America is for sale.
I am not saying that America is "in crisis." I am not saying that it is, as many essayists have claimed over the last 20 years, "in decline" or "at death's door." No. I am saying that it is literally for sale. Take, for example, the extreme weakness of the dollar. Or the falling numbers on Wall Street. Or go out to the wastelands, literal and figurative, that have overtaken entire sections of the country's traditional industrial apparatus, especially in the older industrial cities such as Detroit and Cleveland. Take the Bethlehem Steel mill in Lackawanna, near Buffalo, New York: an enormous plant that anchored the city in the 1970s, now reduced to empty, echoing warehouses, broken and burned- out smokestacks, grass sprouting up around piles of scrap metal.
Put it all together. Then, just for a second, step into the shoes of a Chinese, Arab, or Indian industrial giant. You will be forced to conclude, as New York Times reporters Peter Goodman and Louise Story did recently, that "for much of the world, the United States is now on sale at discount prices."
Western industrialists used to say, "Not only do we have capital, we also have commodities and the machinery that produces them, and we are looking for markets for our goods." This explains why the United States employed the Marshall Plan to help rebuild Europe and why developed nations and international loan organizations have injected such colossal sums of money into Third World economies.
Today, the reasoning is the same, although it's rigorously reversed: Capital is more readily available in Qatar or India than the United States, and China is not only a source of commodities but is also building key parts of the developing world's production apparatus. Instead, they now say, "Let us, the businessmen of Qatar, India, and China, find a way to use this capital and, more important still, seek out markets for the products we are making." And the West is the largest, most fabulous market--in particular, the United States, where there are hundreds of millions of wealthy consumers already converted to the customs, routines, and habits of the religion of mass consumption. A paradigm shift. An unforeseeable irony of the system. It seems that the mechanism of world power has broken down and begun to reassemble itself before our very eyes.
Of course, the United States has not yet had the last word in this argument. It has the solid conviction--shared by the other great powers of the planet, China and India included--that capital is best and most lucratively invested in its banks; that the top business schools are still found at its universities; that its cutting-edge industries supply the most productive, and therefore most profitable, sources of innovation.
But, if this is correct, we should not be surprised that the supposed American empire leans so heavily on the economies that, in theory, it dominates. We should expect to see the invaders launching more and more assaults on the finest jewels of American capitalism (see Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, and Citibank); we can perhaps even foresee the day when labor costs rise in Shanghai or Bombay to the point that it will be more cost-effective for them to outsource to the United States--thus rebuilding American manufacturing.
This is neither good nor bad; it's just the way it is. There are a multitude of political problems on the horizon of which Congress, the press, and the presidential candidates are beginning to be aware. The status of sovereign wealth funds? The temptation of protectionism? Will national security be invoked, as it was in 2005 to prevent a Chinese oil company from taking control of Unocal? What will the all-powerful unions think when they see the Asian businesses that once undercut American manufacturing offering to pay bargain- basement prices for the remains of U.S. companies?
Such are the new rules of the game. In the age of globalization, such will be the new New Deal.
Bernard-Henri Levy is the author, most recently, of American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville. This article was translated from the French by Sara Sugihara. This article originally ran in the February 27, 2008, issue of the magazine.