Tuesday, April 19, 2011

U.S. declinism theories are nothing new

From a Reuters article from several months back:

Leading thinkers in the dismal science speaking at an annual convention offered varying visions of U.S. economic decline, in the short, medium and long term. This year, the recovery may bog down as government stimulus measures dry up … The age of American predominance is over …
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 me, proponents for, and advocates of a strong and decisive America such events though concerning, beckon for a little perspective.

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..."
Though this was written 20 years ago, even today I believe America shall remain powerful, because of its capacity to turn the corner and regenerate itself in spite of politics and economics of the day, this is her greatest strength. Needless to add, the likes of Fareed Zakaria will persist with their version of The Post-American World. But the U.S. is far from the ‘enfeebled superpower’ that Zakaria purports to. The endless stream of negativity 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. Even Obama is far removed from the declinist specialists; his view of America though not to the liking of us conservatives remains comparitively 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 ... If he sounded anything like Zakaria and Fukuyama say he does, he'd be out of business by now. It (declinism) 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"... Sober analysts such as Richard Haass acknowledge that the U.S. 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.
Hence there is nothing new about U.S. declinism theories. Since the attack on 9/11, we have been presented with a virtual plethora of books, and online commentary and opinion pieces assertively predicting the decline of America. Too numerous to mention here, they include Johnson’s Blowback, Ferguson’s Colossus: The price of America’s empire, the writings of Chomsky and Fisk, in addition to an army of lefties opposed to U.S. foreign policy and what they refer to “cultural imperialism”.

The anti-americanist overtures dwell on familiar, now hackneyed themes and are driven by former president Bush’s unilateralist policies and pre-emptive military action that, according to the writers had stretched “imperial capabilities so much that America will go down the same path as Persia, Rome, and the Soviet Union. What they term, classic errors of empire, that will not exempt (America) from the decrees of history.

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 EU, there remains vast gaps in education quality, military spending, technology, and economic activity.

Here are some well-published and current facts set to dishearten those who thought America’s fall was well underway:

... Of its 300 million people, it has the largest group of middle class citizens with excellent life expectancy outcomes by world standards ...

... America has the best and largest higher education schools in the globe (17 of the worlds top universities are in the U.S.)...

... Its percentage of world GDP is just short of 30% ...

... Of all the top Fortune 500 companies, 170 are American, which is more than double that of Japan in 2nd place and way ahead of Britain and China...

... In terms of total market capitalization, the New York Stock Exchange is vastly larger than all other nations ...

... National debt is high but as a percentage of GDP is not unmanageable ...

.. Military spending is still 50% of the world total with the technological gap still growing...
No, U.S Declinism theories are nothing new. As early as 1970, Andrew Hacker a political scientist published a book titled, “The end of the American Era", in it he confidently predicted American decline citing poor fiscal policies, excessive individualism, and imperial overstretch. Sound familiar?

Fast forward to 2009 and in defence of America, Josef Joffe article The Default Power, The False Prophecy of America’s Decline argues that, "every ten years, it is decline time in the United States".

In the late 1950s, it was the Sputnik shock, followed by the “missile gap” trumpeted by John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential campaign. A decade later, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger sounded the dirge over bipolarity, predicting a world of five, rather than two, global powers. At the end of the 1970s, Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech invoked “a crisis of confidence” that struck “at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.”

A decade later, academics such as the Yale historian Paul Kennedy predicted the ruin of the United States, driven by over extension abroad and profligacy at home. The United States was at risk of “imperial overstretch,” Kennedy wrote in 1987, arguing that “the sum total of the United States’ global interests and obligations is nowadays far larger than the country’s power to defend them all simultaneously.” But three years later, Washington dispatched 600,000 soldiers to fight the first Iraq war—without reinstating the draft or raising taxes. The only price of “overstretch” turned out to be the mild recession of 1991.

Declinism took a break in the 1990s. The United States was enjoying a nice run after the suicide of the Soviet Union, and Japan, the economic powerhouse of the 1980s, was stuck in its “lost decade” of stagnation and so no longer stirred U.S. paranoia with its takeover of national treasures such as Pebble Beach and Rockefeller Center. The United States had moved into the longest economic expansion in history, which, apart from eight down months in 2001, continued until 2008.
Routinely such dim predictions also stem from antagonism toward its culture and values and/or simply a desire to see it fail as a result of contrasting ideologies and beliefs. To what end eludes this writer. Will the world be better off if the USA fails? Will the world be more secure, will our children be better off?

Josef Joffe concludes:

As the twenty-first century unfolds, the United States will be younger and more dynamic than its competitors. And as a liberal empire, it can work the international system with fewer costs than yesterday’s behemoths, which depended on territorial possessions and had to conduct endless wars against natives and rivals. A Tyrannosaurus rex faces costlier resistance than the bumbling bull that is the United States. A final point to ponder: Who would actually want to live in a world dominated by China, India, Japan, Russia, or even Europe, which for all its enormous appeal cannot take care of its own backyard? Not even those who have been trading in glee and gloom decade after decade would prefer any of them to take over as housekeeper of the world.
For doubters, it remains in our greater interests that U.S. primacy be preserved. We must ask, what kind of comprehensive global strategy would preserve primacy most effectively in the face of Americas challenges.

Primacy provides scores of benefits for the United States and the world, it would not be practical for it to sit back and permit other states to catch up thus surrendering the many rewards of its international influence as sourced through its massive ideological, military, and economic capacity.

There are some clear considerations in light of this. U.S. military power although robust, should not be wasted needlessly, and its economy requires prudent management to enhance its long-term strength since its global power is also dependant on economic output. This is especially important given that both the Chinese and Indian economies are set to be in the same league by around 2050, whilst declining and ageing populations will adversely affect the output of Japan, Russia, and the European Union. Also of concern, is that both China and India are well placed to bite into America’s technological advantages, to keep its edge, the U.S. must fashion a new evolving international economic architecture, that seeks to maintain stability and growth. U.S. vulnerability also stems through its considerable dependency on oil, with competition for natural resources is likely to peak well before 2050.

In terms of foreign policy issues, there is nothing improper about the U.S. supporting states that embrace liberal democratic processes, nor is there anything wrong intervening in global affairs to encourage forms of regional balancing in favour of U.S. interests. To achieve this and safeguard primacy, a stratagem that primarily employs America’s traditional approach, by which it deploys its power in no uncertain terms, is called for however, only where there exists a direct threat to its interests. Offshore balancing which utilises and assists friendly regional powers (its allies, including Israel) to curb the rise of potential hostile nation states ought be an option.

This approach logically engages other nation states but it is does not segregate. One must not assume that such a policy would render the U.S. inactive, more exactly; it would intervene, even militarily, but only when friendly regional powers are unable to act decisively on their own. Instead of trying to be the global police officer, the United States adopts a selective, restrained foreign policy with rules that concentrate on defending America's expansive array of vital interests. Because it limits military intervention overseas, offshore balancing makes it less burdensome to intervene when genocide or other vital interests are threatened by rogue states, such as Iran or in the case of the 90's, Bosnia.

Regretably, American global pre-eminence is not a permanent arrangement but attempts to extend it through doctrines build resentment and resistance, history has demonstrated this. Military power must be upheld, even augmented but used more judiciously. The effects of such a strategy will filter through to other elements of U.S. relations and promote its economy, expand flows of information, technology, capital, goods and services. While terrorism and nuclear proliferation complicates matters it is through consensus coupled with military muscle that best results can be achieved. Continued engagement becomes paramount to U.S. interests if America wants to retain its position of primacy for the foreseeable future. It’s a way of telling the world (not just convincing) that its dominance is preferable to any alternatives. As a final point, it will also assist the United States through the enhancement of "soft power" - winning hearts and minds - and respond effectively to competing worldviews, such as Chinese non-interference measures, Islamism, and European social democracy.

See also: Foundations of power