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Updated: November 22, 2011 06:15 IST

A chilling story of doom

M. K. Bhadrakumar
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THAT USED TO BE US — What Went Wrong with America and How It Can Come Back: Thomas L. Friedman, Michael Mandelbaum; Little Brown; distributed
by Hachette India, 612-614, Time Tower, M.G. Road, Sector 28, Gurgaon - 122001. Rs. 599
THAT USED TO BE US — What Went Wrong with America and How It Can Come Back: Thomas L. Friedman, Michael Mandelbaum; Little Brown; distributed by Hachette India, 612-614, Time Tower, M.G. Road, Sector 28, Gurgaon - 122001. Rs. 599

Where the authors score is in their ill-defined optimism that America will rebound through “collective action”

If you are into the habit of reading two non-fiction books at a time, the best way to read this book by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum would be to read it alongside Bill Clinton's latest slim volumeBack to Work. Both are manifestations of the American Dream, which entitles them to an extraordinary degree of optimism about life and the human condition. And they share a terrifying optimism in the “America we could be … an America we once were … an America we can be again.” Both are pained by the sight of America and are groping for the big thoughts needed to stave off the crisis from turning terminal.

Prescription

However, Clinton's book is a compendium of 45 proposals to restore the United States' economy and “get back in the future business.” It's an ode to big government (just about everything Clinton rejected as a New Democrat in the White House) and, thus, it remains a politician's manual. But it makes you understand that the magic wand prescription Friedman and Mandelbaum offer for America's problems will be hard to comply with, because a problem that is impossible to fix is the political class.

Friedman is the grandmaster of popular literature. His bestsellers,The World Is FlatandHot, Flat and Crowded,were unputdownables, breezy in style, rich in metaphors and slang and clichés. In comparison,That Used to be USis distinctly subdued and Friedman no more pelts us with clumps of words the way he used to do until recently. He and Mandelbaum give a chilling story of the doom of a great power. Their forensic look takes us through a parched landscape of bleached bones and carcasses — snarlingly dysfunctional government and the resultant gridlock (political class of feeble leaders incapable of taking deep and painful initiatives); heedless spending; abysmal levels of ignorance; economy falling behind in innovation and chronically dependent on deficit funding from abroad; failing public education system; and what not.

Of course, the story of the decline of America has been told and retold ever since Paul Kennedy's fateful prediction as the curtain was coming down on the Cold War. But where the authors score is in their ill-defined optimism that America will rebound through “collective action.” There can be no quarrel with their identification of the four major challenges America faces — America's response to globalisation; the IT revolution; climate change (excessive reliance on oil); and chronic indebtedness.

The problem lies with their prescriptions, which are largely naïve. Do they grasp the magnitude of the problem? They propose giving a bizarre “shock to the system” by supporting a new third-party movement in the next Presidential election in 2012. But Ralph Nader was meant to be doing precisely that and it ended up ensuring the victory of George W. Bush.

The authors are spot on when they say that most Americans are outside the political system and the nation, therefore, no longer feels inspired to recapture the spirit of the New Deal. The big question is how to make their voices heard so that they could be inspired to work together, making tough sacrifices for a common destiny.

Sputnik moment

The book, therefore, ends up as an elusive search for the “Sputnik moment” that America should seize — as it did when it once raced the Soviet Union in space — in order to win the race with the emerging powers of Asia. If the search is elusive, it is primarily due to the authors' exceptionalism that America is destined to lead the world. Indeed, all imperial powers in history — Portugal, Spain, France, and Britain among the Europeans — fancied that they were immune from decline and the vicissitudes of history. The illusion takes time to dissipate.

“We”, say the authors, “don't want simply to restore American solvency. We want to maintain American greatness.” But the world is not standing still and America's loss of economic primacy is also, paradoxically, the logic of globalisation. A system that was created over two centuries ago in vastly different circumstances has become divided, unworkable, and cannot cope with the world of today. It is not merely a matter of “retooling” America. The paralysing divisions of the political system block any radical agenda.

For the Indian pundit, the book will be an expressionist quest play that brings out into his calm, cold reading room the scarifying and ubiquitous protagonist — China. The authors beat the tom-tom as relentlessly as in a Eugene O'Neill play — stripping away colourful costume to the naked man beneath. Japan doesn't get a mention in their 380-page volume. What a muted reminder of America's real priorities in the Asia-Pacific, which the Obama administration factors in as the “strategic pivot” of U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century!

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