Monday, May 04, 2009

Defence White Paper jumps gun on U.S. Declinism

... In 1970, Andrew Hacker a political scientist published a book entitled, “The end of the American Era” where he confidently predicted American decline citing poor fiscal policies, excessive individualism, and imperial overstretch. Sound familiar?

… That is akin to where we are now, post-Iraq: calmer, more pragmatic and with a military -- especially a Navy -- that, while in relative decline, is still far superior to any other on Earth. Near the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy had almost 600 ships; it is down to 280. But in aggregate tonnage that is still more than the next 17 navies combined …

Apart from the perceived China threat, the Rudd Governments added validation for the planned boost to ADF funding and acquisitions, is the premise that American military might will weaken. Moreover, that the U.S. will find itself, "preoccupied and stretched in some parts of the world such that its ability to shift attention and project power into other regions, when it needs to, is constrained”.

Can we deduce form this that America would be too constrained to shield Australia from regional threats? Or more broadly, that the U.S. would be unable or disinclined to “continue to play over the very long term the strategic role that it has undertaken since the end of World War II?"

I beg to differ. 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 America’s core advantages - its sheer present and potential dynamism, one borne of longstanding political and economic liberalism (that’s right Mr. Rudd), its size, wealth, competitiveness and human capacity. In the 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.
America remains the principle provider of public good and keeper of the peace and it will continue to do so. 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. Of course, America’s detractors will continue dishing out the verbiage of impending doom and past hegemony. Case in point, in spite of volumes literature predicting its fall, the fundamental foundations of U.S. power and hegemony remain rock solid and compared to its nearest rivals and including the basket case we term the EU, there remains vast gaps in education quality, military spending, technology, and economic activity, even if the latter – economy - be solely based on potentials in times of economic turmoil.

Added Robert Kaplan, with respect to the continuing debate about America’s hypothetical international decline:

Declinism is in the air. The latest conventional wisdom is that the combination of the Iraq war, the military and economic rise of Asia, and the steep recession in the West has chastened America, ending its period of dominance in world affairs. It is time for us to be humble.

There is a lot of truth to this, but it goes too far. For decline itself -- as a concept -- is overrated. Britain's Royal Navy went into relative decline beginning in the 1890s, even as Great Britain remained powerful enough to help save the West in two world wars over the next half-century.

The proper analogy may be the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and 1858, after the orientalists and other pragmatists in the British power structure, who wanted to leave traditional India as it was, lost sway to Evangelical and Utilitarian reformers who wanted to more forcefully Christianize India -- to make it in a values sense more like England. The reformers were good people: They helped abolish the slave trade and tried to do the same with the hideous practice of widow-burning. But their attempts to bring the fruits of Western civilization, virtuous as they were, to a far-off corner of the world played a role in a violent revolt against imperial authority.

Yet the debacle did not signal the end of the British Empire, which expanded for nearly another century. Rather, it signaled a transition away from an ad hoc imperium fired occasionally by an ill-disciplined lust to impose its values abroad -- and to a calmer, more pragmatic and soldiering empire built on trade, education and technology.

That is akin to where we are now, post-Iraq: calmer, more pragmatic and with a military -- especially a Navy -- that, while in relative decline, is still far superior to any other on Earth. Near the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy had almost 600 ships; it is down to 280. But in aggregate tonnage that is still more than the next 17 navies combined. Our military secures the global commons to the benefit of all nations. Without the U.S. Navy, the seas would be unsafe for merchant shipping, which, in an era of globalization, accounts for 90 percent of world trade. We may not be able to control events on land in the Middle East, but our Navy and Air Force control all entry and exit points to the region. The multinational anti-piracy patrols that have taken shape in the Strait of Malacca and the Gulf of Aden have done so under the aegis of the U.S. Navy. Sure the economic crisis will affect shipbuilding, meaning the decline in the number of our ships will continue, and there will come a point where quantity affects quality. But this will be an exceedingly gradual transition, which we will assuage by leveraging naval allies such as India and Japan …

In sum, we may no longer be at Charles Krauthammer's Unipolar Moment, but neither have we become Sweden.

As I have written many times over in different guises, American hegemony may be in a period of recalibration but it is far from over. This is especially so in a military gist. What is more, even if challenged, like times past, America will rise and for this, we should be pleased. No, U.S. Declinism theories are nothing new. In 1970, Andrew Hacker a political scientist published a book entitled, “The end of the American Era” where he confidently predicted American decline citing poor fiscal policies, excessive individualism, and imperial overstretch. Sound familiar?

I remain in favour of Australia muscling up its offensive capabilities, but to suggest that we must do so to counter a weakening America is premature of not completely incorrect. The U.S. will be there for Australia if in need, 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.

America may be down but its capacity to regenerate and re-invent is driven by a broad range of structural advantages that most other nations can only dream of.

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