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.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Age of Uncertainty

These are unsettling times.  Lately we have been witness to a continuing carnival of a presidential election, a series of horrific terrorist attacks and massacres both here and abroad, plus the British Brexit vote.  People here, and in other countries, are unsettled and uncertain.  Indeed, the world is unsettled and uncertain.  In this country, the appeal of Donald Trump is baffling in many ways, but it is also understandable, given the wrenching changes underway in people's lives, and in the world, and the fear and uncertainty that this occasions. This kind of disruption, fear and uncertainty often leads people to seek simple solutions, scapegoats and demagogues.

The reasons behind all this uncertainty are the large-scale shifts in the world, and in the U.S. role in the world.  I call these "systemic changes" and I want to focus on the two most important ones:  first, the decline of the United States as the single dominant and determining global power; and second, the rise of transnational forces and threats that diminish the autonomy and power of ALL nation states, including the U.S.  We are no longer in control of events, either in our own back yard, or on the global stage, and this is discomfiting. 

First let me address the issue of the change of the U.S. role in the world.  Eight years ago, I wrote a book called "The End of the American Century" which addressed this phenomenon.  "The American Century," basically the second half of the 20th century was one of unprecedented global dominance by a single country, the United States.  This was evident in almost every sphere: politics, economics, the military, ideology, and culture.   The Soviet Union, our only real rival during that time, was strong militarily but not in any other respect.  Its standard of living by most measures was about a tenth of that in the U.S., something I can attest to from living in that country briefly in the 1970s

Even in the long course of history, it is rare to find countries or empires that so dominated the world: one thinks only of the Roman Empire or, maybe, the British Empire.  But all empires fade eventually.  Italy and Britain may be very pleasant places to live (and visit!) right now, but they are not the dominant powers they once were.  Something similar is happening to the United States.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it contributes to uncertainty.

For the U.S., it is not so much that we have suffered absolute decline, but rather have declined relative to other forces and countries.  The U.S still has the strongest military, the biggest economy, and the most durable and resilient political system.  But we no longer dominate the world as we did during the American Century.  China, for example, has experienced fabulous economic growth in recent decades, and is increasingly asserting itself on the global stage.  Europe, by combining, sort of, into the European Union has created an economic powerhouse, larger than the American one.  Neither China nor the EU is much of a military power just yet, but increasingly it seems that military power is not as useful and determinate as it once was.  Plus, as I will discuss below,  there are transnational forces that also cut into America's ability to shape the world.  So for Americans used to being #1, this relative decline can be unsettling, and speaks to the appeal of Trump's "America First" slogan.

So the relative decline of the U.S. in the global arena is the first major dimension of systemic change.  The other is the rise of transnationalism.  By transnational, I mean problems, forces, movements or institutions that transcend national boundaries, making them difficult for national governments to deal with.   These are proliferating in the modern world, but I will highlight those that have contributed especially to this age of uncertainty:  globalization of the economy; terrorism; and climate change.

Perhaps none of these merit my attention, since they've been so much in the news, and in the current electoral campaign.  Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders complained about the maverick status of multinational corporations.  As transnational institutions, these can easily shift operations from one country to another in search of cheaper labor or supplies, while remaining relatively immune from the regulations or taxation of government in any particular country.  Of course, a globalized economy does have its benefits, in terms of more efficient production and cheaper and more abundant consumer goods.  But it also hurts those workers who get left behind.  This is particularly true in manufacturing, which has faced a double whammy of automation and globalization, causing jobs in manufacturing to plunge from 28% of all jobs in 1970 to less than 10% today.  The problem is not going to go away.  The shrinking of manufacturing employment is global--not just in the U.S.

Globalization, automation and the decline of manufacturing have contributed to a stagnation of real earnings in the U.S.  For the average American family, household income is $4,000 less than it was 15 years ago.  Meanwhile economic inequality has grown much worse, with the top 1 percent of American households taking in more than half of the recent gains in income growth. Income and wealth inequality in the United States is now the highest it has been since before the Great Depression of the 1930s, as Bernie Sanders kept reminding us during his own run for the presidency. 

This issue is particularly egregious at the very top of the income scale.  In the 1950s, big-company CEOs earned about fifty times the pay of an average worker.  Even then, that ratio was very high compared to other countries.  But since then, CEO pay in the U.S. has skyrocketed compared to average salaries.  By 1990, average CEO pay was 100 times the average worker's salary.  By 2000, it was more than 500 times.  In Germany, that ratio was only 11 to 1; and in the United Kingdom, 25 to 1.

So it is not surprising that so many people are fearful and angry.  Even though the economy is growing, they are being left behind.  The dislocations caused by globalization though, can only be addressed by collective action, and that requires action by government, and cooperation among national governments.  A weak and ineffective government is no match for the power of large multinational corporations.

Terrorism is another transnational force that has frightened and destabilized us.  It often seems that governments are helpless in the face of this enemy, which is not located in any one region, supported by any particular country, or subject to any conventional norms of morality.   Social media, another transnational force, facilitates the organization, recruitment and concealment of terrorist groups.  Against transnational terrorists, particularly the fundamentalist brand, deterrence and threats are useless, and even conventional military force is only haphazardly effective.  America's vaunted military, the most awesome in the history of the world, is not by itself able to eliminate transnational terrorism.  This too causes fear and uncertainty, and a sense of powerlessness.  But, like the forces of globalization, the solution requires global action and cooperation.

Climate change, another transnational phenomenon, is even more threatening and dangerous than globalization and terrorism, though more baffling because of its inherent invisibility.  Even though the evidence for climate change is overwhelming and irrefutable, most people don't actually see it or experience it.  So they are open to the blandishments of politicians and the fossil fuel industry who prey on their ignorance and fears in claiming it does not exist.  And this contributes to our national sense of unease and uncertainty, since we are not sure what to believe and whom to trust.  Climate change, however, is literally a life-and-death issue that requires strong government action, national sacrifice and global cooperation.  All of these are difficult to imagine in the current political climate in the United States.

These transnational phenomena--globalization, terrorism and climate change-- all threaten the American way of life, and they are devilishly resistant to resolution in the way we have solved problems in the past.  Throwing money at them won't work.  Military power is either irrelevant or ineffectual.  Things have changed since The American Century when our country was, it seemed, both dominant and in control of our fate.  In both the domestic sphere and the international one, things are not like they used to be.  Thus appear opportunistic politicians who promise to roll back the clock, or to "make America great again."

However, America's greatness was never achieved by going back to the past, but rather by finding solutions to new problems, while holding fast to the values that unite us.  These include industry, innovation and individualism, but also compassion, tolerance, and civility.  The U.S. has survived through civil war, world wars, depressions, civil unrest and terrorism.  And we remain the world's oldest and most successful democracy; even if we do not brandish the power and influence we had during the Cold War years.

But we have created a kind of paradox of political life: at a time when we are in desperate need of effective government to address important domestic and international issues, government is increasingly unable to act. Democratic government is not often consensual, but it does, by its very nature, require compromise.  But in American politics, we have one candidate calling for a "political revolution" and another, a billionaire cloaked as a populist, calling for a return to the past and playing on people's fears, angers, and prejudice.  The polarization of American politics has made compromise almost unattainable, and in the process has practically paralyzed the operations of government.

Of course, this simply adds to people's frustration with politics and government, which accounts for polls showing record low levels of trust in the federal government.  This is not a happy situation for a system of government that is supposed to be based on popular will.  And it contributes to the turmoil, alienation, and uncertainty.

Keeping this democracy alive is, in my mind, the single biggest challenge we face at the moment and the key to addressing the systemic transformations we are facing.   In the current political environment, the bedrock principles of democracy--compromise, tolerance, participation, inclusion--are under threat.  There is a disturbing growth of authoritarianism in American political culture, with 44% of non-college grads (in 2011) approving of "having a strong leader who doesn't have to bother with Congress or elections."

The growing authoritarianism in the U.S. may be disturbing, but it is not terribly surprising.  Times of systemic change, fear and uncertainty, especially combined with economic downturn, often foster the emergence of demagogic politicians, and even dictators.  It is also understandable why so many Americans are lashing out at the whole system, given the vast gulf between rich and poor, the continuing pernicious impact of money in politics, and the seeming paralysis of government.

The solution is not to reject the system, but to improve it.  As Winston Churchill famously quipped: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others."  And democracy is uniquely suited to dealing with problems that are so complex and disruptive, because it demands participation, inclusion, compromise, respect for minorities, and due process.  The problems we are facing are unprecedented, in my view, and signal a systemic shift in U.S. politics and international relations.  The U.S. will not be "great" in the way we were before, but it remains the most important and admired country in the world, and it's involvement in global politics is indispensible.

(Based on a talk I gave at a Kiwanis Club 8/30/16)

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