David Brin: is America’s loss the world’s gain?

Marshall Plan propaganda posterY’know, I really like David Brin, even though I don’t always agree with what he says; he’s got a contrary stripe a mile wide, and he’s one of the few self-identifying conservative thinkers in science fiction who’s willing to break ranks with populism and call out the failings of his own side – something that is just as rare on the liberal side of the fence, IMHO.

Brin’s guest-blogging at Sentient Developments again, and his latest post is provocative reading, regardless of your personal politics. The thesis is roughly as follows: America may have spent itself into economic and political decline, but in doing so it leaves as its legacy a world lifted out of poverty thanks to the counter-mercantilist trade flows set up by the Marshall plan. [image by kafka4prez; orginal copyright status uncertain, so please contact for takedown if required]

You should go read the whole thing (there’s probably ten minutes worth of text there, so it’s one of his smaller rants), but here’s a few highlights for the impatient:

While Marshall crafted a historically unprecedented, receptively open trade policy called “counter-mercantilism” (I’ll explain in a minute), MacArthur vigorously pushed the creation of Japanese export-oriented industries, establishing the model of what was to come. Instead of doing what all other victorious conquerors had done – looting the defeated enemy — the clearly stated intention was for the United States to lift up their prostrate foe, first with direct aid. And then, over the longer term, with trade.


At the behest of Marshall and his advisors. America became the first pax-power in history to deliberately establish counter-mercantilist commerce flows. A trade regime that favored the manufactures of many foreign/poor countries over those in the homeland. Nations crippled by war, or by millennia of mismanagement, were allowed to maintain high tariffs, keeping out American manufactures, while sending shiploads from their own factories to the U.S., almost duty free.

Moreover, despite the ongoing political tussle of two political parties and sometimes noisy aggravation over ever-mounting deficits, each administration since Marshall’s time kept fealty with this compact — to such a degree that the world’s peoples by now simply take it for granted.

Forgetting all of history and ignoring the self-destructive behavior of other empires, we all have tended to assume that counter-mercantilist trade flows are somehow a natural state of affairs! But they aren’t. They are an invention, as unique and new and as American as the airplane, or the photocopier, or rock n’ roll.


Even if America is exhausted, worn out and a shadow of her former self, from having spent her way from world dominance into a chasm of debt, the U.S. does have something to show for it the last six decades.

A world saved. A majority of human beings lifted out of poverty. That task, far more prodigious than defeating fascism and communism or going to the moon, ought to be viewed with a little respect. And I suspect it will be, by future generations.

This should be contemplated, soberly, as other nations start to consider their time ahead as one of potential triumph. As they start to contemplate the possibility of becoming the next great pax or “central kingdom.”

If that happens — (as I portray in a coming novel) — will they emulate Marshall and Truman, by starting their bright era of world leadership with acts of thoughtful and truly farsighted wisdom? Perhaps even a little gratitude? Or at least by evading the mistakes that are written plain, across the pages of history, wherever countries briefly puffed and preened over their own importance, imagining that this must last forever?

I’m as guilty as the next man of casting American influence in a negative light, and Brin’s analysis provides an intriguing counterpoint to that nay-saying: an argument to the effect that history may remember that influence more positively than our proximity to it currently permits.

What do you think America will be remembered for in fifty years’ time? (And keep it cordial, folks; nation-bashing and racism will be deleted without hesitation, so keep a historical perspective, please.)

8 thoughts on “David Brin: is America’s loss the world’s gain?”

  1. 50 years is not really enough time for an empire to fall properly. How America will be thought of in 50 years will probably reflect much more of what we are doing now than our traditions and our impact on the world.

    If we manage to allow our power to wane gracefully then we will most likely be thought of fairly well by the world. On the other hand if we end up with en emperor and attempt to expand or hold our power we will still be in our death throes at that point and probably quite globally hated. If that is the case it will be quite some time, I believe, before they will be able to look back and properly appreciate our contributions to the world.

  2. Pro – financial support, occupational peacemakers, democratization, sharing technology and leading in progress, abundant consumerism, free speech…

    Con – elitist corporatism, resource depletion, a war on drugs, an industry based on extermination, moralist values, massive pollution and industrial consequences, repugnant anti-intellectualist consumerism, consequently supporting the most wretched far right dictators for decades, the biggest percentage of its own people ever in human history in squallorous jails, the first great state to purposefully condition all its soldiers to kill and maim enemy combatants, anti-egalitarianism.

    It’s hard to see for David just how wicked the US, but then again everyone has blind spots.

  3. A solid list, khannea, though I’d have to call falsehood on this one:

    … the first great state to purposefully condition all its soldiers to kill and maim enemy combatants…

    I think that’s standard issue for most imperial militaries, though the motivations and methods used may differ nowadays.

  4. I have to agree with Babylon. 50 years will probably not be enough time for the U.S. to really fail, and it is actually possible it is still the lone superpower at that point in time. However, when the U.S. does fade into retirement it will be known for:

    – WWII will be huge. This will include the major part it played in the war and after the war (Brin).
    – Inventing and then practically giving the tech away
    – Freedom
    – Democracy
    – The Cold War (both positive and negative, but overall more positive)
    – The moon/space
    – Peace and prosperity – I don’t think it will be known for this, but it should. At what other point in history after the fall of the Roman Empire has there been peace between 1st world countries for this long? Sure there were a few proxy wars between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., but never a full fledged war. Without the U.S. acting as a stabilizing (yes, it failed at this sometimes) force much of the current progress would have been lost.

    – Consumerism
    – Arrogant
    – Failed to keep advancing rights and freedom
    – Failed to keep advancing intellectual openness
    – Failed the environment

    While I agree with some of the Cons khannea lists [resource depletion, support of dictators (leftist dictators do and have existed), large prison population (though most of the prisons are from squalorous), etc.] I do not agree with:

    “Massive pollution/industrial consequences”

    I completely agree the U.S. did this, but singling it out is foolishness. Maybe including it for being slow to try and correct this is reasonable.

    “The first great state to purposefully condition all its soldiers to kill and maim enemy combatants”

    The U.S. is hardly the first great nation, small nation, city-state, etc. to condition it’s soldiers to kill. How do you think wars were fought before the last 200 years? With paintball guns? Ignoring if the current war in Iraq was necessary and just looking at the tactics, U.S. shoulders have shown remarkable restraint compared to most wars fought throughout history. What would have happened to Falluja in WWII? It would have been bombed, by the allies, into a smoking pile of rubble. I’m by no means saying U.S. soldiers don’t do despicable things, but they do less of them than most wars have seen throughout history.

    “Repugnant anti-intellectualist consumerism”

    I’m not even sure what this means. Is anti-intellectualism or is it a fancy way of saying “dumb consumer?”

  5. I’m not sure why you classify David Brin as a “self-identified” conservative. On the politics section of his web site he repeatedly identifies with the Democratic party and (while expressing intense skepticism for the whole left-right identification system) consistently refers to himself as a moderate or liberal.

  6. Harry: most of Brin’s writing on politics that I’ve read (which, I confess, is the small percentage of it that isn’t way over my head) seemed to be explicitly arguing for a return to conservatism of the old school, as opposed to current Republican dogmatism and lowest-common-denominator entrenchment. I think he currently identifies with the Democratic party more because they appeal to reason and logic than because he agrees with their conclusions – identifying with their methods if not their aims, if that makes any sense.

    But that may be a skewed viewpoint given that I live in the UK – the consensus definition of “liberal” as portrayed by media from the US makes our homegrown conservatism look permissive and modern by comparison.

    That’s not a judgement, by the way, more an observation – there’s few people less partisan than an anarchist. 🙂

  7. He definitely talks about more traditional conservatives as people who can be talked with and who have some good ideas, although he personally leans more towards a liberal viewpoint. Part of the problem with categorizing Brin (and the reason he doesn’t like the whole left-right system) is that he takes each issue on its own merits instead of going with loyalty to a platform; the way the two main parties have drawn their lines over here makes people who decide on an issue-by-issue basis seem like liberals to conservatives, and like conservatives to liberals. It’s very disillusioning to those of us in the middle; people who actually think about what they believe have been pretty much abandoned by both parties on this side of the Atlantic.

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