There has been much talk recently about whether the United States is on the brink of decline, or whether the fall has in fact already begun. Among the most important writings to discuss this matter is “The Future of American Power,” published in the latest issue (May/June 2008) of the American journal, Foreign Affairs, which I have mentioned previously.
I said to myself after reading the article, “Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for the writer-–rather than beginning with a comparison between the state of the United States today and that of Britain a century ago, from which he concludes that the United States has not yet entered a period of decline, and will not enter one in the foreseeable future-–to instead act as any doctor does when treating patient? They don’t start by diagnosing and prescribing medication, they don’t even examine the patient before asking, ‘What is it that you are suffering from exactly?’”
So let us begin then by raising the question, “What exactly is the United States suffering from?” What are the symptoms that have led some people to think that America’s global status is in decline, and that its days as the world’s greatest power are numbered?
Let us try to enumerate the most important of these symptoms in the fields of economics and politics. Regarding the economy, statistics confirm a downward trend for America’s share in international trade, and a decline in its competitive power, especially compared to the nations of southern and eastern Asia. Savings rates in the United States are zero, and sometimes less, which leads to growing dependence on investments from abroad that are not guaranteed, never mind the political risks.
The continuing and growing trade deficit is even worse, in that it reflects a fundamental weakness in the American ability to compete with other countries, and has no promise of ending. The deterioration in the value of the dollar resulting from this, though it may help to correct the trade deficit for a time, might not be feasible in the long-term if the weakness in competitive power leads to a deep imbalance with poor productivity and a rise in costs, which would be difficult to correct.
Not to mention that the devaluation of the dollar threatens the large advantage that the American economy enjoys, namely, the fact that other countries use the dollar as a reserve currency. Given the decline of the dollar for however long it may continue, what is the incentive to continue using it in this way?
This is economics, but what about politics? Look at the predicament of the United States in Iraq, where its feet are getting further and further sunk in the mud and it cannot extract itself. For some time now America has been threatening Iran with a strike, without actually striking. In Latin America there is rebellion against the traditional dependency on the United States in Venezuela and Bolivia, and those two countries are becoming closer, as are Argentina and Brazil, which could threaten to shake-off American control over the politics of a continent that has always been regarded as the “backyard” of the United States.
Or look at China’s increasingly daring attempts to establish relations with countries in Latin America, the Arab world, and the African continent, that were once off-limits due to its special relationship with the United States. And the reputation of the Unites States in the entire world is noticeably degraded due to the mistakes of U.S. policy and the commission of these errors with a condescendingly arrogant tone that does not befit the diminution of America’s economic and political status.
Add to this the high proportion of non-supporters of American foreign policy inside the United States itself, and an increase in the rate of Americans who don’t sympathize with the American administration, and even those who doubt the truth of the official story about what exactly happened on September 11, 2001.
These are some of the symptoms of the illness from which the patient is suffering. The spectator is excused if he concludes that it’s quite likely that errant U.S. foreign policy, with its obvious violence in dealing with the problems that arise in the world, might be the direct result of this weakness.
And we might be excused if we perceive some similarity between the position of America in Iraq – and its way of dealing with Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran through increasingly violent strikes and harsher rhetoric – with the position of Britain confronting the Suez crisis in 1956. In the wake of Gamal abd al-Nasser’s nationalizing the Suez Canal, Britain used an unjustified tone in comparing Nasser’s actions to Hitler, then resorted to unjustified attacks which it quickly regretted, and was forced to withdraw.
The author of the article in Foreign Affairs, Fareed Zakaria, says that Britain’s problem in the last century was economic trouble that led to political weakness, whereas in the current U.S. situation, the opposite holds: political mistakes have resulted in economic problems.
He may mean to say by this that the mistaken policy of the Bush administration in the Middle East has led to heavy expenditures which have strained the economy, while the increasing weakness in the British economy from the beginning of the 20th century resulted, in an attempt to address the issue, in Britain’s committing political errors, like the attack on Egypt in 1956.
The article leaves readers with the impression that the writer wants to suggest that the solution to the U.S.’s problem now is easier than the solution to Britain’s problem in the past, for political mistakes can be solved by admitting them and changing the course of decision-making, while the economic weakness which afflicted Britain was incurable. Thus, the decline in Britain’s global stature was unavoidable, while there is no inevitability in the downfall of America.
This prompts us to ask: Isn’t it possible that American political errors themselves are the inevitable result of economic weakness, and therefore difficult to correct? Might it not be that the United States’ mistakes in the Middle East, for example, are a direct result of its desperate desire to control the oil wealth of this region, and that this desperate desire in turn stems from the weaknesses of its economy? If this is true, isn’t it possible for us to expect an increased decline in the status of America within the world order?