The year of 1979 marked the beginning of three fundamental processes. It was then that China’s process of economic reform began under Deng Xiaoping, laying the groundwork for its dizzying economic expansion. It was the date in which the Islamic Revolution triumphed in Iran with Khomeini, unleashing a movement that would transform the face of the Middle East. It was, finally, the year of the invasion of Afghanistan — that is, the conflict that gave rise to the formation of an Islamic, anti-Soviet jihad in which 35,000 radical Muslims coming from 40 countries formed a coalition. There, the seeds of al-Qaida were sown, which would assume so much importance in later decades. These events marked a bifurcation: On one side was spectacular economic growth, represented by China; on the other, political radicalization represented by Islamic fundamentalism.
The obsessive attention the United States paid to the second has caused it to lose sight of the first. However, in terms of challenging its leadership, what has occurred in China has proven immensely more significant than Islamism. While the Asian nation is in the process of supplanting the United States as the foremost economic power on the planet, Islamism represents a factor of global distortion, not transformation. In this fashion, the dominant power’s attention hasn’t been directed toward an emerging rival, as would be logical, but rather toward a sideshow.
While the United States has spent $1.3 trillion on the war in Afghanistan and, by extension of its paranoia, on the unnecessary war in Iraq, its domestic infrastructure, its education system and, to a fair extent, its productive capability languish in decay. While China has been advancing by giant strides — even threatening its technological supremacy — the United States has sunk into a state of torpor with respect to its competitive shortcomings. Overly preoccupied with al-Qaida, the Taliban and other real and imagined enemies in that part of the world, it seems to have not noticed the high-speed train at its back, which threatens to leave it behind.
Great empires cease being great not because they want to, but simply because they lose the capacity to continue being great. Usually the economy is the Achilles’ heel that brings them down, as Paul Kennedy demonstrated so well in his masterly work, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.” From Spain to Great Britain, including Portugal and the Netherlands, imperial desires have exceeded the capacity of respective economies to sustain them. So it was, when the United States received the torch of hegemonic leadership in the 20th century, when Great Britain proved itself incapable in continuing to maintain its own.
Just as 17th-century Spain, obsessed by its conflict in Flanders, was overwhelmed by more aggressive economic competitors, the United States, consumed in its own Flanders, will be the next to lose its primacy. Looking in the wrong direction, Washington lost its sense of history.