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Originally published May 27, 2012 at 5:00 AM | Page modified May 27, 2012 at 8:15 AM

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Book review

'The Reckoning': Straight talk about America's big challenges

Geostrategist and journalist Michael Moran's "The Reckoning: Debt, Democracy and the Future of American Power" presents a concise, clear-eyed description of where we are headed and says our leaders need to accept the fact that American dominance is over.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'The Reckoning: Debt, Democracy and the Future of American Power '

by Michael Moran

Palgrave Macmillan: 235 pp., $27

Now that the circus act that is the U.S. presidential primary season — complete with issue sideshows and freak-tent candidates — is over, voters have a chance to educate themselves about where the United States is headed and the consequences of choosing one set of politicians over another. They ought to do themselves a favor and read "The Reckoning: Debt, Democracy and the Future of American Power," Michael Moran's compact and accessible summary of pretty much every challenge the nation faces.

Moran, a veteran geostrategist and journalist, is admirably direct about those challenges; most of them, he makes clear, either partly or entirely self-inflicted. Thanks to the made-in-America financial meltdown, unsustainable federal budget deficits and a decade of misguided and mishandled wars, the United States "has lost both the financial and moral standing to claim that its interests automatically coincide with the interests of the rest of the planet." As a result, the era of unchallenged American dominance is over; the United States "must either adjust to that reality or lose control of its own fate."

Doing so, Moran says, means simultaneously navigating two perilous situations, either of which would be daunting by itself: reignite the wheezy U.S. economy while bringing the national debt under control and gradually ramp down unsustainable overseas commitments. Despite rising powers such as China and India and truculent also-rans such as Russia, he writes, "the United States alone can ensure that the journey from the millennial world of American dominance to the fast approaching multipolar future proceeds smoothly, without constant economic crises, widespread unrest, climactic disruptions, and major wars."

Moran's advice, to the nation's domestic elites and overseas allies alike, can be summed up in two words: Get real. Lawmakers and would-be presidents need to accept that both spending cuts and tax increases are needed if the budget is ever to be wrestled down. (His contempt for simplistic tea party-ish nostrums fairly scorches the pages.) Europe, Japan and South Korea need to either pay more of the cost of keeping U.S. troops on their soil or send them home and defend themselves. Other nations need to take more responsibility for keeping global order, because the United States can no longer afford to do so by itself.

Despite the grim tone of much of his book, Moran is hardly a prophet of doom. Even as U.S. might declines relative to other nations, it will remain the single most powerful nation for the foreseeable future. The U.S. economy may be sputtering, but it is not spent and other powers, from China to the European Union, face their own significant problems.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the United States making the hard choices Moran sees as necessary is its dysfunctional political system, locked as it is into ritualized bashing of each side by the other, addicted to spin and sound bites, and seemingly unable to conceive of a national interest beyond partisanship. He doesn't have much to say about how to break this self-destructive pattern, other than to hope that politicians come to their senses on their own before the financial markets — or our overseas creditors — force them to.

Despite an annoying number of typos and writing that sometimes strains to be breezy, "The Reckoning" is a smart, sober and clear-eyed primer on the Post-American Century. Read it, and then demand equally straight answers from those who seek your vote.

Drew DeSilver is a business reporter

for The Seattle Times.

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