline.

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  • WigWag

    If anything, Professor Mead understates the reality of the trilateral collapse. It’s not just ten years of stagnation in Japan or the impending collapse of the Euro, nor is it only Europe’s decision to eviscerate its ability to defend itself. There’s also the demographic collapse of Western Europe and Japan. The populations of our trilateral partners are diminishing right along with their prospects for world leadership. On the positive side, the rise of China looks like it is motivating the Japanese to increase defense spending.

    My one question is why Professor Mead views the Turks as potential future allies. They’ve spent the last few decades killing 40,000 Kurds, they’ve played a profoundly negative role in Cyprus, they treat the Alevi like dirt, their failed diplomacy has insured that the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh remains as intractable as ever and they are one of the few serial genocide deniers that still exist in the world.

    They’ve done everything they could to shove a stick in the United State’s eye over Iran, Syria (until very recently), Iraq, Gaza and Israel and the nation is moving in an Islamist and anti-democratic direction.

    Why exactly does Professor Mead thinks the Turks are potential allies? I just don’t get it.

    Frankly, if I was trying to cozy up to potential new allies, I would pick the Russians before I would pick the Turks.

  • Richard F. Miller

    Don’t blame the young for falling for these scams!

    In our time, they are perpetuated by the (now) old Boomers ala Tom Friedman and his ilk. Dr. Mead, I think the better question is why? What stake do the scammers have in perpetuating the notion of American decline?

    In the old days (way, way old days, ala Second Great Awakening and later) arguments of decline served as a vehicle for passing temperance laws, restricting immigration (especially of Catholics), and obstructing the franchise for naturalized citizens.

    Later, arguments of decline served as a vehicle for the right. (In the 1950s MacArthur famously questioned whether American youth still had the “vigor” and “discipline” to fight wars.) Rock and Roll and the moral decay alleged to accompany increasing standards of living were targeted in various campaigns to revitalize, rearm or re-militarize the country.

    Declinist arguments continue to serve partisan ends. On the left (Friedman, inter-alia) these serve the progressive vision: his astonishing respect for Chinese authoritarianism (bizarre, that) is premised on lousy U.S planes, trains, and automobiles. On the right, declinism serves the ends of deficit reduction, shrinking government, and opening up enterprise.

    I confess with no embarrassment to belong to the latter school. Nevertheless, I also can see that the argument advances my partisan interests.

    And so it is with every other hawker of Decline-o-Vision. As a wise woman once said, “Do what you must, but always remember to separate the noise from the thing making the noise.”

  • Luke Lea

    India, Turkey, and Brazil, God help us!

  • Richard F. Miller

    WigWag: if anything, the Russian demographic decline is worse than in Western Europe; worse yet, it is accompanied by a falling life expectancy. Putin has even adopted natalist policies (which don’t appear to be working.)

    I agree that Turkey is not an ally; however, that does not exclude convergences of interest. If one school of thought is correct, Turkey’s ultimate rival in the region is neither Israel nor the West, but Iran. To that extent, the Turks may prove useful in a thousand different ways, especially if it bolsters fellow Sunnis in an anti-Iranian alliance.

    To be honest, I’d rather deal with Muslims from the “Sublime Porte” than their counterpart Wahabbis.

  • Luke Lea

    Come to think of it, Europe and Japan’s immanent decline also have been been repeatedly forecast. Bear in mind pundits constantly need important new developments to write about. Weekly syndicated columnists at the Post and NYT especially. I feel for them.

    At least Professor Mead posts his opinions only when he feels moved by the spirit!

  • Anthony

    WRM, Trilateral Commission issued report in seventies on Governability of Democracies in which decline was intimated if not inferred vis-a-vis U.S. Now,thirty five years later decline is forcast for Western Europe and Japan; how ironic given that the Trilateral Commission initially aspired to create basic international links for global economy. Now, Japan and Western Europe must contend with both demographic and economic trends deteriorating two-thirds of commission while U.S. seeks other possible allies. But our trilateral friends are resilent and, as stated, will not vanish – they both yet have many multinational corporations engaged in global business.

  • andrei radulescu-banu

    The fascism quote is from Tom Wolfe, recounting an episode at a Princeton conference with Günther Grass, the scion of post-war German literature:

    “The next thing I knew, the discussion was onto the subject of fascism in America. Everybody was talking about police repression and the anxiety and paranoia as good folks waited for the knock on the door and the descent of the knout on the nape of the neck. I couldn’t make any sense out of it. I had just made a tour of the country to write a series called “The New Life Out There” for New York magazine. This was the mid-1960’s. The post-World War II boom had by now pumped money into every level of the population on a scale unparalleled in any nation in history. Not only that, the folks were running wilder and freer than any people in history. For that matter, Krassner himself, in one of the strokes of exuberance for which he was well known, was soon to publish a slight hoax: an account of how Lyndon Johnson was so overjoyed about becoming President that he had buggered a wound in the neck of John F. Kennedy on Air Force One as Kennedy’s body was being flown back from Dallas. Krassner presented this as a suppressed chapter from William Manchester’s book Death of a President. Johnson, of course, was still President when it came out. Yet the merciless gestapo dragnet missed Krassner, who cleverly hid out onstage at Princeton on Saturday nights.

    “Suddenly I heard myself blurting out over my microphone: “My God, what are you talking about? We’re in the middle of a … Happiness Explosion!”

    “That merely sounded idiotic. The kid up in the balcony did the crying baby. The kid down below did the raccoon … Krakatoa, East of Java … I disappeared in a tidal wave of rude sounds … Back to the goon squads, search-and-seize and roust-a-daddy …

    “Support came from a quarter I hadn’t counted on. It was Grass, speaking in English.

    ““For the past hour I have my eyes fixed on the doors here,” he said. “You talk about fascism and police repression. In Germany when I was a student, they come through those doors long ago. Here they must be very slow.”

    “Grass was enjoying himself for the first time all evening. He was not simply saying, “You really don’t have so much to worry about.” He was indulging his sense of the absurd. He was saying: “You American intellectuals—you want so desperately to feel besieged and persecuted!”

    “He sounded like Jean-François Revel, a French socialist writer who talks about one of the great unexplained phenomena of modern astronomy: namely, that the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.”

    To which Tom Wolfe makes the following counterpoint:

    “Not very nice, Günter! Not very nice, Jean-François! A bit supercilious, wouldn’t you say!”

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @andrei br: Thanks for pointing this out. We had one of the interns taken out and shot pour encourager les autres, and bought another company jet so that senior management won’t have to waste time flying commercial.

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