Thursday, September 1, 2011

American Decline?

We have reached a level of political irresponsibility over the past 35 years, and specifically over the past decade, where we can now quite realistically see the possible collapse of the U.S.-centric world order as the U.S. is allowed to decay from within.

The core assumption of the above statement, which introduced The Speech Bernanke Should Have Given, is that the U.S. is in decline. Clearly, no military competitor is even on the horizon, despite the grumbling about China’s launching of a two-decade old ex-Soviet aircraft carrier. The U.S. economy also remains enormous, though the total GNP of 1.3 billion Chinese is now approaching the GNP of 300,000,000 Americans and the two countries are dangerously linked by American reliance on Chinese loans. So, is the U.S. truly in decline?

American decline is more subtle. A traditional, WWII-style frontal clash between the U.S. military and that of any conceivable enemy would surely result in a quick U.S. victory, but such a situation is utterly unlikely. Meanwhile, the enemies the U.S. has faced on the battlefield seem always just beyond American reach. The U.S. has not been able to conquer either the insurgents of Afghanistan or Iraq, failures that suggest a significant decline in the ability of the U.S. to wield its weapons effectively. What matters is not the number of guns and the size of bombs but the degree to which one’s weapons enable one to achieve one’s goals. It is difficult to identify a single national security goal that the U.S. has achieved by force in the last decade: the terrorist campaign against Iraqi civilians that did not even exist when the U.S. invaded not only continues but is intensifying; Taliban influence not only continues but is on the rise in Afghanistan; Hamas seems increasingly secure in Gaza, while Palestine as a whole has seized the initiative in its struggle for freedom from Israeli occupation; Hezbollah is the majority party in the Lebanese government; anti-Western Islamic militants are increasingly influential in Somalia. The U.S. today is brilliantly qualified to win WWII; it is dismally unqualified to resolve issues such as the worldwide Muslim grievances about the way they have been treated by the West. Obama’s response to the Arab Spring, albeit far more realistic than Neo-Con militarism, nevertheless continued to demonstrate a lack of comprehension in Washington of Muslim grievances. To say that the U.S. has impressive weapons is irrelevant; the point is the degree to which the U.S. has the appropriate tools for solving the problems it faces. Unfortunately for Americans, the tools being employed by Washington are increasingly irrelevant to the most serious international challenges facing the U.S. The first way in which the U.S. is in decline is in its declining ability to design the appropriate tools for international conflict resolution.

Force is an extreme expedient; most problems are resolved through less expensive methods, and the best method is to be so trusted and admired that others aspire to follow one’s lead. Unfortunately for the U.S., its behavior over the past decade has eroded its reputation as a moral leader. Iran defies the U.S. with impunity, in great measure because its argument that the U.S.-centric world order should be organized more fairly is beyond dispute. Russia and China seem increasingly to be moving in directions that are not so much in defiance of the U.S. as based on the assumption they do not really need to pay attention to the U.S. Russia, ignoring U.S. military noise, calmly signs contracts building up its hydrocarbon empire. China appears to be operating on a completely different time-scale, not resisting U.S. military moves but, like Russia, ignoring them, while it develops its own economy, gets on its feet militarily, and prepares for a future world in which the U.S. will have either collapsed or mired itself in economic dependence on China’s continuing willingness to support American over-consumption. U.S. allies like Brazil and Turkey, rather than kowtowing to Washington, increasingly see Washington’s behavior as part of the problem and unilaterally assert the right to take leadership roles—not to defeat the U.S. but to fill the gap created by Washington’s incompetence. The little antagonists of the U.S. are neither cowed nor defeated; rather, they seem to learn and adapt faster than the U.S., running circles around the giant. Even those who do exactly what Washington calls upon the world to do (e.g., become democratic) do so on their own, more in spite of Washington than at Washington’s command: what do the millions of activists in the Arab Spring owe to a U.S. that followed or opposed but never led or even kept pace with their movement? Moral leadership gets one influence for free. The second way in which the U.S. is declining is in its evaporating moral leadership.

Military might and moral leadership are tools of foreign policy. Both, over the long term, are linked to the domestic circumstances of a society. A society that is obviously happy, self-confident, just, and productive is the foundation for a state’s military might and simultaneously a model for emulation. Ironically, the conditions that enable a state to maintain a powerful military make that powerful military less important. The world will rush to follow a great society. But the endless political buffoonery in Washington, be it presidents landing jets personally on aircraft carriers or Congressmen tying themselves in knots over debt ceilings, raises eyebrows worldwide and brings wide smiles to the faces of America’s enemies. Far more seriously, all can see the signs of collapse in one facet after another of that marvelous jewel of the imagination, the American Dream: the middle class model of the 1950s with a single breadwinner able to finance a nice suburban life style for his family was replaced in the 1980s by the same lifestyle financed through the fulltime work of two parents (who thus could not but ignore their kids, leaving them to be babysat by drugs) and now in 2011 has become a family with at least one breadwinner unemployed and the friendly neighborhood bank foreclosing and putting them on the street. As for the core of any society’s success in the modern world—the educational system, where every decent U.S. high school student in the 1960s studied a foreign language and took four years of history (pathetically superficial though it may have been), today neither standard is observed; meanwhile, if the universities still teach science at all, the classes are composed mostly of foreign students planning to take their new knowledge back to their own countries, where expertise is far more precious than in a U.S. in denial about the most fundamental issues of modern science (e.g., evolution, global warming, environmental pollution). Meanwhile, highway bridges of the world’s greatest highway system collapse, old dams threaten catastrophic flooding, and nuclear power plants are maintained in service for decades past their planned  service life without being properly maintained. The wild scare talk of politicians about a terrorist bomb notwithstanding, the collapse of the U.S. as world leader is more likely to result from the evaporation of a U.S. city as the result of a nuclear meltdown from a rusty pipe in the cooling system. The third pathway to decline in the U.S. is the degradation of the U.S. physical infrastructure.

An even more insidious problem is the declining faith, for good reason, of the American people in their own institutions. Sneering at Big Government is endemic, though no persuasive argument is ever made indicating what institution could be trusted to replace government. In fact, Big Government does deserve a failing grade – but mostly because it is too small. Regulatory agencies responsible for oversight over Wall Street, the food industry, and corporate pollution of the environment have all fallen grossly short of fulfilling their duties in recent decades. And who respects Big Pharma, Big Finance, or Big Oil? The fourth pathway to U.S. decline is the justified popular loss of faith in American institutions.

But the good news for Americans and all who hope for the reemergence of a morally sound, sympathetic, and realistic American leadership of the world lies at the core of this sad story: the problem with U.S. behavior is self-inflicted and fully within the capability of Americans to overcome. It is precisely because of American military superiority that it should virtually never resort to violence any more extreme than peacekeeping or international police work. Once American society succeeds in recognizing this truth, the door will be open for Americans to elect a government capable of identifying the real challenges facing this country and the rest of the world (for the most serious problems today are almost exclusively common ones) and focusing on devising effective long-term problem-resolution strategies. The War on Terror, at its best, was no more than burning down the house to put out a fire in the bedroom: short-term conflict resolution at its most mindless. Such emergency crisis response sacrificing the long term in the interest of short-term survival is in no way called for: the U.S. has the resources and the time to take the long view and do things right. Such a long-term approach would have several aspects, all obvious, none currently being implemented: most fundamentally, the focusing of national energy and resources on domestic housecleaning, in brief:

                                                 “Empire – No; Jobs – Yes.”                     

Specifically, the refocusing of national energies on the state of domestic society would entail:

  • Using the crisis level of unemployment as an opportunity to rebuild U.S. infrastructure, fixing the dams and bridges and sewage systems and rusting nuclear power plants while employing those looking for work;

  • Launching a national campaign to improve the quality of public education at all levels, A) bringing public science and math education up to world standards so the next generation will have some hope of being able to compete with the tens of thousands of scientists and engineers graduating from Chinese, Japanese, and Indian educational systems and B) funding the revolutionary improvement in social studies, world history, and language studies (particularly regarding the Arab world and China) that will be required to produce a generation of Americans capable of understanding the international political challenges of the 21st century and capable of exercising oversight over the their elected officials;

  • Political reforms to facilitate honest elections open to reform candidates, the recall of corrupt politicians, the strengthening of government regulatory agencies, and the minimization of corporate bribery of Congressmen.

The U.S. is in decline for a multitude of reasons, but not because of a declining population or a shortage of resources or an overwhelmingly powerful enemy or bad luck. The U.S. is defeating itself. The decline will end the day Americans join hands and decide they no longer want to decline.


Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, The Three Trillion Dollar War;
Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner, Reckless Endangerment;
Andrew Ross Sorkin, Too Big To Fail.

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