Friday, November 17, 2006

The Self-destructive Decline of a Superpower 

In the piece below, Martin Jacques looks at the imperial decline of the United States with a good deal of validity - but with a blindness to the fundamental economic and financial weakness of the United States that is so significant a part of the American decline.
It can be argued that, in "America's Suicidal Statecraft", I have over-emphasised the economic and financial aspects and have tended to pay too little attention to the sort of political and strategic points that Jacques is making.
However, you will find much, if not all and more of what there is in the piece below, spread through the pages of "America's Suicidal Statecraft".
Power tends to consist in a cluster of strengths: economic, social, political and strategic. They have to be effectively wrapped up together. Economic power alone is not enough; but the cluster will be lacking real integrity without it.
The Bush II Administration has totally failed to appreciate the economic situation in the United States - and would not want to confess it, even it did recognise the stark facts. It has nevertheless embarked on most ill-considered political and military adventures that have served to reveal unambiguously, to friends and rivals alike, just how meagre the power of the world's single superpower has become.
There are many substantial differences, but there are also many striking similarities between the demise of the Soviet Union and the decline of the United States. Both have involved clear elements of self-destruction. Both have presented themselves - and perhaps have genuinely deceived themselves - that they are not hollowed-out shells, right up to the point at which the Soviet Union fragmented and now at which the United States seems to be approaching its terrifying moment of truth.
Just one of many references linking the economic and the political/strategic in "America's Suicidal Statecraft", reads as follows -

The political centre and right have become virtually a must if there is to be small government and low taxes. There is nowhere else for parties seeking power to go. But is what is called the political centre really and more accurately just an associate of the far right with the deeply deceptive characteristics that [American writer, Tom] Frank has suggested? Is this the centre that “New Labour” claims to occupy in Britain? Has the post-war, left-leaning “liberalism” in Australia now changed its spots to become a new right-wing conservatism based on that in the United States? If so, the variety of economic, social, political and strategic risks faced by the United States must be assumed also to confront other countries that have, in so many ways – deceptively, corruptly and/or fecklessly – adopted or slipped negligently into the American model.
Two further crucial developments must be noted. The first is that several of the rapidly emerging and industrialising countries have retained elements of leftist tendencies or have returned to them. This applies to the Latin American countries and particularly to the largest of them, Brazil, and one of the most important – as a big-oil country on the American threshold - Venezuela. Even Cuba has become, to some, less outrageous and more acceptable, except in the United States.
Much of the respect accorded governments is earned by the success of their policies especially in achieving economic growth and some greater measure of political and strategic independence. By these criteria, China has succeeded splendidly in the last twenty years, and so too, though so far to a lesser degree, has India. China still has nominally a communist government and certainly a government that intervenes and participates robustly in the economy. In those economic, financial and other matters that count in enabling the People’s Government in Beijing to hold on firmly to the reins of power, the government is not going to change. It will gently allow a little flexibility in the external value of its currency; but it is not going to allow its power to control that currency to be lost in a rampant and unpredictable free market. It has got where it is by maintaining control; unlike the United States, it is not going to throw that control – that sound economic management - heedlessly away.
Against that background, the global position is far from being what it was in the dynamic Western countries in the quarter century after the Second World War. A precise return to those times, in national or global economic policies, is not practicable. However, the plethora of left-wing ideas then made for lively debates and it may be that a resumption of those debates, updated to meet present-day circumstances, may be possible and will almost certainly erupt if there is, in the next few months or years, the alarming sound of bursting bubbles in the United States as well as in other countries that have embraced the American economic – and political - model. The day of the right wing’s virtual monopoly of place and power may then be over and the financial oligarchy, though not eliminated, may be required to compete in a political market that is rather more “free” than it has been for a long, long time.
A variety of political parties and political solutions may return, some of them perhaps emanating and globalising from China or India, Brazil or Argentina, perhaps even Russia. Ideas could well be precipitated by a major economic collapse of the kind of the Great Depression of 1929 to 1932. To the extent that changes are not forced upon us, such a collapse would leave no option but to seek around for and adopt policies, whether of the left or the right that might deliver us, in some degree if not perfectly, from our torments.
The decadent electoral practices that have dogged the United States as well as the damaging policies of such groups as the neo-cons may be swept away in this scenario of economic collapse and there may be a general cleansing of the political stables that will enable the United States to return to its former glory as a dynamic economy and a more nearly exemplary democratic state. The type of government that might then prevail throughout the world might, hopefully, be one that is appropriate to a mixed economy, that is neither a Leviathan nor a Lilliputian but suited to its democratic tasks and able to confront those tasks efficiently and responsibly. A world that contains such governments should be able to tackle fundamental problems of the economy, peaceful change nationally and globally, the environment, poverty and, given the threats from so many directions, even the survival of the species. At the same time, such a world should be able to offer far greater opportunities for more equal negotiation among countries large and small, north and south, of whatever race or religion, than has been the case in recent decades.


America Faces a Future of Managing Imperial DeclineBush's failure to grasp the limits of US global power has led to an adventurism for which his successors will pay a heavy price
by Martin Jacques

Just a few years ago, the world was in thrall to the idea of American power. The neoconservative agenda not only infused the outlook of the White House, it also dominated the global debate about the future of international relations. Following 9/11, we had, in quick succession, the "war on terror", the "axis of evil", the idea of a new American empire, the overarching importance of military power, the notion and desirability of regime change, the invasion of Iraq, and the proposition that western-style democracy was relevant and applicable to every land in the world, starting with the Middle East. Much of that has unwound with a speed that barely anyone anticipated. With the abject failure of the American occupation of Iraq - to the point where even the American electorate now recognises the fact - the neoconservative era would appear to be in its death throes.
But what precisely is coming to an end? Neoconservatism in all its pomp conceived - in the Project for a New American Century - that, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world could be remade in the American image, that the previous bipolar world could be replaced by a unipolar one in which the US was the dominant arbiter of global and regional affairs. In fact, the Bush administration never came close to this. For a short time it did succeed in persuading the great majority of countries to accept the priority of the war against terror and seemingly to sign up for it: even the intervention in Afghanistan, in the aftermath of 9/11, elicited widespread acquiescence. But the US singularly failed to command a majority of states in support of the invasion of Iraq and garnered even less support when it came to global public opinion. It demonstrated its unilateral intent by ignoring its failure to gain assent within the UN and invading Iraq, but the subsequent failure of its Iraqi adventure has served only to reinforce its isolation and demonstrate the folly of its unilateralism. Its strategy in the Middle East - always the epicentre of the neoconservative global project - lies in tatters.
Elsewhere the neoconservative project was stillborn. North Korea was branded as part of the "axis of evil" but the US, in agreeing to the six-party talks as a way of handling the crisis on the Korean peninsula, tacitly admitted that it simply did not enjoy enough leverage to deal with the Kim regime. This was demonstrated more forcibly with its failure to prevent the recent nuclear test, and the US's subsequent dependence on China for seeking some means of engaging North Korea in dialogue. In fact China has now cajoled the US into accepting the need for it to do something it had previously resisted: entering into direct talks with North Korea, with China playing the role of honest broker. For all the neoconservative bluster, the US is simply too weak in east Asia - and China too strong - for it to be anything other than a secondary player in the North Korean crisis. It has been a striking illustration of the slow, remorseless decline of American influence in the region.
Meanwhile, in the region that it has dominated for well over a century, which it has traditionally regarded as its own backyard and in which it intervened with impunity throughout the cold war - namely Latin America - the US is now facing its bleakest ever situation, far worse than anything the Cuban regime represented during the cold war. The US is confronted with a formidable and well-resourced adversary in Chávez's Venezuela, and a continent in which the left has made extraordinary progress. The Bush administration, so far at least, has been quite unable to halt its growing isolation in Latin America and the left's onward march.
Even in the Middle East, the weakness of the neoconservative position has become increasingly evident in its handling of Iran, another member of the "axis of evil". As in the case of North Korea, the US, partly as a result of its preoccupation with the occupation of Iraq, in effect devolved negotiations over Iran's nuclear ambitions to the group of four consisting of Germany, France, Russia and the UK.
Although the west Europeans have been happy to do most of America's bidding, Russia has not and nor, it would appear, has China. Both are permanent members of the UN security council, and both are resistant to sanctions and the threat of military action. As a result, negotiations over Iran have been mired in something of an impasse. Of course, if the neoconservatives had felt strong enough, they could have forced the issue in a manner similar to their approach in Iraq. The point is that they did not. And now it would seem inconceivable that they can contemplate military action against Iran.
On the contrary, the tables appear to be in the process of being turned: the US, instead of seeking to isolate Iran, is now likely to need Iranian and Syrian support in helping to sort out the debacle in Iraq. Taken with the failure of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the continuing disaster of the occupied territories, we can see that the US is in retreat. Ever since 1956, it has been increasingly and formidably dominant in the region, with Israel riding pillion, and since 1989 it has been the overwhelming arbiter of events there. This year marks the beginning of the decline of American power in the Middle East, with untold consequences.
Here we can see the cost of Bush's adventurism for American imperial power. In failing to understand the inherent limits of US global power consequent upon deeper, though seemingly unrecognised, longer-term global trends, the Bush administration hugely overestimated American power and thereby committed a gross act of imperial over-reach, for which subsequent administrations will pay a heavy price. Far from the US simply conjoining its pre-1989 power with that of the deceased USSR, it is increasingly confronted with a world marked by the growing power of a range of new national actors, notably - but by no means only - China, India and Brazil.
Just six years into the 21st century, one can say this is not shaping up to be anything like an American century. Rather, the US seems much more likely to be faced with a very different kind of future: how to manage its own imperial decline. And, as a footnote, one might add that this is a task for which pragmatists are rather better suited than ideologues.
Martin Jacques is a visiting research fellow at the Asia Research Centre, London School of Economics
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2006
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