Is This The End of the American Century?

This site features updates, analysis, discussion and comments related to the theme of my book published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2008 (hardbound) and 2009 (paperbound).

The Book

The End of the American Century documents the interrelated dimensions of American social, economic, political and international decline, marking the end of a period of economic affluence and world dominance that began with World War II. The war on terror and the Iraq War exacerbated American domestic weakness and malaise, and its image and stature in the world community. Dynamic economic and political powers like China and the European Union are steadily challenging and eroding US global influence. This global shift will require substantial adjustments for U.S. citizens and leaders alike.

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Friday, November 7, 2008

Can the US Regain Supremacy? Should It?

In my CBC Radio interview yesterday (see previous blog post) with Anna Maria Tremonti, there was one question she asked that gave me pause. She had first asked if I thought the U.S. is losing its superpower status. When I answered in the affirmative, she followed up with “Can it regain it?” I said I thought not, and went on to say that in a globalized and interdependent world, both the country and the world are better off without a superpower. But I think this needs some elaboration.

There is, first of all, both a descriptive (factual) and normative (value judgment) aspect to this question. Will the U.S. regain its superpower status? And should it do so. I believe the answer is negative to both questions, but the reasoning behind them are similar.

Some scholars have argued that the world needs a powerful and stabilizing force, and that the United States is the only country in a position to play this role. The British historian Niall Ferguson has made this case in his book Colossus, as has the U.S. political scientist Michael Mandelbaum in The Case for Goliath. And through much of history, there has been a big single power that has played this role in great swaths of the planet—Rome, Britain, Spain, the Ottomans, etc. All of those empires are now gone.

The 21st century world is different in several important respects. First, power and influence are more diffuse. There are numerous “rising powers”—China, India, Brazil, Iran, Russia, South Africa—and they are spread all over the globe. None of them want or need a super powerful country encroaching on their turf, or telling them how to behave.

Second, the world is more interdependent, particularly in economic terms—“flat” in Thomas Friedman’s evocative phrase. Prosperity and security are being built on trade, cooperation and compromise. Some countries are bigger and wealthier than others and will naturally play a more substantial role in this globalized community. A “superpower”—economic or military—distorts and destabilizes such a system.

Third, the most important issues facing the globe now require cooperation, consultation, compromise and diplomacy rather than brute strength or intimidation. Global warming, environmental deterioration, epidemics, famine, and drought are the most pressing threats to humanity. All of them require the participation of all states, regardless of their wealth, power and ideology. A superpower, with its tendency to unilateralism and arrogance, can only hinder such cooperation.

For all of these reasons, the U.S. will not, and should not, play the dominant and directing global role that it did through most of the 20th Century.

In addition to these global factors are domestic U.S. ones. In the American Century, the U.S. had the world’s biggest economy, its richest citizens, the best schools, the finest system of medical care, and the most successful democracy. It can no longer make such claims, both because of our own decline in the past two decades, and because other countries have been catching up. Most developed countries now surpass the U.S. in the quality of life, health care delivery, and education, and have much lower levels of poverty, inequality and violence. The vaunted U.S. economy (which for so long was a house of cards built on multiple levels of debt) has now begun an inevitable decline. Until the encouraging results of last week’s election, even the U.S. political system was rickety, with low levels of voting and participation, very unequal representation, erosion of fundamental rights, and questionable electoral outcomes.

So whereas in the 20th Century, the U.S. carried global influence because of its own domestic model of success (in addition to its military strength), it can no longer make those claims of exceptionalism. The rest of the world has caught up.

The U.S. has already lost the status of sole superpower. Even if we wanted it, other countries don’t recognize or accept it. And both the U.S. and the rest of the world will be better off if we don’t regain it.

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2 comments:

mikey said...

I wholeheartedly disagree with the premise of this post and the conclusions it develops. I believe there are a number of negative falsehoods assumed, and unchallenged by the same skewed and critical approach that's taken towards the United States, it's abilities and influence.

The strengths and abilities that have made the United States a superpower since WWII have not faded and actually grow stronger with the strength of lesser evolved and developed countries like Russia, China, and India. The fundamentals of the American system are still, and will continue to be better performing than our global competitors and other potential superpowers. This will not change unless there is a fundamental philosophical evolution in other countries with a comparable level of size, population and resources.

The blog posting is attempting to take a long term outlook on a short term problem, in the midst of it's sunset. If the failed approach taken for the past eight years in relation to the world was continued, the author's opinion would have deeper truth. However, that is not the case.

The question and conclusion of whether we "should" continue to be a world super power is a superfluous and short sighted notion. The advancements that have taken place world wide as a direct result of the American system and American leadership should not go unseen or unrecognized. The advancements and technological evolutions that have taken place in the past trump any other time in the history of man. Mankind has never in history lived longer, healthier, happier and better in it's history. This is largely a result of the advancements pioneered by United States and only possible here.

My acute disagreements include:

"Second, the world is more interdependent, particularly in economic terms"

This is true, and would logically lead to proof of decoupling. However, proof to the world's continued financial dependence on the United States can be seen by the American dollar gaining substantial strength in the midst of the current global financial crisis. When the US gets a cold, the rest of the world gets pneumonia.

"Third, the most important issues facing the globe now require cooperation, consultation, compromise and diplomacy rather than brute strength or intimidation. Global warming, environmental deterioration, epidemics, famine, and drought are the most pressing threats to humanity. All of them require the participation of all states, regardless of their wealth, power and ideology. A superpower, with its tendency to unilateralism and arrogance, can only hinder such cooperation."

This statement assumes that this will continue to be our approach as time goes on. I do not believe this will be the case. It's my opinion that the Obama administration will leave behind a legacy of international leadership that will rival that of Reagan. Mankind has never been better equipped to communicate and conquer the worlds problems. Regardless, the author's statement is based on weak assumption that the past eight years will be repeated in the next eight years.

", the U.S. had the world’s biggest economy, its richest citizens, the best schools, the finest system of medical care, and the most successful democracy. It can no longer make such claims, both because of our own decline in the past two decades, and because other countries have been catching up."

The United States still has the world's biggest economy, unless comparing it the the EU, a largely economic and loosely political union that is a figurative orange smoothie to the American apple pie. As the 15 year old EU is not a state, and will not be any time soon, it's not a just comparison when comparing superpowers and influence. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(nominal)

The United States continues to be the home of the world's wealth as well, having about a third of it and the two richest men in the world.

http://blogs.wsj.com/wealth/2007/10/03/global-wealth-gap-widens/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millionaire

Our universities continue to lead the world in innovation and solutions to the world's problems. Granted, there may be smaller countries that can tout more innovation per capita, but there is no place in the world and in the history of man that fosters scientific advancement as well as the American system. Russia, China and India have nothing comparable to MIT, UC, Cal Poly, Harvard, Stanford because they do not have the fundamental systems that reward individual advancement and innovation.

The medical system in the United States is surely imperfect. However, the drugs, equipment, treatments and procedures being used by more socialist approaches worldwide are largely developed here and would not be possible without our system that rewards innovation and advancement. The United States continues to be a leader in this field and will continue to be so for the next century as well. In addition, the United States is still home to the best medical schools in the world, attracting the best students in the world. So while everyone can't afford every treatment, the treatments would not even be available without our system. We still offer the best medical care available in the world.

And lastly, the supremacy of the American democratic process was unequivocally proven to the world Tuesday Nov. 4, when a man who's competency and ability was valued more than his race and birthright was elected to lead the United States and the free world.

The global landscape is surely changing, there is no question in that. The levels of communication and connectivity of the world's citizens has never been greater in the history of man. The world is getting smaller everyday, and will increasingly require the leadership from the most successful experiment ever conducted, the "shining city upon a hill", the United States of America.

DSM said...

Mikey posts a cogent and intelligent response to the question of U.S. supremacy. As such it deserves a systematic response. For now, I simply want to say that he should take a look at my book. I show there that on almost any dimension you can pick--education, health care, equality, political participation, poverty, economic dynamism and innovation, global influence and reputation--the U.S. has lost ground over the last 20 years. This is the case both in comparison to our own past, but also in comparison to other countries.

There is no question that the disastrous Bush administration has contributed mightily to these problems, but most of these problems predated Bush. And the last eight years, on top of the previous ones, have dug us into such a deep hole that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to crawl out of.

I agree with Mikey that the election of Obama--an amazing and inspirational turn of events--can help to stem the tide of decline. But in my view, the best we will be able to manage is a peaceful and civil transition into an era in which no single power is supreme.