Opinion

The Great Debate

The myth of America’s decline

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.

from Susan Glasser:

America’s biggest growth industry: declinism

By Susan Glasser
The opinions expressed are her own.

The Amerislump is upon us.

Conservative agitator Pat Buchanan’s new book says America might not survive until 2025; it’s called “The Suicide of a Superpower.” Even less alarmist observers are suddenly sounding a lot like Buchanan, as economists now predict that China may surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy a lot sooner than we thought, and important conferences are convened to deal with what Fareed Zakaria memorably dubbed “the post-American world.”

Over at Foreign Policy, my colleague Joshua Keating (coiner of the “Amerislump” phrase) has taken to tracking all the gloom-and-doom punditry under the heading “Decline Watch” on our website—and not a day goes by without a classic example, from the poverty-stricken new muppet on Sesame Street who doesn’t have enough to eat, to the supposed cocaine slump on Wall Street and the new government initiative to attract Chinese shoppers here — so they can buy Made in China goods, but at the cheap prices caused by our undervalued dollar.

The zeitgeist about America is so bleak that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even begins her speeches these days being forced to remind audiences that the U.S. economy is still the world’s largest and its workers by far the most productive. Clinton, no declinist, invariably does her best to convince us that America is not retreating from the world at a time of national angst. Or at least that it should not.

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