Edward Gibbons noted in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that decadence, greed and moral decay were important reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire. Today’s America has already become a second Roman Empire- that is to say, moral decay has become an important reason for the fall of America.
The current international financial crisis was caused by America, causing its image as a "savior" to steadily decline, and it has even come to be seen as the source of danger that other countries have been unable to avoid. Although the United States’ GDP in 2008 was still the world’s largest, its annual growth rate was only 1.4%, and there was -6.2% growth in the 4th quarter; there is absolutely no doubt that it will fall into recession in 2009, and the prospects for recovery are not bright. Most importantly, the “American myth” has lost its luster. As Nobel Prize winner for economics Paul Krugman has said, “The global financial crisis has thoroughly shattered people’s faith in laissez faire market economics.” Although the era of American leadership has not yet come to a complete end, America's prestige and authority have already been greatly lessened. “The American Model” no longer being taken as the standard means that it will be very difficult for the world to be contentedly subservient to the American center again, and America’s international influence will be severely reduced.
America, through its great technological strength, massive multinational corporations and other means has positioned itself at the very top of the global production and profit chains, creating a situation in which other countries supply labor, consume resources and pollute the environment while America itself engages in wildly profligate consumption and unrestrained profit-seeking. Simply put, America as a whole is highly parasitic. Yet despite being the greatest greenhouse-gas-emitting country in history and in the present, America has not signed the Kyoto Protocol aimed at controlling global warming, giving up the moral responsibility to lead and organize efforts to control global warming.
In recent decades, from the dot-com bubble to the real estate bubble, from the securities crisis to the financial crisis, the greed of America's economic elites has always been at work in the background. There could be no more classic example than those of the financial scams perpetrated by Bernard Madoff and Alan Stanford. Furthermore, both the American government and people seem to have always lacked any concept of spending within their means; borrowing and deficit spending, on the other hand, have become habits. Borrowers are beggars- and when other countries have no choice but to lend money to the United States, America is a robber! Viewed in terms of place, deficit spending is spending what belongs to others; viewed in terms of time, it is spending on the future, or even reflective of an "apocalypse mentality." Especially given that the financial crisis has brought pain to the whole world, people desperately hope that that America will be able to lead the world out of the crisis, or at least ride out the storm in the same boat as other countries. But America, the self-proclaimed "world leader," has instead led the way by passing the protectionist, economically nationalistic "Buy American" clause, and the phenomenon of foreigners being the first to be laid off has emerged. While this appears to be an act of unprincipled self interest, it is actually a willful act of self-degradation indicative of America’s lack of confidence and ability to lead the world out of this crisis, and further signifies America’s national moral decay.
The international financial crisis is now becoming a worldwide economic crisis, or even a global economic recession, and hoping that America will suddenly awaken to once again be a responsible "empire" is impractical. The question now is whether or not America will print dollars to maintain the country’s “irrational exuberance” (a point Alan Greenspan has always emphasized), and pass the crisis on to other countries; that will be the litmus test that will determine whether or not America will decline completely!
During the Cold War, the international system was balanced between the United States and the Soviet Union in a “balance of power." Since the end of the Cold War, the international system has consisted of "one superpower and many great powers" - what Westerners and especially Americans prefer to call "world peace under American leadership." As America heads towards decline today, the key determinant of what the world will look like in the “post-American era” will be America's own response. As Immanuel Wallerstein said, the question is not whether or not America will decline, but whether or not it will accept its decline with dignity.
Throughout history, times of chaos and disaster have not come during hegemons’ and empires’ periods of rise and prosperity, but during their periods of decline. In such times, empires and hegemons often become gripped with hysteria, and subconsciously adopt expansionist and offensive strategies in order to protect their dignity and interests. At the same time, the decline of an empire or hegemon leads to other countries rushing to fill the gap, none giving an inch, until the international system achieves a new balance or a new empire or hegemon emerges.
The international financial crisis has also brought new uncertainties onto the world scene. “Old Europe” is hobbling; Japan’s economy is in a severe recession; Russia, reliant on oil exports to fulfill its dream of renewal, has not recovered from the blow dealt to it by the drop in international oil prices; the rise of China and India has become the new central issue of the era. In these circumstances, no one can ensure that unexpected incidents will not have tragic effects on the world.
However, America’s current state of decline does not mean that its power will experience an abrupt and precipitous slide, nor does it mean that America will not be able to defy fate and make a comeback, as reasonable adjustments and reforms can always bring varying degrees of improvement. So the problem is, if America is to continue maintain its status, it must change its temperament and morality; while if America’s decline worsens day by day, then the world will have to design a new road map.
▲ (The author is a Beijing scholar, and holds a PhD.)