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Reflections on Starobin’s Five Roads to the Future

Paul Starobin’ s biography (from the author), from  NationalJournal.com

Related Link: http://www.afteramericabook.com

Paul Starobin is a staff correspondent for National Journal and a contributing editor to The Atlantic Monthly. He is author of the new book “After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age,” available in soft cover as “Five Roads to the Future: Power in the Next Global Age.”

Starobin was Moscow bureau chief for Business Week from 1999-2003. He has reported from Russia, Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Middle East, Europe and South America. Previous positions include reporter for Congressional Quarterly in Washington, business reporter for The Lowell Sun in Massachusetts, and public-policy case writer for the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He grew up in Worcester, Mass. and graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. in 1979. Starobin received a Masters of Science degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1981. He was an international journalism fellow for the Knight Foundation journalism program in 1998. When you try to get into trouble with your mother watches me to

Notes on 5  Roads to the Future

Starobin suggests that the American Century could not have continued in perpetuity, but has been accelerated by foolishness like war in Iraq and the consequences of the global financial crisis which has hit American credibility and economic strength more than other countries.

He describes finds potential/plausible scenarios for the future, all of which can be reasonably extrapolated from current conditions:

  1. Chaos: he believes he could either be a temporary condition until a new balance of power or world leaders in March or it could continue indefinitely as part of a dynamic world that does not permit a hegemon to develop. This is in line with a libertarian view of the world supported by dynamic technologies that support personal empowerment at the expense of the state.
  2. a Multipolar World: this would be built around a conventional array of multinational states with traditional nationalism providing the motivation for acting in global affairs. He suggests that new arrangements of alliances that might surprise us could act as counterweights to traditional superpowers. Consider Venezuela, North Korea and Iran; not so improbable. In this, world regional spheres of influence me come to dominate once more and the world may return to the era of The Great Game, when colonial powers battle for influence in the colonies. Military power would continue to be a factor in regional outcomes.
  3. A Chinese Century. In this scenario, the role of the world superpower is taken on by China with their new world leading economic power and manufacturing base. The one would replace the dollar as the reserve currency and the United States would be reduced to a second rate power status. China would be a hegemon less interested in promoting democratic ideals, more interested in securing economic advantage for the millennium, a path they have already undertaken while NATO and the US spend their national treasure in the mountains of Afghanistan. He considers the possibility of an Islamic Century considers that to be much less probable and certainly a far worse fate.
  4. An Era of Global City States: this scenario features the end of the nationstate as we know it and political economic strength being centered around major global metropolises. This is not a very convincing argument as the driver for the loss of the nationstate as a political player is absent. Certainly cities take on cultural characteristics that are unique to their locale, but it’s hard to see how instruments of regional and national power or default to mayors and city councils.
  5. The Universal Global Government: this scenario takes on the form of an expanded in more meaningful role for the United Nations either with or without regional governing boards like the Eurozone, NAFTA and CAFTA; it’s almost a logical extension of scenario to but with a global government sitting in a policy role above regional powers acting on behalf of oligarchs and the haves, probably preserving the rights of multinational corporations to preserve their hegemonic influence while providing minimum essential services and life support to the huddled masses. This is the era of the triumph of the bureaucrat and the international banking conspiracy. David Wingrove’s novels in the  “Chung Kuo” series are reminiscent of the scenario, with the incorporation of a Chinese style overlord global government based on Confucian traditions, which is ideally suited for the administration of an entire globe. In that sense scenarios three and five could blend into Wingrove’s vision, which anticipates this part of Starobin’s vision by about 5 years.


  1. Starobin attribute the decline of American power to:
    1. loss of military dominance based on inability to achieve decisive victories in Iraq and Afghanistan. I would observe that the military defeat of Iraq was predictably decisive and so he must be thinking about the ability to implement a complete socioeconomic solution as opposed to simple military victory, in which case I would agree with him. The probability that future engagements will have exclusively military solutions is reducing to zero
    2. American political influence worldwide diminishing as a consequence of lack of trust and legitimate alternative economic options other than America.
    3. Unsustainable economic strength in the form of excessive debt and the weakening dollar and the loss of manufacturing base which makes the US a customer nation rather than an economic driver. He believes that the US economic model of deregulated capitalism seems discredited (p. 7), but I would argue the facts with him on that one and suggest that the American economic model is regulated capitalism, but poorly regulated for the short-term benefit of a ruling class. Other countries experimenting with truly unregulated capitalism are doing just fine: Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan to name a few.
    4. Loss of moral authority: the offers example of the loss of influence of the US Supreme Court in global jurisprudence

I would say there are any number of global intellectual elites who agree with all of these insights and hope it they continue to expand in order to punish America for her own success.

In part 1  Starobin offers a traditional recounting of the story of the rise of American influence that offers nothing new. In part 2 of his book, he explores the roots of America’s current crises as outlined above. In part 3,  he offers insights into what may develop further and this is where his interesting writing occurs as he builds the case for plausible scenarios.

He takes a decidedly “anti-heroic” view of historical forces, looking at the shaping forces that create the context and range of choices for leaders, rather than the dominant influence of clearsighted leaders as the motive force.

In the seminal 1992 Harvard Business Review article “Strategy under uncertainty”, Courtney, Kirkland and Viguerie (1992), offer a 4 part ontology for selecting strategies based on the degree of uncertainty about the future. I think I have a pdf of it at work, and will try to upload it tomorrow. Briefly:

  1. Certainty: do the clear and best thing
  2. Partial uncertainty: use rational planning to evaluate clear and distinct courses of action against a framework of values and chose the optimal solution based on your forecast of predictable outcomes. This is the classic “rational man” economic approach
  3. Complexity: when we cannot forecast outcomes, and where a practically unlimited number of things could be reasonably extrapolated from current themes,  use scenario planning to describe a broad set of representative  future cases that are different enough to give meaningful insights into different choices. You must ensure that you representative scenarios trukly push the boundaries of the possible in order to have robust considerations.
  4. True uncertainty, in which the future cannot even be extrapolated from the present, in which case an artistic narration that imagines a potential future, however improbable, is just as likely to occur, and use that as a guide to select values-based actions based on general principles.

Starobin is clearly in case 3 of the above,  by offering 5 distinct possibilities. He doesn’ t have to be an advocate, simply a reasonable portrait painter, which I think he has accomplished. The only scenario I might quibble with is the “city states”  since a dissolution of nations as the holders of political power is, short of global nuclear catastrophe is unthinkable, in which case these scenarios are probably moot.

On page 55, Starobin summarizes the rise of the American civilization to hegemonic status as one of an accidental interplay between tidal forces beyond the planning and control of any nation. This is this the same general approach he will use to describe how the five scenarios could unfold.

He makes the point in part two on page 76 that great civilizations have their absent flows and cyclic rhythms but that what goes down does not necessarily have to come up since civilization is about culture and not about physics. His view of the diminishing of American power being part of the natural order of things will be objected to by believers in America’s exceptionalism, which is probably a position taken by all privileged members of the reigning empire as they began their slide into decline. That’s the sense that you get from a reading of history by given in Rome and by Churchill in his history of the English speaking peoples.

On page 80 he describes how even the US model of corporate management is beginning to fade as the exemplar for the world. It’s failure of vision, shortsightedness for the quarterly bottom line, cultural blind spots, combined with the weakening dollar serve to discredit the US model for global developments. You

In all matters of business, from manufacturing to finance to architecture to politics to the arts to healthcare to infrastructure to digital conductivity to economic inequality to education to sustainability, Americanism is increasingly seen as middle-of-the-road in unexceptional in Starobin’s narrative (pp81-93).

Chapter 5 narrates the problems associated with military overreaching combined with financial debts. Combined with a cultural imperialism with the storyline of American exceptionalism, these conspire to strip the US of allies on the far frontiers which are increasingly unaffordable in which undermine our moral and military authority. He makes the case on page 101 that the world does not share America’s view of Islamic fundamentalism as an existential threat on par with the former Soviet Union’s nuclear threat. On page 104 he describes the moral dilemma of American acting as a global policeman which is inconsistent with the history of America’s isolationism. On page 107 he describes the case that whatever global sympathy there might have been for America as a global security agent after the 9/11 attacks has been lost by the actual implementation of military strategy.

Chapter 6 narrates the return of Russia to the world stage combining first world military potential with third rate economic might operating on the fringes of America’s frontier. Whatever foothold democracy is making among the Russian people, the former Russian Empire is starting to thrive in places where America’s might is stretched too thin, such as Georgia, as told on page 123. I find this chapter less convincing than a chapter that should have been dedicated to China who has both the military power and the economic base to support a balancing of global power

Chapter 7 describes the chaos scenario: like oil spots, regions of chaos and civil war erupting globally with no central authority or international will to intervene in a reversion to tribalism and brute force. The scenario contemplates the use of tactical nukes by nonstate actors in the US homeland which would cause the shell of Empire collapsed and America withdraw to her own borders to clean up room house. The power vacuum would remain unfilled and the Globe would devolve into regional strife.Starobin considers the probability of chaos to be greater on the fringe of America’s Empire however rather than in homeland. In this form, chaos is recognized but is uneconomic to resolve and so is permitted to continue for pragmatic reasons. This is actually the ideal scenario for hybrid threats to US interests like Al Qaeda and narcotraficantes, who do not seek to replace nation-states as rulers, but who seek to thrive in the shadows like desperadoes in the wild West.

On page 139 he describes Turkey as a candidate for chaos based on its position at the crossroads between continents, cultures and civilizations historically. Much of his descriptions of chaos regions reminds me of the former Yugoslavia on a grand scale as the loss of centralized political and military authority is replaced by an explosion of competing historical demands fueled by racial and religious tensions that have been suppressed for decades.

On page 151 he tries to make the case for estate of happy chaos but it’s hard to see how anyone committed to raising the living standards of the world’s populations can be impressed by that argument. Chaos quickly devolves into a modern feudalism which increases the difference between haves and have-nots.

Chapter 8 notes: the multi polar world.

On page 159 he oddly says that the prospect of a multi polar world is a monumental one – nothing even remotely like it has ever existed, which is followed in the next sentence by a description the last multi polar world: the 19th century balance of power that existed among the great nation states of Europe in the time of the great game. This seems like a relatively straightforward development of the loss of superpower status devolving into competing and entangling alliances of nation-states jockeying for position on tactical and strategic obeisance. The history of the Chinese dynastic cycle through most of the first millennium is another example of just exactly this kind of balance of power in multi polarity. If anything, this seems to be a more natural state of affairs than a world dominated globally by one or two superpowers, particularly in a world that is experiencing a proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

On page 166 he starts toying with the ideas of a US – India alliance but this is simply one of an almost infinite number of possibilities for regional alignment. He makes a reasonable case on page 171 four the possibility of regional powers selectively improving their military postures for the purpose of establishing regional influence in the usual way.

He disposes of the possibility of Europe having a unified global interventionist presidents on pages 176 through 179, and I agree with him on this since there is little appetite for expensive policies among the NATO countries. They have enough troubles of their own trying to solve their internal debt crisis and have shown little to no willingness to export their regional military power beyond their borders.

He describes post-Soviet Russia is salivating at the opportunity of regaining its former prominence, but it’s hard to see realistically how Russia does that since their economic might consists of basic oil commodities and an aging nuclear arsenal which they use as a bargaining chip. They have almost no economic power otherwise and little capacity to expand beyond the existing boundaries on their frontier.

Iran is just as quickly dispensed with on page 180 is a regional power center while Brazil is considered a reasonable case on page 181, which I agree with. Whether Brazil can solve the problem of a slowly growing middle class and racial and social carriers to national integration remains to be seen. He does not make the case for a natural alliance between Brazil and the US which is more natural than that between US and India.

Japan is conspicuously absent in this chapter which is unusual given that they are the second largest national economy, have a history of technological innovation and adaptation, a great savings rate, a discipline work force and an educated society. The US Japanese alliance has neglected similarly.

Chapter 9 notes: Chinese century.

Starobin begins with a description of China’s commodities-based economic expansion globally, while the US fritters away its national treasure on the frontier. Economic alliances with Canada Chile and Brazil are noted. The discussion on page 192 of Chile and copper and the need for that basic commodity as part of a continued digitization of the world is spot on. Copper is the commodity that best defines where we are in the global business cycle because it is intrinsic in everything digital. If you want to study global business, you need to understand oil and copper. It remains to be seen if there’s any American president who’s willing to invoke the Monroe doctrine for economic reasons in our hemisphere.

On page 205 Starobin tries to make the case that a signpost of China’s attempt to achieve superpower status would be an expanded budget for military defense. He seems to think that duplicating American for structure is the only path to achieving that status. The Chinese strategy however is to target specific critical components of US capabilities in the short term and use a process of gradual erosion to achieve first parity and dominance. For example in an effort to absorb Taiwan without shooting, the Chinese are investing in anti-carrier missiles that can be fired from land bases which precludes the use of American seapower in defense of Taiwan. When carrier task forces are rendered impotent then China can absorb Taiwan at their leisure, and further their sphere of influence.

On page 207 he noticed particularly attractive appeal to the Chinese global narrative to the poor of the world. I think he places too much emphasis on a supposed Chinese need to be seen as the dominant power in the world rather than using a typical Chinese approach as a restoration of the Middle Kingdom surrounded by barbarian states. China has never attempted to completely dominate the countries around them, so long as they could extract their fair share of tribute. This is been the story of the dynastic cycle for several thousand years and there’s no reason to think that it would change going forward. An empire with an infinitely long time horizon is in no hurry to bend other countries to her will, China is sure that they have the long way of history and civilization on their side. Imperial expansion through economic and pragmatic means is much more their style. I think a cultural understanding of China is lacking in this chapter, although he gets the economic arguments pretty well, except for the part where he replaces the dollar with the yuan as a reserve currency. The Chinese have seen how being the owner of the world’s currency is actually like a set of handcuffs when you are in economic duress and they are much more likely to be satisfied with an international regime of multiple currencies which would favor their well-known pragmatic currency acumen. This gives them much more economic flexibility.

Chapter 10 notes: city states.

Unlike the other scenarios this one seems to start with the proposition for a fictional and state and tries to find ways to connecting back to present trends and it’s not very convincing to me. The reality of cities and regions organizing around their primary means of exported goods and services is nothing new but this doesn’t do anything with the problem of replacing the economic and political influence of nation-states in the lives of cities. Wishing that problem away is problematic in anything short of a nuclear catastrophe renders this scenario mostly moved in my opinion. It’s any advantage of city states to have a federal government to socialize best that they themselves cannot embrace and he gives him the possibility of peacefully levying taxes on other regions based on their own political advantages without resorting to protectionism were military power. As a practical matter, all you have to do is look at the history of in the former Yugoslavia to see just how easy it is to go from one nation-state to many nation-states to imagine what it would like it would be like to eliminate the nation-state altogether and devolve into principalities. This chapter reads more as an afterthought I think the only reason he didn’t include it as the last chapter is that he didn’t want the book to end on a weak note.

Chapter 11: universal civilization.

Once again it’s hard to see how a global civilization is going to take national and regional power away from existing power elites when they already act as a de facto global coverall aligned by economic and military interests these days. What part of world government do we not already have. We can look at the example of the abysmal performance of the euro zone and extrapolate that to the development of a global governing body that had both the authority and the capacity to compel behavior in client states to recognize that this is more of a pipe dream than a reality. If you cannot make the case for a convincing centralized global government, then most of the insights in this chapter referred back to those found in a multi polar world. In practice I believe both of these chapters and their insights can be merged into a reasonable future devoid of superpower domination. I think for purposes of this book Starobin makes the distinction so that he can have five scenarios. The one distinction I would make between a global government and that of the multipolar world is at a global government at least gives you the opportunity to resolve conflicts by bureaucratic infighting as opposed to border wars by competing alliances. That’s probably a better solution morally.

Anyone with experience working under United Nations command in military and peacekeeping operations would have to laugh at the idea of there being an effective global government that could work on the UN model. They are hopeless.

Chapter 12 notes: America after America.

Starobin begins describing a down-sized America, with a view of what I envision as a trans California that has alliances with the Latino culture in Mexico. I think I could make the case for California being the most likely state to secede followed by Alaska under peaceful conditions, and Starobin hints at this as a possibility. California already contains is widely a diverse vacation between the haves and have-nots is you can find anywhere in the world when you contrast downtown Oakland and Silicon Valley and the San Fernando Valley. You could be in three different countries. I can’t imagine California, with their budget crisis now wanting to take on the additional debt finance responsibilities of separate nationstate. That would only accelerate disaster they’re facing budget terribly.

On page 293, he examines the experience of multicultural Australia to show the real challenges California would likely experience as a separate nation state. It seems to me that he ran out of energy to go much further in this chapter since his treatment of California is brief, not comprehensive and is only one of many potential regions that need this kind of analysis to be complete.

Conclusion: life after the American century.

I think he’s a little quick to dismiss the idea of American exceptionalism on the moral and intellectual and political stage than is warranted. Even if you hypothesize a retreat from Imperial America and international interventionism, it’s entirely reasonable to say that America might still retain its position as a beacon of liberty and inspiration to others but now coupled with a more pragmatic and limited policy of foreign adventurism. Getting around economic house in order while retaining our privileged position as the Western Hemisphere’s dominant power in alliance with Chile and Brazil and Canada makes a very convincing argument for maintenance of America’s position as a country of influence and power but without reverting to being just another country in the world. This is the sixth scenario that I think he neglects and which is more reasonable than a couple of those he offered.

My conclusion is that this book is extremely well written.  It does not fall into the simplistic  trap of historic heroism.   It offers some new and interesting perspectives on America’s role and what happens in the great game of international power. It’s lacking in a few details and is not convincing in some of the scenarios but the effort was very well done and is very thought-provoking.


Courtney, H. , Kirkland, J, & Viguerie, P. (1992). Strategy under uncertainty. Harvard Business  School Press,  Boston.

  1. Derp
    November 2, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    god bless you

  1. February 5, 2011 at 2:27 pm
  2. February 25, 2011 at 12:06 am

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