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The Dismantling of American Greatness

February 3, 2010

In the international relations class that I teach, one issue that often comes up is the rise of China. The flip side of that discussion is the relative decline in American power. While I wouldn’t quite call it the elephant in the room, I do think it’s an issue that is much less discussed in the West. Sure, it has been written about, most notably by Immanuel Wallerstein in The Decline of American Power. But most of the time, the U.S.’s falling star is cast as a byproduct of China’s ascendancy as opposed to a situation of America’s own making.

Well, the economic crisis certainly seems to have destroyed the last of that theory– and to be frank, it’s probably about time that we in the West wake up to this new reality. Of course, nothing does this better than a New York Times headline:

Deficits May Alter U.S. Politics and Global Power

It’s not that we didn’t know this was coming.Long before the financial crisis, there was an abundance of dire warnings about the collapse of the US dollar due to the massive deficits incurred as a result of George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy. But tack on the financial mess of the last two years and we can now see that those cuts were, in economic terms, the beginning of the end for the U.S.

In a federal budget filled with mind-boggling statistics, two numbers stand out as particularly stunning, for the way they may change American politics and American power.

The first is the projected deficit in the coming year, nearly 11 percent of the country’s entire economic output. That is not unprecedented: During the Civil War, World War I and World War II, the United States ran soaring deficits, but usually with the expectation that they would come back down once peace was restored and war spending abated.

But the second number, buried deeper in the budget’s projections, is the one that really commands attention: By President Obama’s own optimistic projections, American deficits will not return to what are widely considered sustainable levels over the next 10 years…. Full story. NY Times.

Yes, it’s true. The U.S. remains the world’s most powerful country. Its military dominates. It has the largest economy of any individual country. Its cultural influence spans the globe. But a big part of what has always made America shine so bright in the eyes of the rest of the world has been the core values that it purports to stand for: civil and political rights, due process, equality, opportunity, freedom of expression. In the aftermath of 9/11, these values have been severely eroded.

HYPOCRITE. More and more, this is the word that comes to mind when the Muslim world thinks of America. What other conclusion could you come to if this picture was imprinted in your mind:

Being forced to look at this picture at this very moment, I feel sick to my stomach by what has been done in the name of fighting terrorism. In fact, my eyes avert it automatically. I think I am experiencing cognitive dissonance. This is not the America that I know and this is certainly not how Americans see themselves. From the perspective of those of us in the West, this is an aberration– we made a mistake, and we promise not to do it again. (Or we promise not to get caught anyway.)

But Greatness doesn’t work like that. It’s like trust– once you lose it, you can’t just bring it back or even buy it back. It takes time to build up.

Let me use the Swiss cheese analogy: Imagine America’s greatness as a slice of Swiss cheese. The cheese holds together in spite of the fact that there are some pretty big holes right in the middle of it. Well, those holes presently include the invasion of Iraq, the torture of Abu Ghraib prisoners, cases of extraordinary rendition,  the tens of thousands of innocent civilians that are seen as “collateral damage” in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention unwavering American support for Israel etc. etc.

For most of us in the West, the slice of cheese is quite a bit thicker, so the holes aren’t quite as damaging to the structure. We can see the bigger web that supports the values of American society and we believe it to be  robust enough to survive these events. But in the Middle East, that slice of cheese is pretty darn thin and the holes are pretty big in comparison– for many, that slice of Swiss cheese has already crumbled; for others, it is on the verge of crumbling.

If we turn back to the argument being made in the NY Times article, the core problem is that American power must be undergirded by a strong financial foundation. That foundation is proving to be shakier than anyone predicted.

…as Mr. Obama’s chief economic adviser, Lawrence H. Summers, used to ask before he entered government a year ago, “How long can the world’s biggest borrower remain the world’s biggest power?”

The Chinese leadership, which is lending much of the money to finance the American government’s spending, and which asked pointed questions about Mr. Obama’s budget when members visited Washington last summer, says it thinks the long-term answer to Mr. Summers’s question is self-evident. The Europeans will also tell you that this is a big worry about the next decade….

These comments from abroad are not just rhetoric. For example, this March, the Chinese proposed a new World currency to replace  the US dollar. Russia recently opted to keep its reserves in Euros instead of US dollars. News from this morning’s headlines also does nothing to inspire confidence:

By June, about 5.1 million people will own a home whose value is below 75 percent of what is owed. Full story. NY Times.

If a country’s greatness rests on three pillars — economy, military, culture/values– then we can see that America’s decline has already begun. These latest deficit projections are Obama’s way of posting a warning sign that there is danger ahead. He can see the consequences in the road in front of us:

“Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power,” he told cadets at West Point. “It pays for our military. It underwrites our diplomacy. It taps the potential of our people, and allows investment in new industry.”

Nevertheless, the sky has not fallen just yet. I think it is still possible for America to recover its standing in the world. It has all the tools necessary to do so. The problem is that it does not see the urgency. (Note a similar post I made about Oxford.)

The U.S. can begin to recover its standing by doing three things:

1. Overcome partisan divisions

2. Stop spending beyond its means

3. Provide real leadership on an issue of moral clarity. E.g., Climate change.

I realize that this is akin to asking pigs to fly. The democratic system has a tendency of producing myopia in our leaders. The latest Supreme Court ruling on corporate financing in elections does not help matters any. But without these major changes, America’s ride is going to be downhill all the way.

The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World

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