This is an excerpt from “The Reckoning: Debt, Democracy and the Future of American Power,” published this week by Palgrave Macmillan.
For all the doom and gloom about “American decline,” the United States looks nothing like the twilight empires to which it’s often compared. For one thing, in this age of globalization, a far greater swath of the planet – including some surprising nations like China and Saudi Arabia – wish America well, albeit for their own, selfish reasons. Why would either country, in spite of what it may think of American culture or foreign policy, want to upset a status quo upheld, at great expense, by American power that enriches them more each and every year? From the US perspective, this should be an advantage. It creates stakeholders all over the planet that genuinely hope Washington can solve its current fiscal problems. With the exception of the British Empire, which had a relatively benign replacement lined up when it ran out of steam, history offers no other example of a waning empire whose most obvious potential rivals – China, India, the EU, to name but a few – all have good reasons to want to help arrange a long, slow approach to a soft landing.
“I have no objection to the principle of an American Empire,” writes Niall Ferguson, the Oxford historian. “Indeed, a part of my argument is that many parts of the world would benefit from a period of American rule.” Ferguson and others like him recognize the importance of the role the United States has played, a role that “not only underwrites the free exchange of commodities, labor and capital but also creates and upholds the conditions without which markets cannot function – peace and order, the rule of law, non-corrupt administration, stable fiscal and monetary policies – as well as public goods.” Ironically, many would-be topplers of American hegemony no doubt feel the same way.
Another key difference from the decline of Europe’s imperial powers is that while America’s relative decline is underway, the United States hardly looks likely to sink quickly to second-class status. In other words, the current trajectory would see the United States settle into a kind of parity with emerging powers. In instances where the changing of the guard occurred with amazing speed – Spain after Philip II, the Dutch after the Napoleonic wars, France after World War I, and Britain after World War II – the declining powers were exhausted, attempting to cling to far-flung colonies because their imperial economic models depended on extracting every last ounce of labor and resources to prop up the home country. The United States has something none of them ever enjoyed – the world’s largest domestic consumer market, as well as a commanding lead in many of the disruptive technologies that still drive product innovation. So absolute decline appears only a distant prospect – unless Americans badly fail at the polls, inviting another decade just like the one just finished.
Relative decline for the United States is hardly the worst possible outcome, if Washington and its allies can fashion a post-hegemonic system as resilient as the US-dominated one launched by Roosevelt and Truman in the mid-1940s. And Americans may find that, after decades of superpower headaches, they kind of enjoy being mortal again.