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American Decline: The U.S. Shoots Itself In The Foot

In the current debate over the decline of the U.S. there are many voices and interpretations ranging from certainty of the decline and fall of the American empire (Tom Engelhardt) to what I would call denial of decline, exemplified by Robert Lieber (Power and Willpower in the American Future: Why the U.S. is not Destined to Decline). Many observers come to what seems to be the consensus among mainstream writers that the decline of the U.S. is relative. This is what Fareed Zakaria argues in his The Post-American World. Here I would like to review the arguments put forward by deniers of decline and suggest an interpretation.

Deniers and advocates of relative decline point out that the U.S. has many advantages in the current global competition, notably diversity and the power of attraction of the U.S., innovation, willpower, better institutions and better competitiveness. The related points they make, which are also made by critics like Chomsky, is that China has many problems of its own and is still far behind the U.S. in terms of per capita GDP or technological sophistication. All these points are valid but need to be understood in context.

Diversity in the U.S. is a reality but what decline deniers do not stress is that a large part of this diversity is made up of poor people wanting to find jobs and this kind of diversity exists in Europe as well. The diversity they refer to is the power of attraction of U.S. universities, again undeniable. This however is a double-edged sword. The many Chinese students in U.S. universities are not all going to work in the U.S. for U.S. primacy. Many will go back to China and help their country catch up with and overtake the West. Already in many sectors the Chinese have managed to impose technology transfers and now compete with the companies that set up factories in China. For instance, German solar panels manufacturers are now undercut by the competition of Chinese ones after they had built plants in China. Chinese students in the U.S. thus may not indicate that the U.S. enjoys an advantage; its undeniable attractive higher education system may actually help China rise even higher.

In Africa, China is already pushing out former colonial powers like France and Britain --but also the U.S.-- from many sectors and offering no strings attached aid to African countries in a form of soft neo-imperialism that is very effective. What decliners who believe in American exceptionalism do not factor in is that decline may also come from the rise of others as well as from domestic decline. American institutions may be better than Chinese ones but in global competition this does not count for much.

Lieber makes much of the autocratic nature of China vs. the democratic nature of the US. Here one might point out that the U.S., though a formal democracy, is more of an oligarchy than a real democracy in which all the people have a voice. As John MacArthur, among many others, makes clear only the rich can even run in elections (The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America: Or, Why A Progressive Presidency Is Impossible).

American democracy suffers from gridlock in Washington but, mostly, often proves unable to deal with the problems of the 99%. Being proud about US diversity is fine if it does not go with disregarding the other diversity, the diversity of "The Other America", the America of poverty, as Michael Harrington long ago identified the problem. Diversity, for decline deniers, is a mask for all the social problems besetting the U.S.

Poverty is the chief problem hidden by the celebration of diversity coming from rather conservative circles but it is not the only one. The pauperization of the middle classes is another one and the break down of public services. No high-speed rail connections in the U.S. when Europe and China have some showing that modernity and innovation are complex phenomena. Above all though, the key issue of militarism is of crucial importance.

Conservative, or rather ring-wing, decline deniers argue that since the U.S. spends more on defense than the next 20 countries together it is a source of power ensuring primacy (the word they prefer to "hegemony" or "empire", a term they emphatically but unjustifiably reject). Yet, following Paul Kennedy and his concept of "imperial overstretch", one might argue that spending so much on defense is the main reason for America's relative decline (The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers). The US produces weapons it cannot use and fights unnecessary wars of choice. It not only undermines its image in the world but also deprives millions of Americans of needed improvements in education, transport, and medical insurance. A well-functioning society, let's say like those in Scandinavia, requires investment in social sectors. American hegemony comes at a high price for Americans themselves, especially those Americans who are not part of the 0.1% at the top. The brilliance and excellence of top US universities cannot offset educational and social problems in the rest of society.

If the U.S. were indeed more democratic and less oligarchic, it would help it maintain its hegemony or real leadership. It would mean fewer wars and drone attacks which would improve the image of the country, reduce the bloated defense budget and therefore allow for nation building, not in Afghanistan but in Michigan and Illinois. More equal societies are more successful generally but mostly less militarized societies manage to spend more in the sectors that matter for economic success. The U.S. share of global GDP is under 23%, it is impressive yet compared to Germany, Japan, China or Brazil the US shoots itself in the foot by spending so much on defense in a world where very few groups are mad enough to want to attack the hyper-power that the U.S. still is in military matters.

Decline deniers clearly want to reassure themselves that the U.S. is still exceptional and therefore still "bound to lead", to use J. Nye's expression. There is no doubt that the U.S. is a major power and will remain one in the foreseeable future but other societies are forging ahead and restricting the relative power and therefore leadership of America. Ironically the US itself is in large part responsible for this slippage of power which comes from launching irresponsible wars and encouraging companies to offshore their production or, like Wal-Mart, encouraging them to exploit workers in the U.S. and China. American companies are pushed into default by the deliberate actions of business leaders making deals with the communist party in China.

The strongest conservative deniers of decline in general support some of the very policies that accelerate this decline. Immanuel Wallerstein, an expert on such matters, argues that America tries to compensate its economic decline by military intervention (The Decline of American Power). America's domestic policies and its neoliberal preference for cheap labor outside its borders also lead to a loss of relative power. There might not yet be a comparable superpower which could achieve hegemony the way the U.S. did after WWII when its share of world GDP was 50% but a neoliberal militarist power in competition with others definitely harms itself. More domestic social justice in the U.S. might actually improve America's leadership in the world, the kind of non-imperial leadership that comes from agreement or admiration.

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