[Marxism] Is America's new declinism for real?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Dec 5 08:01:39 MST 2008

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Is America’s new declinism for real?
By Gideon Rachman

Published: November 24 2008 18:08 | Last updated: November 24 2008 18:08

Texas A&M is not the obvious place to pick if you want to discuss 
American decline. The university sends more of its graduates straight 
into the military than any other civilian college in the US. Its officer 
training corps prowl the campus in crisply pressed uniforms and 
knee-high leather boots, greeting each other with brisk “howdys”. 
Agonised introspection and crises of confidence are not Texan traits.

But last week the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at Texas 
A&M hosted a conference designed to discuss the latest, markedly gloomy 
world view issued by America’s intelligence establishment. Every four 
years the National Intelligence Council – which oversees America’s 
baroque collection of intelligence agencies – releases a global trends 
report, which is given to the new president.

The latest report, published on November 20, has made headlines around 
the world. The front page of Britain’s Guardian newspaper shouted “2025: 
the end of US dominance”. For once, the headline is broadly accurate. As 
the NIC frankly notes, “the most dramatic difference” between the new 
report and the one issued four years ago is that it now foresees “a 
world in which the US plays a prominent role in global events, but the 
US is seen as one among many global actors”. The report issued four 
years ago had projected “continuing US dominance”.

The NIC report has made people sit up because it comes from the heart of 
the US security establishment. But it is part of a broader intellectual 
trend in America: a “new declinism”. This mood marks a complete break 
with the aggressive confidence of the Bush years and the “unipolar 
moment”. Its starting assumption is that America, while still the most 
powerful country in the world, is in relative decline.

Three developments have fed the new declinism. First, the wars in Iraq 
and Afghanistan have underlined that US military supremacy does not 
automatically translate into political victory. Second, the rise of 
China and India suggest that America’s days as the world’s largest 
economy are numbered. Third, the financial crisis has fed the notion 
that the US is living beyond its means and that something is badly wrong 
with the American model.

This gloomy mood was captured by the opening address to the NIC’s 
conference, given by none other than General Brent Scowcroft himself, 
returning to the institute named after him. The general noted that the 
US had found itself in a position of huge global power after the end of 
the cold war, which was “heady stuff”. But “we exercised that power for 
a while only to realise that it was ephemeral”.

This new awareness of the constraints on American power is reflected in 
a number of new books and articles. The most influential is probably 
Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, which is said to be the only 
book on foreign affairs read by Barack Obama this year. Although Mr 
Zakaria strives to present the rise of China, India and “the rest” as 
unthreatening to the US, the inescapable conclusion is that the Bush 
years marked the apogee of American power.

Another influential book to capture this new mood is Andrew Bacevich’s 
The Limits of Power. Professor Bacevich, a conservative historian and 
military veteran whose son was killed in the Iraq war, argues: “American 
power ... is inadequate to the ambitions to which hubris and sanctimony 
have given rise.” Richard Haass, who as head of the Council of Foreign 
Relations is arguably the doyen of the foreign policy establishment, is 
another important voice arguing: “The United States’ unipolar moment is 

But as William Wohlforth of Dartmouth College reminded the NIC 
conference in Texas last week, America has been through phases of 
declinism before. The current debate is reminiscent of the arguments 
unleashed by the publication in 1988 of Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall 
of the Great Powers. Professor Kennedy’s argument that previous great 
powers had succumbed to “imperial over-stretch” resonated in the US at a 
time when many were worried by Reagan-era budget deficits and Japan’s 
growing economic power .

But the “declinism” represented by Prof Kennedy was quickly dissipated 
by victory in the cold war, Japan’s lost decade of economic growth and 
the high-tech boom of the Clinton years. All this set the stage for a 
resurgence of American confidence and the swagger of the Bush presidency.

Odd as it is to recall now, there were people during the early phases of 
the cold war who were also genuinely worried that the USSR might 
outperform the US. There was also a national crisis of confidence caused 
by the Vietnam war, when Richard Nixon warned his fellow countrymen they 
risked looking like a “pitiful, helpless giant”. In the 1980s, Japan 
became the new challenger to American supremacy. Now it is China.

Professor Wohlforth argues that the NIC report reflects “a mood change, 
not a change in the underlying assessment of power”. As he says, rising 
powers do not always complete their climb and economic strength does not 
always translate into political power.

This is all true. But there are still reasons for thinking that the new 
declinism may be more soundly based than its predecessors. China has a 
record of sustained and dynamic economic growth that the Soviet Union 
was never capable of. And China’s sheer size makes it a more plausible 
challenger than a relatively small nation, such as Japan.

This time it really does feel different. But then it always does, does 
it not?

gideon.rachman at ft.com

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