Saturday, November 15, 2008

America will remain Strong

... America’s capacity to regenerate and re-invent is driven by a broad range of structural advantages that most other nations can only dream of...

America’s critics can be naively ostentatious. The Obama victory, a ballooning deficit, and the financial crises are leading many a foreign policy and economic pundits to assume that America is finished. For those like myself, proponents for, and advocates of a strong and decisive America such events though concerning, beckon for a little perspective. After all, American declinism theories are nothing new and will be the subject of continuing debate.

Interesting term declinism, first coined by Samuel P. Huntington in a winter of ’88 response to Paul Kennedy’s ideas, in which the author deduced that:

“… although US predominance in world affairs is not so secure as it was, "the ultimate test of a great power is in its ability to renew its power..."
Remembering that this was written 20 years ago. It is in this very regard that America shall remain powerful, the capacity to turn the corner and regenerate itself in spite of politics and economics of the day remains her greatest strength. Needless to add, the likes of Fareed Zakaria will for example persist with their version of The Post-American World. But all things considered, and especially that of an impending Obama presidency, America is far from the ‘enfeebled superpower’ that Zakaria purports to. The endless stream of negative waffle coming from many a public intellectual, think tank theorists, and media elite is both unconstructive and damaging. No my friends, we are not Waving Goodbye to Hegemony just yet, nor are we ready to proclaim The End of the American Era. Obama is far removed from the declinist specialists; his view of America though not to the liking of us conservatives remains positive, to this end Kagan it seems, is right.

Obama, it should be said, has done little to deserve the praise of these declinists. His view of America's future, at least as expressed in this campaign, has been appropriately optimistic … declinism. It seems to come along every 10 years or so. In the late 1970s, the foreign policy establishment was seized with what Cyrus Vance called "the limits of our power". In the late '80s, scholar Paul Kennedy predicted the imminent collapse of American power due to "imperial overstretch". In the late '80s, Samuel P. Huntington warned of American isolation as the "lonely superpower". Now we have the "post-American world".

Yet the evidence of American decline is weak. Yes, as Zakaria notes, the world's largest Ferris wheel is in Singapore and the largest casino in Macau. But by more serious measures of power the US is not in decline, not even relative to other powers. Its share of the global economy last year was about 21 per cent, compared with about 23 per cent in 1990, 22 per cent in 1980 and 24 per cent in 1960. Although the US is suffering through a financial crisis, so is every other important economy. If the past is any guide, the adaptable US economy will be the first to come out of recession and may find its position in the global economy enhanced.

Meanwhile, US military power is unmatched … America's image is certainly damaged, as measured by global polls, but the practical effects of this are far from clear. Is the US's image today worse than it was in the '60s and early '70s, with the Vietnam War; the Watts riots; the My Lai massacre; the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy; and Watergate? Does anyone recall that millions of anti-American protesters took to the streets in Europe in those years?

Sober analysts such as Richard Haass acknowledge that the US remains the single most powerful entity in the world. But he warns: "The United States cannot dominate, much less dictate, and expect that others will follow." That is true. But when was it not? Was there ever a time when the US could dominate, dictate and always have its way? Many declinists imagine a mythical past when the world danced to the US's tune.

Nostalgia swells for the wondrous American-dominated era after World War II, but between 1945 and 1965 the US suffered one calamity after another. The loss of China to communism; the North Korean invasion of South Korea; the Soviet testing of a hydrogen bomb; the stirrings of post-colonial nationalism in Indochina: each proved a strategic setback of the first order. And each was beyond America's power to control or even to manage successfully. >> more

To paraphrase what we wrote in the first paragraph, America’s capacity to regenerate and re-invent is driven by a broad range of structural advantages that most other nations can only dream of. Economic cycles come and go, some worse than others, deficits hover, foreign and domestic crises and the ongoing process of globalization will provide challenges, yet neither of these will counteract the advantages - its sheer present and potential dynamism, one borne of longstanding political and economic liberalism, its size, wealth, competitiveness and human capacity. For this, we ought to be grateful for only America remains the principle provider of public good and keeper of the peace. For the 21st century to have any chance of being peaceful, it must continue having a rule based international order which cannot exist, in the absence of U.S. global strategic power.

As a final point, and for those with the Newsweek or Zakaria mindset, I submit the wise words of Robert J. Lieber:

Over the years, America’s staying power has been regularly and chronically underestimated—by condescending French and British statesmen in the nineteenth century, by German, Japanese, and Soviet militarists in the twentieth, and by homegrown prophets of doom today. The critiques come and go. The object of their contempt never does.

Recommended reading: Falling Upwards: Declinism, The Box Set Robert J. Lieber

Cross posted at: American Interests blog

No comments: