[Marxism] Is America's new declinism for real?
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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
gideon.rachman at ft.com
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