THE POSSIBILITIES OF AMERICAN DECLINE: ILLUSION OR REALITY?
"This British tendency to believe that America’s “empire” will decline is more than just a curiosity of intellectual debate. It also has real-world effects. Behind the scenes, many British policy makers also seem to be operating on the assumption that the continuing rise of China and the relative decline of America are both inevitable. As a result, they are making decisions that reflect a cautious adaptation to this wind of change. Britain’s recent decision to defy Washington and join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is one straw in that wind. The British “declinists” have also had a big impact on America’s own debate about the future. Mr Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was a best-seller in the US when it came out in 1987 and has shaped the discussion ever since. In the late 1980s, an era of high budget deficits and industrial decline, his argument that America — like Spain and Britain before it — would succumb to “imperial overstretch” seemed particularly persuasive. Paraphrasing Shaw, he predicted: “Rome fell; Babylon fell; Scarsdale’s turn will come....” It is possible that British professors based in America have the right combination of knowledge and detachment to have an unclouded vision of America’s future. Alternatively, it is also possible that they may be over-projecting the fate of the British empire on to its rather more robust American successor. Joseph Nye, a professor at Harvard (and an American) points out that: “By the outbreak of World War I, Britain ranked only fourth among the great powers . . . in GDP, and third in military spending.” By contrast, America still has the largest or second-largest economy in the world (depending on the measure you choose) and easily the biggest military budget. What is more, the collapse of the British empire was precipitated by the draining effects of two world wars, which left the UK close to bankrupt. If the US can avoid being sucked into a similar global conflict, it should do a better job of preserving its power".Gideon Rachman, "UK’s risky obsession with US decline: Many policy makers seem to see the rise of China as inevitable". The Financial Times. 6 April 2015, in www.ft.com. "Reputation is so very necessary to a prince that the one who enjoys it does more with his mere name than can be achieved with their armies by those who do not". Cardinal Richelieu. Testament Politique. (1688), p. 373. The issues highlighted by Gideon Rachman in his article of the other day are as follows: i) is American power in decline per se? ii) And if it is, how seriously can it be said to be in decline? Meaning are we approaching an end to the American world hegemony and or primacy of the past seventy-years? As per the first issue: by definition in terms of economic statistics, the USA is not as important to the world economy as it was circa 1945, 1955, 1965, or for that matter 1995. With that being said, it is still the case that by some measurements (but not all) the USA is still the largest economy in the world. With the Peoples Republic of China in second place. As per the second, more complex issue, the question is: a) how important in geopolitical terms is the relative, economic decline of the USA? b) can this relative economic decline be said to have impacted upon the American world position? And if so how seriously? It would seem the case that while China's economic expansion in many parts of the world has given it a much higher, diplomatic profile of late, it cannot be said to have garnered the PRC, much by the way of diplomatic hard diplomatic gains or fruits. With the exceptions Burma,(until recently), North Korea and Pakistan, China is still singularly lacking in allies of any sort. Its relations with most of its closest neighbours (Russia excepted) being singularly bad if not atrocious. Nor can Peking be said to have much by way of 'soft' or culture power. Certainly nothing akin to what the Americans or even some of the European powers possess. Similarly, notwithstanding all the military hardware that it has recently purchased, China's military is still woefully inadequate to engage in anything approaching a real military conflict with another erste-klasse power. With the historical record showing that it was on the losing side in two of the last three military conflicts it has engaged in: India - 1962 (winner), Russia - 1969 (loser), Vietnam - 1979 (loser). As a recent piece in the Financial Times has cleared exposed 1. Au fond though, the real issue is that all the recent talk of American decline has been inspired partly by the debacle of the Iraq war and partly by the world financial crisis of 2008-2009. In the case of the former, obviously, the policies of the current American administration, have to a certain degree, lend themselves to precisely such talk. In this case, the perception factor that Cardinal Richelieu so cogently identified low these almost four-hundred years ago, is most apt. 'Strategic patience' is perhaps a needed, nay a necessary tactic from time to time for any Great Power. When it is seemed to become not a tactic, but a determined and fixed strategy, then it is very easy for others to talk of said power's 'decline' and suchlike. At this point in time, no one can easily say if the current hesitancy in the application of American power abroad is something which will last-out the current American administration or will it become the default power position for the USA. Just as, viz Gideon Rachman, at a certain point, circa 1957-1960, a strategy of withdrawal and in fact 'decline' did become the default position of the United Kingdom. And soon enough a new mindset was created which in turn added to and reinforced what may at first have been merely a momentary tactic. While I myself and skeptical that the USA is in full-fledged decline, only time and nothing else will tell if I am correct or not. 1. Charles Clover, "China: Projections of power". The Financial Times. 8 April 2015, in www.ft.com.