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That Used to Be Us


KS NARAYANAN | New Delhi, November 23, 2011 10:07
Tags : That Used to Be Us | Superpower-America | Pulitzer recipient Thomas L Friedman | Michael Mandelbaum |

Name of the book:  That Used to Be Us
Published: Little Brown / Hachette India
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 9781408703588
Page: 400
Price: 599

'That Used to Be Us'-is a candid portrayal of Superpower-America that is in trouble by three times Pulitzer recipient Thomas L Friedman, one of the world's most influential columnist and Michael Mandelbaum a foreign-policy expert at Johns Hopkins University. Such a realisation is not limited to both Tom and Michael but it is growing realisation across the globe that America is on decline.

Throughout the 381 page book both writers who have other several books to their credit are engaged in explaining what’s wrong and why America is teetering on edge of a collapse. Employing lively examples and telling statistics to make their points, and buttress them with incisive quotes, the book is a searching exploration of the American condition today and rousing manifesto for revival and the way forward.

In a sense, book is a wakeup call for everyone right from President Barack Obama to millions of Americans that they cannot be contended with their past glory and if they are serious to pass on the American dream to future generations. Yet the book gives a pep talk as it is unwavering in its optimism about what the Americans can achieve collectively.

Citing how China will inevitably reign supreme in the 21st Century as American dominated the 20th Century and Britain in the 19th Century after they were impressed by the visits to the Middle Kingdom and (that made them realise US decline), authors describe themselves as 'optimist' and 'frustrated'. "We are optimists because American Society, with its freewheeling spirit, its diversity of opinions and talents, its flexible economy, its work ethic and penchant for innovation, is in fact ideally suited to thrive in the tremendously challenging world we are living in..." On why they are frustrated they note, "America's future cannot simply be a function of our capacity to do great things or our history of having done great things..."
As early Baby boomers both had witnessed growing US power and attributes the slow motion decline to four factors that had received little attention from the Nation.  They explain how the end of Cold War ushered in a new world, with unprecedented challenges to the United States.

 "When the West won the cold war, America lost the rival that had kept us sharp, outwardly focussed and serious about nation building at home... For the first time America had no proper focus and no threat that resulted in complacency that produced the potholes in Washington DC or loose handle doors in White House and protracted escalator outages of the twenty-first-century America.

Such complacency brings us to the core argument of the book. The United States faces four big challenges. These are how to adapt to globalization, how to adjust to the information revolution, how to cope with large and soaring deficit budgets and how to manage energy consumption and climate change. "These are four challenges, how we meet them, will define America's future," authors assert, setting tone for the book.

Providing no quick fix solutions, authors recall a long tradition of American thinkers and statesman beginning from George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight D Eisenhower who stood for a strong and forward looking federal government that promotes domestic economy and a strong international presence.

Calling for a large sacrifice on part of the average American, authors warn of hard times ahead of them, for both the nation and the Americans. “Americans will have to save more, consume less, study longer, and work harder than they have become accustomed to doing in recent decades,” they note.
That Used To Be Us, no doubt acts as a wake-up call. But more than that as much as America and its President, authors too reinforce the illusions of exceptionalism. In April 2009, at a Nato summit in Strasbourg, President Barack Obama was asked at a press conference whether he saw America as an exceptional nation, uniquely qualified to lead the world. Obama replied: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” He went on to mention some of the respects in which America is in fact exceptional.  However that did not deter Republican critics to take pot shots at him. Great empires-Britain, Spain, and Portugal in their heydays imagined that they would escape the vicissitudes of history- of rise and decline.

Similarly for both Tom and Michael rise and fall of nations happens to others and not to America. They suggest that Americans must learn from ‘our’ (American) history and not that of the World, to rediscover America.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017