Charles Kupchan falls so far short of his proclaimed intentions that his failure can only be dubbed impressive. Then again, I've never seen such far-reaching ambitions: "My main agenda," he writes, "is to generate an accurate map of the emerging world, to design a grand strategy for overcoming the fault lines on that map ... and to lay out the discrete steps needed to realize that grand strategy and establish a new and peaceful international system."
That even he - a professor at Georgetown and senior fellow at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations - cannot do all this is obvious. But what "The End of the American Era" manages to do makes it an important book.
With his expansive knowledge of history, Kupchan places contemporary trends in perspective. He offers revealing insights into contemporary policy matters with a spectacular eye for detail. And unlike many of his peers, he is able to do all this gracefully.
Kupchan claims American primacy in global politics will end before the decade is out. The transition to a multipolar world is the paramount issue of international relations, but recent events (read: war on terrorism) only obfuscate it. If the US is wise, it will "design" a liberal world order to accommodate rising powers such as Europe and China. But if America "defaults" and remains a "great power adrift," the consequences will be dire: an aggressive China and Japan; a resurgent Russia; a remilitarized Europe; and the hungry, angry masses of the developing world.
For Kupchan, the loss of primacy will be primarily by America's own hands: The US will quite simply tire of hegemony. Sept. 11 may have raised foreign-policy concerns, but it did not increase the public's appetite for an activist global role for the US.
Indeed, initial plans to create an international coalition were discarded when "I'll Do It My Way" became the hit tune for the Bush administration. The end state, Kupchan warns, may well be the vexing siren of US foreign policy: isolationism.
While his emphasis on the dangers ahead is salient, as is his equally trenchant critique of the often held view that 9/11 changed the course of American foreign policy, Kupchan goes too far. If there is anything approaching certainty in international history, it is the inevitable fall of the mighty - but 800-pound gorillas do not become Lilliputians overnight.
As President Bush remarked at West Point this past summer, obsolescence is not in the US's plans: "America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenges."
Kupchan most interestingly casts the European Union as the potent challenger to US dominance. Economically, this may be so (the EU is already as large as the US); militarily, Kupchan argues, they will follow. He is optimistic about the creation of a 60,000-strong European army, but he doesn't compare that against American military might. The European army, if it ever gets out of the planning room, will deal with humanitarian emergencies, not menaces of global scale. While some Europeans may hope to achieve a balance with US power, none seriously believes that a united Europe will do so anytime soon.
Europe aside, the future of American foreign policy is where Kupchan is most engaging. He's right to downplay the risk of isolationism, but unilateralism, especially in the Bush administration, seems to be the wave of the future. Kupchan projects that this trend will be a serious menace in years to come. Yet in the past 50 years, US power was greatest when allied (NATO) and weakest when alone (Vietnam).
If power is still the primary resource in international politics, as Kupchan insists repeatedly, then it is not clear why unilateralism will persist. Which is not to say that there will be a rush for internationalism any time soon, or for any "grand strategy" at all. While Kupchan bemoans this, he dismisses the possibility that the lack of any settled foreign policy blueprint may be the best foreign policy approach in a "fickle and fragile" world. Phrases like "axis of evil" and "containment" bring intellectual focus at the price of rigidity - and the world today is decidedly in flux.
• Marius Hentea is working at the Monitor while completing a PhD at Harvard University's School of Government.